Feel the (False) Guilt and Do It Anyway.

You know what’s difficult? Questioning the ‘should dictator’ in your head. Standing up for yourself and your needs. Deciding not to let false guilt boss you around.

If you dare to do these things, then you’re my hero. Seriously.

It’s hard to be “selfish” enough for your own good. I’m quoting my own judgmental inner voice here. Whenever I consider making positive changes on my own behalf, she screeches, “But isn’t that SELFISH?!”

So many of us – particularly girls and women – have been conditioned to put others first. Over time, it becomes unconscious, automatic. And when we secretly feel depleted and angry, we wonder what’s wrong with us. Nice girls don’t get resentful … right?

Wrong. If you’re always being nice at the expense of your truth, your soul is going to get mad. But how can you give yourself permission to have needs, to be human?

Here’s a story for those of us who struggle with that question.

A few months ago, my parents and my brother Willie came to Alabama for a visit. We had a wonderful time. After several days of group activities, though, I needed to recharge. I’m an introvert through and through, and I get twitchy if I don’t take solo time.

We celebrated Willie’s birthday on the fourth day of my family’s stay. That afternoon, Willie wanted to see a movie. As we made plans, I realized that I could drop my family off at the theater and take two hours for myself. That is, if I dared defy that internal accusation: “It’s your brother’s birthday! How can you be so SELFISH?!”

Caroline and Willie

My favorite (and only) brother.

That question paralyzed me. I couldn’t make a decision, so I pulled my husband Jonathan aside and asked, “Would not staying for the movie make me a terrible person?”

It may sound silly, but at the time, I was totally in earnest. An internal tug-of-war raged: Go! Don’t go! Make your family happy! Take some time for yourself!

Jonathan encouraged me to come home and rest, but I could tell by his tone that he didn’t think I’d actually do it. (I didn’t blame him. He knew how hard it would be for me.)

On the drive to the theater, I was still torn. Wouldn’t a good sister and daughter go to the movie and sacrifice her need for restorative time?

Maybe so. But then I remembered: my goal is not to be good anymore. Nowadays, my goal is to be real. To be myself. To be fully alive, fully human.

So I took a deep breath and told my family the truth: I needed to go home and rest. They were surprised, but not upset.

As I pulled away from the curb, though, I felt SO much false guilt. Tremendous, overwhelming false guilt.

That feeling lasted for about a minute. (It was a long minute.) But then I felt … free. I had two hours to be alone! I was practically dancing with relief.

Bootsie the cat feels no false guilt.

Bootsie knows how to take a break.

In order to stop people-pleasing, you need to be willing to feel the false guilt that arises when you “let people down”. And by “let people down”, I mean, “not do every single thing that anyone asks of you”.

As Henry Cloud and John Townsend write in Boundaries,

“… A sign that you’re becoming a boundaried person is often a sense of self-condemnation …. When the struggler actually sets a limit … the conscience moves into overdrive, as its unrealistic demands are being disobeyed …. In a funny way … activating the hostile conscience is a sign of spiritual growth.”

Make no mistake: this is emotional power-lifting. If you’re like me, you’ve been dodging such uncomfortable feelings for decades. You’ve been doing whatever it takes to avoid the tidal wave of guilt that crashes over you when you risk honesty.

Here’s what I’ve learned: when unnecessary self-blame floods your body, you can breathe through it. You are stronger than that feeling. It will not wash you away.

feel the false guilt and do it anyway

That day at the movie theater, the sense of self-recrimination was intense. Still, I kept driving. I decided to trust that the feeling would pass.

Plus, the astonished look on Jonathan’s face when I came home early made it all worthwhile.

Feel the False Guilt and Do It Anyway

This is a humble story, I know. But it’s the everyday moments that change us. It’s the ordinary choice points that alter the course of our lives.

So today, I encourage you: when you meet your next choice point, take a moment. Listen. Consider that what your mind labels “selfish” might be the kindest, wisest action you could take. And know that all loving actions ripple outward, blessing the lives of those around you.

I understand how hard it is to step out of martyr mode. But you can start small: say no to just one request this week, then use the time to do something kind for yourself. Then, be sure to tell us about your experience in the comments!

When you do, be prepared for an increased sense of hope. After all, if you can stand up to the bully in your head …

You’re free to take on the world.


Do you deal with false guilt? Join the conversation in the comments section below!


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8 thoughts on “Feel the (False) Guilt and Do It Anyway.

  1. I love, love, love this post, Caroline! It reminds me very much of a situation I was in years ago, traveling with my family, where I realized I needed to cut my part of the trip short by a whole day so I could go home and take care of myself. Oh, did the guilt come up for me over that one! I did it, but it was incredibly hard for me.

    So, huge congrats on pausing and recognizing what you needed and following through! And I love the quote about boundaries. Thanks for sharing your story with us. It’s exactly what I needed to read today. 🙂

    • Jill, that means so much to hear – thank you! I appreciate you sharing your family story … it helps to know that I’m not alone, that we’re learning these life lessons together.

      And I agree, that quote has helped me so much. Now, when I feel panicked and unnecessarily guilty about making the choices that I need to make, I remind myself that the intense guilty feeling is actually a sign of progress, not failure.

  2. Sheri says:

    There are two parts that really hit home got me:
    “my goal is not to be ‘good’ anymore. Nowadays, my goal is to be real. To be myself. To be fully alive, fully human.”

    I too am working toward being real and in that I hope to fell alive again rather than the dead/mute/passive person I’ve been living as for way too long.

    Also…”It’s the ordinary choice points that alter the course of our lives.”

    This I really like because it’s says to me that the path back to being real and alive is in the small every day things I face. I don’t have to find some really big way to make this leap. The opportunities are right there in front of my in small bite sized pieces. And if I miss one or are too scared to choose one, there will be another opportunity that comes along where I can continue on and choose me the next time.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Sheri, I hear you! I appreciate you letting me know which lines spoke out to you. I raise my glass to you as you work toward being real and alive. It’s hard, but it’s also some of the best work there is.

      Also, since you liked the choice points section, I think you’d appreciate the writings of Wayne Muller. He’s one of my favorite writers, and I first heard the term ‘choice points’ in this essay of his, entitled, “Finding Enough by Following the Thread”: http://www.waynemuller.com/cool_stuff/wednesdays/following_the_thread


  3. Caroline, something I’ve become more and more aware of is how we store and compound negative feelings in our bodies, giving the attendant emotions (the stories we tell ourselves about the feelings) more power than they should have in our lives. None of us wants to feel in our body the feelings that attend emotional thoughts of shame and guilt (whether true or false in origin) and so we do what we can to alleviate the bad feelings by distracting ourselves from them using any of a variety of means. However, the bad feelings don’t leave us; they just go underground in our bodies and generate more and more thoughts (stories) in our subconscious that percolate there until something again triggers the feeling, when they come out “in spades.” We then, in most cases, become habitual in our feelings in certain circumstances, fired by the stories we’ve told ourselves over time, so that the feelings and attendant emotions feel insurmountable. The answer, as you so nicely illustrated, is to allow ourselves to feel the feelings until they naturally abate, and they always do so, usually faster than we expect. The more we do that, the less and less difficult it becomes to repeat the process until we totally deflate the stories. . . in your case, “I’m being selfish,” and are free!

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