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Do you feel guilty at work?

Have you ever felt guilty at work when there really was no reason to?

True guilt is the negative feeling we have when we harm others. False guilt, on the other hand, is a negative feeling triggered by not living up to standards that are no longer realistic or because of things outside our control. For example, we may feel guilty because we think we are no longer contributing to our group project. Or a manager may feel guilty because she keeps her job, but some workers she supervised were laid off due to restructuring.

Much of the guilt we experience is self-imposed. For example, over the past month, our very busy schedules may have had us working every weekend. Even though we had worked every weekend, we may feel guilty about taking a day off for ourselves one day during the work week.
Feelings of guilt may be initiated by several factors including: working late, sleeping in because we worked late the night before, eating a delicious but fatty dessert, missing a friend's special event, or forgetting a parent's birthday.
Our choices should reflect what we want to do, not what we feel obligated to do! Feelings of guilt rarely increase people's effectiveness. Most people don't find guilt an attractive trait, either.

Tips for Minimizing Guilt

1. Identify feelings of guilt. List (on paper or computer) when and where you have guilt reactions.
Select one situation that makes you feel guilty. See and experience yourself managing this guilt situation competently and confidently. (Note people, resources, skills and other required to manage this situation.)

2. Live by your own values and standards of excellence. Feelings of guilt can develop when a person has a lot of "shoulds" in life. As an adult, you have responsibility for yourself. But you also have the option to live your own life, not live by the values of supervisors, parents, co-workers, or the media. Do not feel guilty because you try to live up to standards that don’t fit your needs, values or goals. Question where these "shoulds" come from. Then determine whether they serve you well.

3. Set limits on your time and energy. Let others know this. If you don't want to do it, give it, or go to it, politely say "no." If you don't want to have lunch with co-workers, say so. Express support for, and defend your opinions. Consider stating your ideas at the next staff meeting. Value yourself; your opinions count.
Limit time you spend with individuals who tend to make you feel guilty about doing or not doing something.

4. Make amends if you're wrong. Guilt can be helpful if it motivates you to take better care of yourself, and to treat those around you with more care. For example, if you do something to hurt a co-worker, like lashing out at him, verbally apologize.

5. Adjust Expectations. Guilt is often triggered by perfectionism, holding ourselves accountable to standards that don't fit our values, needs and abilities. Do a reality check on your expectations. On the left side of a piece of paper, list all those things you no longer do but think you should do, for example, bring treats to work occasionally, take turns washing dirty coffee cups, or stay late to meet a project deadline. On the right side, write your judgment of whether the expectation is realistic. Then modify goals based on what you learned from the exercise.

6. Reframe Self-Talk. Change your internal dialogue so that it supports your efforts to a live happy, productive work life. Restructure negative thoughts so they’re more positive.

Keep a log to track negatives you say. Each time you catch yourself saying something that fuels guilt feelings, replace it with a more positive statement. Think "I can" instead of "I can't".

Sample situation: A supervisor is respectfully giving constructive feedback to a worker. The worker begins to cry! Guilt moderating thoughts of manager: "I had to provide the feedback; not giving it wouldn't serve anyone well. I did the best I could do to be understanding and respectful."

7. Shift attention. Control how you respond when feelings of guilt arise. For example, if you feel guilty about not going to a staff party, ask yourself, "Is this feeling productive?" If the feeling is not productive, turn your attention elsewhere by going shopping or completing a project early. Guilt feelings about the staff party will pass.

8. Cultivate friendly relationships with co-workers. Know peoples’ names and special strengths. Develop “small-talk” skills. Celebrate peoples’ accomplishments. Develop a social conscience. Volunteer for company-sponsored or community projects. Get involved in hobbies that involve people interaction. Practice communication skills. Read, take courses. Join Toastmasters.

9. Build confidence. Know and accept yourself. Know what you can do and want. If you love yourself others will also.
Acknowledge your accomplishments. Prepare a list of positive achievements and personality characteristics. Post this where you can read it daily. Don't compare yourself to or compete with others.

Affirm yourself daily. Each morning before you get out of bed, see yourself proceeding confidently and competently throughout your desired work day. Confirm yourself: "I'm confident, intelligent, caring and attractive" (or whatever you want to be).

10. Schedule time for self care. Include healthy diet, sufficient sleep, meditation or prayer, exercise and supportive relationships.

About the Author

Carole Kanchier, PhD, is an internationally recognized newspaper/digital columnist, registered psychologist and author of the award-winning, Questers Dare to Change Your Job and Life. Dr. Kanchier has taught at University of California, Berkeley and Santa Cruz and University of Alberta and served as visiting fellow at Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, and other institutions of higher learning. Dr. Kanchier is known for her pioneering, interdisciplinary approach to human potential.