It took me a while to get it together when it comes to adulting. But sometimes, in my attempt to have it all, I have to make tough but compulsory decisions that bring with them a tsunami of unwarranted guilt, like putting my babies into childcare to allow me to get back to work. So, I decided to take a holiday from guilt, and this is what happened.
The air was cool and crisp on our cheeks as we walked the streets. I took a photo of us in an attempt to remember the days, when she was small enough to carry around like a human backpack.
The woman in the image staring back at me looked like a good mum. I AM a good mum. But the guilt bubbling away in my tummy threatened to make me feel otherwise, because tomorrow, my tiny human backpack would be carried around by someone else.
Before I had babies, I said things like: “I’ll just go straight back to work and put my kids into daycare – no worries.”
But as anyone who has grappled with these decisions knows, they are all of the worries and come with all of the guilt. You feel guilty if you don’t have a career (because #hustleporn says simply being a mum isn’t enough), you feel guilty if you do (because who will look after the children?) and you feel double guilty if you do both – double the work, double the chances you’ll drop the ball and double the (you guessed it) guilt.
And you don’t need to have kids, because guilt doesn’t discriminate. It rears its head when you don’t call your parents enough. When you cancel that dinner with friends because you were exhausted. When you skip the gym all week because it’s cold and you’re over it and work is kicking your arse. Or even when you just do nothing for an hour.
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Giving guilt the flick
To cope, I did what every supremely privileged first-world young professional does and brought it up with my psychologist.
“Guilt is a horrible emotion because it makes you question yourself and your motives,” she explained to me.
“If you’ve done something you regret, guilt can help you learn from it to not make the same mistake again,” she added, “but sometimes guilt is a pointless emotion. Ask yourself: ‘Do I even need to feel guilty about this? Why am I beating myself up?’
“Because at the end of the day – using your example – she still has to go to childcare so the outcome doesn’t change, but if you feel bad the whole time it will interfere with your attention and your ability to do your job.”
If Oprah was here (and of course she is, because God is everywhere), she’d call this an ‘Aha’ moment. While we used to think emotions were like ‘presets’ inside us, guilt – like other emotions, is actually constructed by us. Which means we have some control over whether or not we feel it. Or at least, we have a choice.
My guilty plan of attack
I decided guilt should take a long walk off a short bridge, but I knew it wasn’t a ‘click your fingers’ situation, so I had to come up with a plan. The draft manuscript for my book was due to my publisher in 30 days.
I know now that to do anything well, something has to give. And when something gives, it usually gives back in the form of guilt. And so, the idea of the ‘guilt holiday’ was born. I’d simply refuse to feel guilty for 30 days. And I’ll tell you this – it worked.
How I did it
Like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, when guilt reared its ugly head, I’d karate-chop it away.
“Hey… wanna feel a bit crap?” guilt would suggest, quietly and for no good reason.
“NOPE,” I’d respond, sometimes audibly with a shake of my head, before giving the thought a quick roundhouse kick to the face Charlie’s Angels would be proud of.
“30 days.” I reminded myself. “You can feel guilty after that.”
Like all good self-experiments, I gave this one a short shelf life. I figured I’d do it for a few days and then my old guilty ways would creep back in. But the more I kicked and chopped, the better I got at it. In fact, it was addictive.
The emotional relief of not punishing myself was like cold water on a burn – and I couldn’t get enough. So much so that when the 30 days were up, I decided to extend my stay. I’m just not ready to give up swimming in self-compassion, sipping guilt-free cocktails, and doing some good work unfurrowing my brow, which my dermatologist will be thrilled about.
And the best bit? There’s a seat right next to me with your name on it. Jump aboard!
Casey Beros is a health journalist and TV presenter with more than a decade’s experience creating health and wellbeing content. She hosted Channel 10’s daily health program Everyday Health as well as ABC TV’s Tonic and writes for Australia’s leading publications on everything to do with navigating the obstacle course of life. She is also about to publish her first book and has eaten more pieces of carrot cake than she’d like to admit while writing it. Follow her @caseyberos