An Excerpt from Womenomics

July 14, 2009


Guilt Bashers by Claire Shipman & Katty Kay, Guilt is a sneaky emotion. Unlike anger, love, or sorrow, it has an ability to work behind the scenes without your really noticing. This means that you first need to identify that it's actually there—that the undercurrent of emotion behind this flurry of negative, self-blaming thought is guilt.

Guilt Bashers by Claire Shipman & Katty Kay,
Guilt is a sneaky emotion. Unlike anger, love, or sorrow, it has an ability to work behind the scenes without your really noticing. This means that you first need to identify that it's actually there—that the undercurrent of emotion behind this flurry of negative, self-blaming thought is guilt. From there, the steps toward getting guilt out of your thought process and daily life are relatively simple.

Step 1. Ask the Right Questions

You first need to identify what's going on. You're feeling as if you did something wrong. But did you? Ask yourself:

1. Did I actually lie, deceive, or really let someone down?

Maybe you're having some healthy guilt—which is really more like remorse. If so, and the situation is already in the past, do something about it, and then please, MOVE ON. Send a card, write an e-mail, make a call. Apologize, explain, whatever. Get it out of your mind and put it someplace else. Dwelling on it doesn't help anyone, and most importantly, it takes up your precious time.

2. Am I guilty of guilt exaggeration?

Often a feeling of guilt is justified, but its response is blown out of proportion. Imagine someone doing to you what you're feeling guilty about. Nine times out of ten, you'd probably say to yourself, "Yeah, that wasn't the best thing they could have done, but it definitely wasn't the worst either. I'll get over it, so should they."

3. Am I suffering from inappropriate guilt?

Most of the time, we reckon you are. Perhaps your boss is suggesting, even though you are supposed to be off on Friday, or at a lunch, or coming in late, that it would be helpful for you to cancel your plans and pitch in with someone else's project. You're feeling queasy and guilty. You start down that familiar path, hearing that well-worn internal dialogue with yourself that can spiral into nuttiness. "Oh, I should probably give up my day off or my lunch hour or my trip this weekend." "I was wrong to ask for that day off, time at my son's school, a late morning." 'My boss clearly believes I'm a slacker, lazy, or lack ambition." "I'm letting down my boss, the team, my gender." "Maybe I'll lose my job, my respect, my identity."

When you are starting to spin this way, learn to recognize it before you get dizzy with guilt. If you can identify the onslaught, you are already on your way to having a healthier emotional life. You can see what is inappropriate. The day, lunch hour, weekend off was yours. You will lose time if you give it up.

"I'm getting so much better at recognizing that part of this is my own thing," says Linda Brooks, the New York lawyer. 'The paranoia and self-talk that says 'I shouldn't be doing this. I should be available 24/7.'"

If you are having trouble sorting out whether the guilt is justified, then getting to the source of the "should" can help. Remember this: guilt is one of the basic human emotions that people in public or professional life will use to get you to do what they want. It's a very sharp, very sophisticated emotional tool—one that bosses love to wield. The explanation is simple: in situations where you're entitled to your break, to your vacation, to asking someone else to do a project, your boss knows that it's unreasonable to take away that right. So that's where he uses guilt to get what he needs.

Avoiding this kind of tactical guilt—which you might otherwise call "bosses' guilt"—is a matter of breaking down any feeling of "should" into legitimate shoulds, where you actually failed to fulfill your obligations, and illegitimate shoulds, where you had no business fulfilling a request in the first place.

Lauren Tyler, a private equity banker at a top New York firm, who some days seems to be managing a small circus as she handles her high-level job, three children, and two stepchildren, says her industry thrives on an all-or-nothing competitive spirit. "You have to develop a thick skin. I know I'm doing my job well and I don't have time to angst," she says. "It's not always easy, but I've learned to get things done in my business life and my personal life, without a lot of hand-wringing."

So ask yourself: is the guilt you are feeling at a particular moment serving you and your own moral framework, or is it serving someone else and their wants and needs? If you come to the conclusion that you're being guilted so someone else can gain, throw the guilt away.

Step 2. Write it all Down

Early in the guilt-bashing, time-winning process, you will find that thinking is not enough. It will be hard to hear all of those familiar guilt thoughts and unfamiliar guilt-conquering thoughts and make sense of them. So get out that pen again.

1. List exactly what you believe you should feel badly about. Your personal classic guilt trips. All of them.

2. Stare at the list. Now, on another sheet of paper, make another list. A list of guilt busters. All the things you should feel good about. (That rarely occurs to any of us, of course.) Examples: "I asked for the day off." "People are allowed to have days off in the company." "I am only going to lunch, not to China." "I've been doing a great job lately on the Brenner report." "My boss is not going to dwell on this—he's got a lot more to think about." "Managers usually try to get all they can from people, and when they fail, they move on." "It's his job—it's not personal. " "He does not think I'm a bad person" "I'm going to seem more powerful for sticking to my plan."

You see where we are going here. We're reminding you how to keep things in perspective. Eventually we should be able to do it without the help of exercises. But sometimes we need to stop our minds from spinning, put it all on paper, and have a look. It really does help.

Step 3. Picture Your Boss in Diapers

Think of bosses as crying, whining children who need a bit of discipline. Forgive the analogy, but it is really quite similar to training little ones. The first time a tantrum or refusal to go to bed crops up, or, let's say, an unreasonable work request is made, you will feel horrible and guilt-ridden at "letting down" your child/boss. But once you power through the tears/pressure, which lasts much less time than you imagine, you'll soon realize you've gained power. You've set not only boundaries but also a precedent for the future. Further, you'll wonder why you didn't try it a long time ago. The next time, your child/boss will cry/demand less. The time after that, they might not whine/make an unreasonable demand at all. And you've got power -- not to mention a tension-relieving inside giggle at your supervisor.

Step 4. Change the Soundtrack

Pretty soon, you can drop all of the paper and lists and funny mental images and do it all reflexively. You'll easily understand where your mind is going BEFORE you start to spiral. Then you're really saving time. You can cut off the whole long-winded, emotionally draining process at the start, and move on.

Another way to think about it when these negative thoughts crop up: you need to literally change the "thought-track" in your head. Change your internal message. Instead of running a negative track about all of the things you haven't done and the reasons why you have to meet unreasonable requests or you might be forever doomed, you turn on the positive track, which reminds you of all of your accomplishments and power. If you keep that on a continuous loop, then your angst will float away.

Christy Runningen of Best Buy says the only way she stops it is by literally forcing her mind onto better terrain. "It's so easy to get overwhelmed and think, 'oh I should be doing this, or I should be doing that,' or 'I feel guilty, it's ten o'clock on a weekday morning and I'm not working at this very moment,'" Christy says. "Well for me the key is backing up and taking a look at what I am responsible for. It doesn't matter if I'm not doing it at this very second. I'm meeting every work goal, and that's what matters."

Step 5. Compromise Counts

There are times when you will feel unreasonable guilt, and you should not have to "give in," but the reality is that you won't always get to do things your way. Don't always focus on an all-or-nothing outcome. That in itself can create lots of tension. At these moments, instead of letting your guilt force a dejected "cave-in," look for a split. You may be able to get part of what you want. "I can't come in Friday because I've already made plans, since I asked for the day off last month, but I can work through my lunch today. I hope that helps!" This sort of olive branch seems powerful, can leave you feeling good, and still preserves the basics of what you need. And when you do have to compromise -- for goodness' sake don't feel guilty about doing so. You haven't sold yourself short or failed, you've just compromised! You've lost some time during your lunch break but at least you've won your Friday.

Step 6. Pull out the Rhetorical Guilt Shields

We tend to think silence and a smile are the best guilt-deflectors, but if you just can't help yourself, here are some ready-made scripts you can use to avert an assault from coworkers and bosses.

"Out the door so early," your annoying coworker sneers. "It's awesome how quickly I nailed that Brenner report," you reply with a smile.

"I was at the office until midnight last night," grumbles your office mate, pointedly. "Brutal" you sympathetically reply. "When I logged on at 6 A.M. this morning, I thought I'd die."

"This project could really use your input over the weekend—oh—did you say you were away?" your boss asks, clearly testing the waters. "Absolutely—I agree it should not go out without my once-over. I'll have it done Monday midday"

Excerpted from Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success Copyright © 2009 Claire Shipman & Katty Kay Published by HarperBusiness, HarperCollins Publishers

ABOUT THE AUTHORS Claire Shipman & Katty Kay are co-authors of the New York Times bestseller Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success. Claire Shipman is the senior national correspondent for ABC News' Good Morning America and a regular on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Previously, Shipman was the White House correspondent for NBC news and a reporter for CNN in Moscow, where she earned multiple awards for her coverage of the demise of the Soviet Union. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children. Katty Kay is the Washington correspondent and anchor for BBC World News America. She is also a contributor on Meet the Press, The Charlie Rose Show, and The Chris Matthews Show, as well as a regular guest host for Diane Rehm on NPR. Kay grew up in the middle East and now lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and four children. For more information, please visit womenomics.com.

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