The battle of the Shoulds and the Wants

by Kristin on March 30, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by uwdigitalcollections

I have an issue with guilt. I don’t know where it comes from—I’m pretty sure my life isn’t guilt-worthy in any above-average way. I mean, I’ve certainly messed up more than a few times, and I’ve hurt others, but I don’t have a secret storehouse of heinous acts and crimes.

The more I’ve tried to get to the bottom of this guilt, the more I suspect it comes from an over-developed sense of responsibility. If I’m at the store and pick up something in aisle 3 only to decide by aisle 9 that I don’t really need it, I could never tuck it onto a shelf by the cat food, where it didn’t belong. I would feel horribly guilty. Instead, I detour back to aisle 3, secretly wishing I could be the sort of person who doesn’t care about these things (clearly there are many such people in the world).

Here’s another example: When I worked at a job (the kind in an office, with a boss), I often felt guilty for coming in late in the morning or taking a long lunch, even though I was just making up for the 12-hours I had put in the day before. What if my colleagues thought I was simply being lazy? Clearly my guilt is tied to my perception of other people’s perceptions and expectations of me (follow that?).

But what if I don’t wanna?

In my day-to-day life, all of this over-thinking translates to a regular battle between what I think I should do versus what I want to do. (By the way, I really think I am too old to be struggling with this.)

Recently, this inner struggle came into focus (again). A friend who has been wanting to get together was trying to talk me into going out for a late-night drink. I love this friend, but leaving the house on that particular night was the last thing I felt like doing. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and there was nothing I felt like doing more than putting on sweats and curling up on the couch with a book. I went back and forth in my mind, trying to decide if I should buck up and do what I thought I should do, even if I didn’t feel like it, or if I should stand up for what I wanted and needed.

As a Christian, it’s pretty impossible for me to examine issues like guilt and selflessness apart from my faith. I’ve worked hard to  reorient my understanding of God away from words like “guilt,” but does guilt have a role to play in my choices? Yes. I am also constantly striving to be more others’-centered, because I think the world would be a much more beautiful place if we all spent a bit more time focusing on the needs of others. But does that mean God wants me to ignore my own needs? No.

And then there’s this realization to throw into the mix: I might know what I think I need, but that’s not always what I actually need. In other words, I can be extremely moved/energized/filled by doing something I didn’t want to do. After all, I go to the gym three times a week to work out, right? And we all make our kids do lots of things they don’t want to do, not because we’re mean, but because we know, in the end, it’s good for them.

God doesn’t wield guilt

So where does that leave me and my guilt? Or my understanding of God and my perception of others’ perceptions? In a pretty confused place, but with a few crystallized truths to carry with me:

- God doesn’t use guilt to motivate me. He wants me to be motivated by love.

- Love for others begins with love for God and includes love for myself.

- Acting on all of that love doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive—I don’t have to take turns and choose between self care OR care of others.

- Focusing on fighting the guilt directly seems to be a losing cause. Maybe if I focus on my motivations for doing or not doing something, guilt will shut up and take a back seat all on its own.

- There isn’t always a right action and a wrong action to feel guilty or not-guilty about. There can be a variety of good and loving ways to make choices and move forward.

I did end up dragging myself off the couch that night, putting on some decent clothes and going out into the cold with my friend. And it ended up being a good thing for both of us. But I also think I could have honestly and lovingly advocated for myself, for a night of quiet rest at home, and if done right, not felt guilty about that choice.

Which is another way of coming at this realization: God would have blessed either choice. Seeing it that way makes me feel lighter already.

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  • Katie

    I really, really identify with this – there’s a lot of guilt motivating some of my choices. Having been called “selfish” often by family members, it’s tough sometimes to advocate for myself, or simply to make a different choice than others think I should. (Or than I perceive they think I should – this gets so convoluted so fast!)

    Thanks for sharing these honest thoughts, Kristin. Food for reflection.

  • Knox McCoy

    “Clearly my guilt is tied to my perception of other people’s perceptions and expectations of me.”

    Boom. Kindred spirits, we are. Loved the post.

  • David N.

    I find myself struggling to stay free of guilt related to what I don’t or can’t know. I feel a lot of times like I am expected to have answers for every question and know what I think or believe about everything, especially related to God, and I just don’t, because we can’t always, and that’s okay.

  • Meredith

    The more I’ve tried to get to the bottom of this guilt, the more I suspect it comes from an over-developed sense of responsibility.

    I definitely relate to this feeling. So often, the things that I feel I should do come directly from this sense or idea that I have to do with because it’s the “right” or “responsible” thing to do. And as you point out, sometimes those things are the right or responsible thing in the long run, but at the time, it just feels like I’m waging a battle with myself. Even when I know it’s perfectly okay to make time for myself, I still feel horribly guilty because I have somehow decided that taking time for myself is selfish and irresponsible. But the truth is that it’s just not that simple.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    Medieval royalty surrounded themselves with courtiers, including a fool, who was largely ignored, sometimes the object of other’s jokes and frequently abused. Still, the King or Queen felt it wise to include one in their entourage. The Fool’s words fell upon deaf ears–until, once in a while, they hit home. Guilt is the Fool at our court.

  • Kristin T.

    Katie, that’s all it takes, sometimes—an accusation or two that you’re being selfish. But you do need to advocate for yourself, and know when and how to do it. And yes, the whole thing gets convoluted so fast! Even as I tried to write a simple post about it my thoughts got so tangled up. :)

    Knox, I’m so glad you could parse that thought, and glad that you shared that you *get* it! For some reason, when I write about guilt I have this feeling that people will think the way my minds works is crazy. Maybe it is crazy, but at least it isn’t a solitary crazy.

    David, that’s a great point. Sometimes we need to feel like we have all the answers (especially as parents!), which is closely related to the need we often feel to be able to *fix* everything. Learning to let go of that and be honest about my not-knowing has been a huge relief.

    Meredith, I’m definitely glad I was raised to be responsible and do the right thing, but when you see so much of the not-right-thing going on around you, it is tempting at times to let go of all that responsibility! What would be even better, though, is to hang on to the responsibility and let go of the nagging guilt and perfectionism. Think we can? :)

    Ray, hmmm…a very interesting analogy. So you’re saying that guilt has a tendency to tell us foolish lies, but we shouldn’t try to banish it entirely?

  • Katharine

    (Hands in the air) My turn! My turn!

    Kristin, I know these feelings very, very well. It doesn’t help that you are a thoughtful, sensitive, imaginitive person. Even if you didn’t feel guilty, you could make up reasons to feel guilty.

    In my own life, I just now started to sense when those times of hyperguilt attack me. Just now, as a 43 year old adult, I can stop it before it consumes me. This is the armchair psychologist in me talking, but often over-active guilt comes from past patterns of manipulation and emotional abuse — not that you have that, but it does. When I sense my perceived guilt radar going off, I pray and ask God for truth to come in. His voice doesn’t sound anything like my mother’s or my father’s. Then, miraculously, I can see what I need to do, how I communicate this to the people around me and be free. Overly guilty people often have boundary issues. I know I do.

    Today I have to explain to a pushy homeschool mom that my kids will not be attending some fantastic field trip. My reasons for them not doing will be perceived as lame — my daughter doesn’t want to wear a dress, I’m really not sure it’s worth the $50 for two kids, and the prep homework sounds dull. But really, I’m going to say no because I need to be honest with this woman that I have a boundary. I’m going to defend it, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it. She has in the past tried to manipulate me. Today she won’t. If my kids don’t learn about state government with this specific program, they will not die, go to hell, or be bad, bad citizens.

    Man, that feels good. (Hugs to you.)

  • Genevieve

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you tied the notion to one of responsibility. I struggle with this, too, on a daily basis for sure, but it’s especially hard when it plays into a major decision. What about ending a relationship that you know to be bad for you? What about doing something that will help you and hurt someone else? Of course we have to consider everything, and guilt helps us to do right sometimes. But it can also cause us to feel overly-responsible for the feelings of others. Not everyone in this world will make reasonable demands of us. At those times, we can’t rely on them to come around and realize they’re being unfair or that our points are valid. We can put our thoughts out there, but no one is more responsible for protecting me than…me. Sometimes there is no clear right or wrong choice, and we just have to figure out which is which. Sometimes it’s a choice between competing responsibilities. Each has a path associated with it. And whether the path I need is sanctioned by anyone else or not…it’s up to me to take it.

    I f*&$n hate that.

  • steph

    I _totally_ get this. The connection to other people’s expectations, the should vs. want (and differentiating between those two!!! Can you always trust yourself to differentiate?), second-guessing the yardstick in our own heads. I think about this a LOT. Making time for me, setting up and managing honest and clear and balanced commitments, and working on just letting go of the judgment sometimes, all helps. And I agree guilt can be a total trickster :)

  • Joi

    God, because of Jesus, truly knows how hard it is to be a human being. I think we all need more time set aside to be quiet and alone and do the thing that feeds our spirit. In fact, this is probably so vital to our lives that God “commanded” us to obey the concept of sabbath. I think perhaps we all would function more reasonably in all areas of life if we gave ourselves permission to reserve spaces for rest and recuperation just as faithfully as we take showers. The faster the world moves, the more we must resist the jammed calendaring we feel is required of us to keep others satisfied.

  • Kristin T.

    Katharine, wow, this is really insightful: “It doesn’t help that you are a thoughtful, sensitive, imaginative person. Even if you didn’t feel guilty, you could make up reasons to feel guilty.” And stopping the voice of the guilt monster and asking God for his truth to help you make sense of the situation is SO wise. Thank you for sharing your story and giving me new ways to think about this.

    Genevieve, oh yes, I think about these complicated situations often: “What about doing something that will help you and hurt someone else?” Feeling overly responsible for the feelings of others can be such a heavy burden. Sometimes I just have to trust that although a given choice or action (like ending a relationship) might not seem like an obvious good thing for all, at the time, eventually everyone will be able to see how good came out of it.

    steph, no, I can’t always trust myself to differentiate between “should” and “want!” Especially because it seems to shift with time. And the yardstick in our heads? YES! It’s so good to know there are people out there who *get* this, and are gradually learning to tame it.

    Joi, focusing on “the thing that feeds our spirit”—I like the way you put that. Often that means down time, rest, and being alone, but sometimes there are other things we need, like a good conversation or a chance to make music with a group of people. Each person’s needs are different. Thinking about it that way helps me to re-think what the sabbath might look like for me, and how it might be different things for different people, but still be honoring God. Thanks!