Why Your Guilt and Your ‘Shoulds’ Are Holding You Back
I felt guilty.
My daughter, EC, woke up soaking wet because, the day before, I had accidentally bought pull-up diapers for boys instead of girls. I’d been rushing through Target, completely distracted and consumed by a pressing deadline at work, and just pulled a box of pull-ups off the shelf, quickly checked out, and rushed home. During the night, poor EC paid the price for my haste and distraction. No wonder I felt guilty the next morning.
Of course, this is just the minor leagues when it comes to my guilt--I can lay it on myself so thick that it is almost paralyzing. Am I working too much and not spending enough time with my family and friends? Am I undermining my health and my family’s health because a significant majority of the food consumed in the household this week came from a takeout box? Am I letting down my community because I said no to that request to serve on a local board? All I need to do is to spend a few minutes pondering questions like these and soon I am deep in the black hole of guilt – insecure, confused, and miserable.
Emily, one of my clients, was also stymied by guilt. She is one of three female managing directors in the investment bank at her financial services firm. She graduated at the top of her class from Darden Business School at the University of Virginia and rapidly rose through the ranks in the investment bank, consistently exceeding her revenue goals. She was a success!—until her most recent performance review, when she received a performance score of two on a scale of one to five (her first score lower than five).
When Emily called me, she described her work and the personal challenges she was facing working 80 to 90 hour weeks and never seeing her husband and family. She told me she felt incredibly guilty and was failing at everything. Then she said to me, “I realized I couldn’t go on this way last Sunday afternoon,” she continued. “I was at home, for once, and I was with Tom and the kids in the back yard. It was a beautiful spring day, and our baby Molly was practicing her walking on the warm grass, tottering around the way they do. Then she fell down and started to cry, and I jumped up to help her. But she wasn’t crying, ‘Mommy!’ She was crying “Daddy’ and holding out her arms in Tom’s direction.”
“I felt like I had been punched in the gut,” Emily said. “My baby didn’t even know me—or want me – anymore. I feel like a failure, personally and professionally.” Emily was deep in the black hole of guilt and about to break.
There is a very close cousin to guilt that often is just below the surface. I call it the shoulds. The shoulds are those voices in your head—you know the ones—saying “You should be doing this,” “You should like that,” “You should spend time on this,” “You should stop doing that,” and so on and so forth—endlessly. There were numerous unspoken shoulds contributing to both my guilt and Emily’s guilt.
The problem with the shoulds is that they can easily become a runaway train, completely undermining your ability to get clear and focused on what you need.
For example, one of my clients—Colin, an estate attorney with both a JD and MBA and enough real-world experience to make him a formidable adversary if you are in the unfortunate position of being opposing counsel--was succumbing to a long list of shoulds. His firm was experiencing rapid growth, which prompted his call to me.
When we met, Colin was working 90+ hours a week and had been for months because that is what entrepreneurs should do – their business is their life.
At one of our meetings, Colin confessed that he had just eaten an entire sleeve of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies for lunch because he was working out of three offices, one of them his car, which had a portable printer in the back seat for use in clients’ offices. Why? Because he should always be accessible and uber-responsive to his clients.
Colin had every electronic gadget known to man, each of them ringing, pinging and buzzing throughout the day, because of course, he should be in touch via the latest and greatest technology.
Unfortunately, with Colin spinning out of control because of his shoulds, the firm he was building was bending under the weight of the increasing case load, forcing him to turn new clients away.
The shoulds had completely masked the real issues Colin was experiencing, which were normal business growing pains. He could no longer separate his priorities and goals from the culturally-imposed shoulds playing like a heavy metal rock band in his head.
To combat the shoulds and liberate yourself from their tenacious clutches, the first step is to use the three-step evaluation process to test some of the assumptions that are behind guilt. Think about the fears and anxieties that are driving you (guilt is the manifestation of both) and then ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen? Is it real? Is it true?”
For example, while building his business, a client of mine had gone five years without taking an unplugged vacation (that is, a vacation in which he disconnected electronically from the office) because he felt enormous guilt if he was not always connected to his office. Now his family had planned a ten-day trip to Europe during his children’s spring break, and his wife and two teenage sons had begged him not to work during the vacation. So he called me in a complete guilt-ridden panic two weeks before departure. During our call, I asked him, “What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen if you were not connected 24/7?”
He answered, “The firm could lose all of its major accounts, and the business would fold without me at the helm.”
I then asked him, “How real is this concern? Has this happened to anyone you know?”
“Well,” he sheepishly replied, “I don’t know of any other business in my industry that has lost all of its major accounts in one week. And I have to admit that I have an exceptional chief operating officer with deep industry experience.”
“So, it is not true?”
“No, it is not true,” he admitted.
We then discussed the processes and procedures he needed to have in place to ensure that his clients and team were fully supported while he was on vacation. He thoroughly enjoyed his family vacation, guilt free—in fact, while he was gone, his team landed a brand-new major account.
If guilt has ensnared you, use these same self-talk strategies to escape its clutches.
If you find yourself hooked by guilt’s close cousin, the shoulds, the best way to break free is to strengthen your own boundaries. Start saying NO to the voices inside your head, and maybe externally as well, and doing it in a new way – a way that I like to call the “P.O.W.E.R. No.” It’s based on the anagram POWER—Priorities, Opportunities, Who, Expectations, and Real. Here’s how it works:
Priorities: When that voice in your head tells you that should complete this task, lead another project, attend another meeting, or make cupcakes from scratch evaluate the priority of that message. How does this should align to your priorities, the organization’s strategic priorities and/or your families’ priorities?
Opportunities: Explore the opportunities. What opportunities does this should create for you? Is there something that does actually need additional attention in your life? This should could be shining a light on something that you need to address.
Who: Who or what triggered this should? Was it an old script from childhood? Was it an ad in a magazine? Was it your colleague?
Expectations: Whose expectations are these really? Your manager? Your mother? Your spouse? Your child? Society’s?
Real: Get real.What is this should really about? Are there real priorities that are driving this should? Or are you taking on societal expectations that are not in alignment with your priorities?
Only after you have worked through all five sets of questions in the P.O.W.E.R. No are you in a position to make a really informed decision about whether or not to listen to and follow the should.
Shoulds lead us to over-commit—and when you over-commit, the quality and impact of your work suffers. When Steve Jobs returned to the helm of Apple in 1997, he quickly recognized that the company’s employees were spreading their creative talent far too thin. He reduced their product portfolio from 300 devices to 10, in the process saving Apple from bankruptcy. Follow Jobs’s example—say No to the many things that threaten to distract you and derail you, so you can focus your energies on the handful of things that will really lead you to success.
The P.O.W.E.R. No enables you to think carefully and critically about all of the shoulds so that you can consciously and thoughtfully respond. It puts you back in the driver’s seat, enabling you to respond rather than merely react.
Stop shoulding all over yourself and take back control.