Feeling guilty

Does anyone else have the problem with guilt? Sometimes I feel guilty for just existing, or for being me. I think I’m a “guilt generator”. I have incredibly high standards for myself, and if I don’t meet them, I am very disappointed. This Friday I couldn’t make it to friend’s a wedding. I was going to detail the various disasters which caused my non-attendance, but it’s not worth recounting. I’ve spent the last three weeks feeling more and more guilty as it became more and more probable that I wouldn’t be able to make it. By Friday morning, I was almost in tears at the breakfast table because I felt so bad. I wish I wasn’t such a big softie.

One of my old bosses used to try to stop me from tying myself up in knots with guilt. He was good at noticing it starting and then nipping it in the bud. He’d make me sit down, stare at me, and say: “Listen to me: IT’S NOT YOUR PROBLEM! You’re not responsible for the rest of the world.”

Sometimes, I feel I have to be able to do it all: be a mother, be a wife, do the career thing, publish multiple brilliant academic articles, save the world into the bargain, cook delicious meals every night, make every social function, be the life of the party, be there for everyone, always be patient and tolerant… Of course, I can’t do it all, and I shouldn’t really be so hard on myself when I can’t manage it.

I was thinking on these things when I read this great blog post about a book entitled Britain On The Couch – Treating a Low-Serotonin Society. The question the book asks is: If we have so much in terms of material wealth and health, why aren’t we happier? I haven’t read the book, but if I understand the post correctly, the message is that we are affluent enough that we have moved beyond “survival mode”. We therefore have the “luxury” to aspire to be the best (rather than just survive). We are given a message that we have to achieve academically and we have to be the best in the highly competitive workforce. We compare ourselves with others all the time, and find ourselves wanting.

My sister and I were talking about an acquaintance of mine, a Rhodes Scholar. We agreed that her list of academic, sporting and charitable achievements was simply amazing. Added to this, she is a nice person. We felt severely inadequate next to her. But we were wondering if she ever gets time to just exist as a normal human being? Can she just laze on the couch in tracksuit pants? Is she able to be there for family and friends, or is she too busy out saving the world?

This leads me on to think about another friend of mine. I know from personal experience that my friend has time to chat, discuss ideas, and just be a normal friendly human being. That’s part of what is so great about her. She is also intelligent and generous. Despite all these great qualities, she told me she was feeling very depressed because she hadn’t “achieved” more by this point in her life. As a child, she was told she had immense potential and she could achieve anything she wanted. She felt very bad that she hadn’t “lived up to that potential”. What is “living up to your potential” anyway? I’d rather have this girl as a friend a million times over than the Rhodes Scholar girl.

It’s important that people encourage children and not shut down their potential, but I think you have to be careful. Calling children “gifted” could put pressure on them, which may stay with them for life. Even worse, there’s a crazy tendency to try and “hothouse” children these days. Little Sally shows a liking for the piano, so immediately Mum and Dad start to train her up as a concert pianist. I felt bad because I haven’t bought any educational DVDs for my child yet. I haven’t taken her to swimming lessons or to gymbaroo. Guilt! But as my Mum pointed out, Albert Einstein wouldn’t have had the advantage of Baby Einstein, but he still got a Nobel Prize. And my baby is very alert, coordinated and friendly despite the lack of gymbaroo and Baby Einstein. I think we’ll stick with reading The Hungry Caterpillar over and over and climbing up the stairs.

I read a comment in a Stephen Fry book about gifted children which resonated with me. The protagonist said something like “When I was 7, I could read like a 14 year old. When I was 14, I could read like a 21 year old. When I was 21, I could read like a 21 year old.” This is essentially what happened to me. Yes, I was a very gifted reader as a child. I read Lord of the Rings when I was 6 or 7 years old. But by the time I was an adult, everyone else had caught up. Who cared that I was a very good reader by that point? (Of course, I had had an opportunity to read Lord of the Rings over 40 times, so there were some advantages.)

I think that having very high expectations of oneself is a problem for many lawyers. At law school there are many very intelligent people with lots of potential. There’s a natural tendency to compare oneself with people like that Rhodes Scholar girl and find oneself wanting. The thing is that we can’t all be the next Chief Justice of the High Court. And you know what? That’s okay.

Have I lived up to my potential? I don’t know. Does it matter, as long as I try my best? I don’t think so. What I do know is that I have a great family and friends. That’s something to be proud of. I also manage pretty well with juggling everything. And if I drop the my bundle occasionally? Well, that proves I’m charmingly fallible and human, doesn’t it? New Years’ Resolution: less guilt, less high expectations of myself. And I’ll try not to be too much of a “high need achiever” if I occasionally slip up and fail to keep my resolution…getting guilty for feeling guilty is just ridiculous…!

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7 Comments

Filed under Guilt, society

7 responses to “Feeling guilty

  1. Litlove

    I couldn’t agree more with what you say about children. It terrifies me to see children nowadays being coerced by their parents into clubs and societies and hobbies that they’re not particularly interested in, but will add to their list of achievements. Developmentally, it’s really important that children get bored. A lot. They then develop ‘transitional space’, or in other words, the creative desire to do something. If they have occupations rammed down their throats, they’ll never learn to think and create and want for themselves. Hanging around on the couch is essential for us all, when we’re little, but also when we’re older, because transitional space is necessary for conceptualising and wanting all kinds of activity, at all ages. this high achiever thing is horribly seductive, but it isn’t good for human beings who are designed to learn slowly, make mistakes and take their time.

  2. Shop Steward

    I’m torn between thinking:
    (a) I should be more happy-go-lucky and content with being successful, if not the best, at whatever I want to do; and
    (b) if I don’t constantly aim for what may seem like unreachable goals, I’ll never know if I could’ve achieved them.

    A life of disappointment vs a life of contentment? Or a life of averageness and mediocrity vs a life of success and achievement?

  3. Legal Eagle

    I guess I try to have it both ways. I try my best at everything I do, but I also try not beat myself up too much if I don’t meet my goals, and to be happy with what I have. It’s a balancing act which doesn’t always work.

    I suppose it’s also about being realistic. I’ve long ago realised that I will never be a good sportswoman. No matter how hard I strive, I’ll always be a terrible uncoordinated klutz! So I may as well put my effort into something more achievable (managing to get through the day without tripping over, for example).

  4. iain

    I have worked rather hard to disable my “guilt Chip”. But then I did cotton onto the idea that it is the journey and not the destination that is so important a fair while ago.
    My daughter is very bright and like yourself she was an early reader (she could read before starting school) I want her to be a success in life but I don’t want her to feel guilty about things she can’t change that is truly futile.

  5. cherry ripe

    I don’t think I need to tell you how much I identify with this post 🙂

    On a different point, when it comes to children’s hothousing, I reckon we should “hothouse” them another way – in their enjoyment of life, their behaviour, and their understanding of others, rather than their intellect.

    This is far more important in life than “giftedness”. But nevertheless, identifying a child as “gifted” may actually help to create strategies for teaching them the life skills to deal with that. This should be the focus of “gifted” education. This community of bloggers is likely to know many people who are insanely intelligent and achievement-oriented, but miserable!

    Show me a child who’s watched teletubbies (where they hug each other and forgive) and Play School (where they create things out of nothing, and to proudly sing and dag around), and who’s read “Wanda Linda and the Terrible Underpants” 50 times instead of Baby Einstein, and I’ll show you a child who is not neurotic.

    I thank my mother’s abundant love, time and care for getting me where I am now – an intelligent, socially conscious woman and a conscientious, loving mother. (Hey that sounds good! I might repeat that to myself for a good while…)

    Life skills and resilience are important – and come from seeing parents who are also resilient, and happy and loving. It doesn’t come from “baby einstein”! So keep doing what you’re doing LE – you’re one terrific woman. I hope your “baby booming” friends can learn from you.

    Happy Christmas…

  6. Pingback: Baby Einstein not so smart « The Legal Soapbox

  7. Pingback: skepticlawyer » Accelerated learning comes to Court

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