FROM THE DEEP END: The guilt-trip trap

Brenda Kelley Kim. Photo by Stevo Rood

“Guilt: The gift that keeps on giving.”
—Erma Bombeck

What comes right after an “F” word? Alphabetically, it’s a “G” word. And one of the scariest of those has to be “guilt.” In some ways, it’s easy to define. In courtrooms, it’s guilty or not guilty. Eventually, the jury arrives at a resolution, and the decision is official. It’s not that simple, of course, but guilty is an objective term in legal matters. But in other, everyday issues?

Not so much.

Why is there always a built-in guilt factor? So many times, a simple birthday party or holiday celebration is fraught with peril. Choosing one option out of several can trigger the worst trip you’ll ever take — a guilt trip.

I understand guilt as only someone who grew up with an Irish mother can. She was terrific; she loved me a lot and did so much for me. I know this because of a family story about how she used cloth diapers for me when I was little. We couldn’t afford a dryer then, so she would hang seven dozen diapers on the clothesline every week, through all seasons and weather, until her hands cracked and bled. I asked her once, “Seven DOZEN? Did you give me beans at every meal?”

When it comes to guilt trips, we have to understand they often aren’t rational. Later, my mother said, “I should have bought a dryer on credit and paid it off little by little, but I thought spending money on something just for my comfort was irresponsible. Live and learn.”

The mistake we make is trying to be that scales-of-justice sculpture — the one of a blindfolded Lady Justice trying to balance the two sides of a scale. While attempting to make unbiased decisions in the justice system is laudable, it seldom works that way. No dilemma is ever as simple as competing sides that have to balance —not in our legal system, and certainly not in our personal lives.

Most choices involve more than just “either/or,” and when we are blind to what is right in front of us, no decision we make will be entirely right. We need to see a situation clearly in order to know what the best way forward is. What others expect of us is only part of it. Are we truly being authentic if our own feelings are left out of the picture?

Self-doubt and false comparisons are the main ingredients in guilt and a recipe for being stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. What if every time we had to make a choice that someone else was bound to be unhappy with, we just picked what works best for us?

We must realize that almost none of our everyday decisions are life and death.

Recently, I had two fun invites for events at the same time. Honestly, it’s a good problem to have. I chose one, sent regrets to the other, and no one died. No one got even remotely bent out of shape. How can we feel guilty about having too many friends who want to spend time together, too many choices of places to be, and adventures to have?

Gratitude is a much better “G” word than guilt. What if we shifted our outlook to see the joy rather than the stress? Instead of “I skipped lunch with a friend to get some work done, what if she’s angry?” try flipping it to, “I have a good job, and good friends. That’s enough for today.”

If guilt is showing up for you, take a breath, give yourself some grace (another good “G” word), and know that guilt isn’t a gift; it’s a trap. Don’t fall for it.


Brenda Kelley Kim has lived in Marblehead for 50 years, and is an author, freelance writer, and mother of three. Her column will appear weekly.