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Guilt Is A Useless Fucking Emotion

I wrote this essay almost four years ago, for a book that never got published. I was reminded of it when I saw someone talking about guilt on twitter the other day. I think my personality is predisposed to feelings of guilt, but I’ve managed to almost banish it from my life, and you could do it too. It’s a great feeling!

Kyra SedgewickA couple of years ago I went to a Q&A with Kyra Sedgwick. She was promoting her TV show, talking to moms. I don’t remember exactly what the question was that got her talking about guilt, but it had something to do with moms and kids and working. And she summed up her attitude so succinctly and beautifully I wanted to embroider it on a pillow: “Guilt is a useless fucking emotion.”

Guilt is always at the forefront of those conversations, with a capital G. Guilt because you leave your kids with a sitter or at a daycare center. Guilt because you stay home with them and don’t contribute to your family financially. Guilt because you want to have some time to yourself, but are afraid that you’ll miss out on your son’s first word while you’re off in Atlantic City with your husband.

That’s not a weirdly-specific made up example, that’s what happened to us. My friend Amybeth stayed with our son for the night while my husband and I drove to Atlantic City for a little fun time. Jake was 26 months old, and had never said a word. Not mama, not goo-goo, not anything that could possibly be mistaken for speech. Mostly he grunted. We’d had him tested to make sure there wasn’t something going wrong in his brain, but there wasn’t. So we waited. And waited. And while we were dipping into his college fund at the Tropicana, he said his first word to Amybeth back in Brooklyn. He was wearing a shirt with a soccer ball on it. He looked down at the shirt, looked up at her, and said, matter-of-factly and without fanfare or warning of any kind, “Ball.”

I think she was afraid to tell us, worried that we would feel robbed of experiencing that milestone. In truth we were thrilled. He could talk! I marked it down in the little log I kept (aren’t new parents adorable?) and moved on.

Later I was telling that story to an acquaintance, and she looked physically ill by the time I got to the end. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “Didn’t you feel so guilty that you weren’t there?”

Her question just stopped me in my tracks. It had never even occurred to me to feel anything but happiness that our little boy was finally talking. Why would I feel guilty? Because I had taken some alone time with my husband? We had left our son in the care of a friend who adored him. We had come back and heard him speak more words. This wasn’t a one-time thing we had missed, he’s still talking. Guilt? What place did guilt have in it all?

I get tongue-tied pretty easily and I couldn’t really explain to this person, this baby-wearing, co-sleeping, helicopter mom, why I felt perfectly OK with the fact that I had missed Jake’s first word. If I could snap my fingers and change things so that he could have uttered that first long-awaited word when I was there, would I? Yes. Absolutely. But since that’s not possible, the only alternative would have been to watch him 24-7, to ensure that I was there. That’s not the way I live my life. And the moment wasn’t missed, it was had by a dear friend of mine, and that’s something she can lay claim to forever: she was the first to hear Jake speak. It makes her special.

Several years later, Kyra Sedgwick gave me the answer, the six magic words that crystallized for me why feeling guilt was just not something I was interested in. Oh, how I wish I had had those words to throw back at that mom.

Guilt really is useless. It does nothing to help a situation. Feeling guilty doesn’t allow you to go back and do something over again. It doesn’t make those around you feel any better. Whatever you’ve done or haven’t done, feeling guilty about it doesn’t get you anywhere. Some people trick themselves into believing that feeling guilt is an action, something to do when they have regrets. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I feel so guilty.” Saying that makes you feel better, but means absolutely nothing. It’s empty, devoid of value.

It’s fake. It’s useless.

It’s not about what you’ve done, it’s about how you view the decisions you’ve made in the rear-view mirror. If something doesn’t happen the way you wanted it to, you can change the way you do things next time. If you feel like you did something wrong, you can try and make things right. But every moment that you spend feeling guilty is a moment that could be spending actually doing something.

Guilt is paralyzing.

The great thing about guilt is that you have 100% control of it. Nobody can give you guilt the same way that they can give you pain. Your mother cannot give you a guilt trip, you can only choose to receive it or not.

Still, I’m not immune to guilt. Just the other day I was sitting in church. I sing in the choir of a very progressive, open church that has a wonderful sharing time where you can listen as your neighbors pray for healing for a sick relative, or share in some good fortune they’ve had recently – a graduation, a job, a birthday. It’s a really beautiful part of the service. There had been a lot of negative stuff floating around in the world that day, and despite those events – or maybe because of them? – I felt the need to stand up and say, “I’m grateful. I’m grateful for my husband, I’m grateful for my children, I’m grateful for a big old broken-down house that I love, I’m grateful I get to work most days on projects that I enjoy. I’m grateful for my life.” But I didn’t, I couldn’t. After listening to the healing prayers of so many other people – for cancers and heart attacks, for bills piling up and foreclosures, for problems I’ve never had to deal with – I just couldn’t rub my happiness in their faces like that. I would have felt guilty. I felt guilty even considering it.

So, I stayed quiet. I enjoyed my joy, but I kept it to myself. If anyone had asked me how I was, I would have told them that I was happy and content and thankful and grateful. But since nobody had asked, I kept quiet. So maybe the very existence of guilt, the possibility of it, is a good thing – a way to keep myself in check, to not fly too high. But to let it in after I’ve done something? Completely useless.

Originally posted on Selfish Mom. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted. This post has a Compensation Level of 0. Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information.

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