Tripping on Calvinist guilt
October 13, 2009 12:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me stop myself from turning into my dad: how do I manage daily guilt?

What resources (books/websites/techniques) have you or someone you know used to manage guilt?

Some clarification:
I was raised in the grand Calvinist tradition where guilt was the oil that kept the machine in motion. My dad is a very guilt-ridden person (he still feels horrible about inviting himself to his neighbours' BBQ when he was 10), and I suspect that either nature or nurture (probably both) have passed this tradition of guilt on to me.

I had horrible stomach aches as a I child, mostly due to guilt about something that I had done/not done properly. These stomach aches and various gastro problems have followed me into adulthood. I recently took a 'work personality' questionnaire, which reported that my dominant personality characteristic was basically guilt and anxiousness. (In my defense, there were other strong characteristics too--just this one was the strongest). I've noticed that guilt is definitely present in my home life and relationships as well, and suspect both work and domestic life would be more enjoyable without it.

The type of guilt I'm talking about is the everyday 'perfectionist has failed' guilt--emails not replied to (guilt level: 2), typographical error (mine) in report boss presented to clients (guilt level: 3), completely forgot to be at home when someone was supposed to drop by (guilt level: 9).

I have a job I mostly enjoy, a great circle of friends, and a fantastic partner. I am generally happy and satisfied with my life (just not, it seems, with myself).

***I will be seeing a therapist in a few weeks for the first time. For now, I want to get a better idea of what my issues are and how I think I could manage them more effectively.***
posted by brambory to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I used to feel more guilty about things until I became more forgiving of other people's shortcomings. I felt guilty because I presumed that other people felt about me the way I felt about them when they screwed up. Once I accepted that other people could fail to uphold their obligations to me without having any malicious reason to do so, or that other people could fail at something regardless of their skill level, or that luck sometimes plays a significant role in what someone achieves or doesn't, it was easier for me to say, "Well, would I beat someone else up if they made the mistake I have made? Then I shouldn't beat myself up."

There's no real way to tell from your question whether your idea of how others perceive you is the reason for your guilt. But if you don't hold other people to your standard, it just means you get to skip the first step and cut to asking yourself whether you'd beat someone else up for whatever you feel guilty about. You should treat yourself like you would treat a friend.

I still generally hold myself to a higher standard than I do other people -- it's good to push yourself -- but I don't become fraught with disappointment like I used to. To use your example of making a typo in something important: I might cringe when I do that today, but in the past it would make me feel anxiety for the whole day. Interpersonal screw-ups would give me stomachaches. Now those feels are more fleeting and manageable.
posted by Nattie at 1:59 AM on October 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

I have a job I mostly enjoy, a great circle of friends, and a fantastic partner. I am generally happy and satisfied with my life (just not, it seems, with myself).

I, for different reasons, feel guilty, a lot, and it doesn't manifest itself somatically, but in really dysfunctional self-abuse and complexes. I'm not handsome enough, I'm not eating well enough, I'm not successful enough...

I'm lucky enough to live in China, where I enjoy the things you say you have, plus a measure of economic and job security and freedom that most people my age don't have. The reason I say I'm lucky, though, is that I see and interact with god-honest real-third-world poverty every day. That's one way I put things in perspective. As horrible as it sounds, I know I'll never be there. Partly because of an accident of birth, yes, but also because I took advantage of the education and opportunities that were given to me to ensure I'll never end up there. I'm not claiming any crazy Republican responsibility thing here, I know I'm privileged and I'm not claiming any undue credit; I'm just saying that when you're faced with that every day, the only thing you can do to live with yourself and your standard of living is to remind yourself why you have it. No, I'm not perfect, and I could probably do better...but I sure as hell could do a lot worse.

No, really. The guy sifting through the pile of trash with his bare hands to find a plastic bottle worth a penny, if that, could be you. Okay, so maybe privilege of middle-class American birth ensures I'll never be that guy, but it's not as though the homeless in the US don't do the same. And consider that even among the expat population, there are those who fare badly, for whatever reason. There was the French guy I met who was sleeping at McDonald's while he spent his nights slogging down drinks at the expat drive and complaining of his predicament to whoever would listen, but who vehemently refused to clean up and get a job, even after I offered him my shower and a place to stay while he got on his feet. Instead he tried to steal my cell phone. There was the guy who really liked NOFX who lost everything to his wife in a divorce after she left him for beating her, then got fired from his English-teaching job after he went into a rage and trashed the classroom, and then started a real bad drug habit. I'm not sure what happened to him. There was the 60-year old sauna cruiser who kept talking about going home, but blew all his earnings on massage girls from craigslist, then got arrested for posting video of it on his blog.

You will never be those people (unless you are, in which case your guilt is not the root of the problem). Neither will I. They are unfortunate, and need help that I wish I could give. You say you're a perfectionist - by what standard?

If that's not enough, consider some of the crazy that comes from developing-world poverty, or even just being around it. Seriously, there are people with way more money than me who blow their savings on nucleic proteins or whatever that stuff is trying to regrow their hair. "It's not sold in stores!" says the door-to-door salesman. No, really? You think there might be a reason for that? A guy I work with in a low-level position in my company has a friggin' master's degree, speaks amazing English, and is just astoundingly competent at what he does, gets $300/month, which, in Beijing, is NOT usual for someone with his talents. While not up to developed-world standards, this is a dude who should be pulling down $1000-$1500/month. Why? His wife wants a new car, a new Prada bag, a new Pomeranian and only the best food and training for it, a bigger house...and she buys it on credit cards. He is so leveraged that he's terrified to leave, and he doesn't see a problem with this! Working at an English school, I have met students who cry because they get a 90% grade on a test, and I have met students who sob because their parents drive them so hard to go overseas. I have known people who killed themselves over losing a job or a place in school. Every day, I meet people who are destroying themselves with their own guilt and fear at not measuring up. Not having an unpleasant time of things, destroying themselves.

This is not to malign China at all. It's just that poverty and disparity and having no help and only pressure to succeed at all costs does that to people, and if that's all you've ever known, if that's all you can think about, if that's what every piece of information you take in reinforces, you will tear yourself to shreds.

And when I say that, I don't mean that you should just "get over it" and be grateful for what you have. I'm saying that one of your issues might be a lack of perspective. The world is full of people who have it worse than you, sure, and you can't save them all even though it's worth trying, sure. But the fact that you are NOT them is in no small part due to your own effort, learning, and overall good-enough-ness. That is how I get through my day. That is how I forgive myself for forgetting to return a phone call. I may suck for it, but I haven't scuttled my career, I haven't alienated my wife, I haven't dug a whole of debt for myself, nor have I in any way allowed circumstances to do that to me. I've read a lot of books, I've learned the language, I've fostered contacts and friendships with wonderful, creative, sympathetic, intelligent people, and I'm creating good in the world every day I wake up and go to work. No matter what I fuck up on a daily basis, I manage to not fuck these up, and my gratitude to myself for these things is a big part of why I don't crumble under the weight of what I do fuck up, and what I can't change.

Keep the bigger picture in mind, because you're a part of it. That won't take away the guilt, but it will give you something to compare it to.
posted by saysthis at 2:36 AM on October 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

One thing that's helped me has been extending my life, and my friendships, into realms where I simply don't know what the standards of perfection are. Being out of my comfort zone allows me to just relax and be myself, without feeling guilty about my many imperfections. I joined a social sports team, for example, and although I know my abilities put me squarely in the bottom half of the squad, my brain just doesn't latch onto that fact in the same way it might in my personal or professional life.

It's the same with friendships and acquaintances. If your friends are mostly from work or university, and everyone else you know is family, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of feeling as though everyone you meet is just like you, but 'better' at it. More professional, more respectable, better at replying to emails, less likely to make social gaffes. They're not actually perfect, of course - they make their own mistakes when you're not looking - but together they form a sort of vague 'everybody else', which your brain draws on to form familiar, self-defeating thought processes like, 'Everybody Else is Doing Everything Right, Why Not Me?'

Solution: Expand the 'everybody else'. As saythis mentions, there world is home to an immense number of people, all with wildly different levels of ability, good fortune, and general life-togetherness. You, your colleagues, your friends and your Calvinist family probably have such similar values and life experiences that together, you represent only a tiny segment of that continuum. And it's not as though there's just one continuum - there are as many ways to judge 'perfection' as there are people on the planet.

So, spend time with people whose perfection you simply don't know how to judge. I don't really know what it takes to be 'perfect', or even 'good enough', as an astronomer, or a schizophrenic guy who sells magazines on the street, or a stay-at-home mum. I have no idea, and they have no idea whether I'm any good at what I do, and so we have no choice but to to treat each other gently and learn what we can. Spend enough time with people whose lives you're not qualified to make judgements about, and eventually you'll learn that the standards you're holding yourself to are highly personal, entirely arbitrary, and that you could being as gentle with yourself as you are with them.
posted by embrangled at 3:53 AM on October 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like what you're actually feeling is fear, of disappointing other people or making them upset. (Or fear of having done so).

If I were you I would just try to remember that they probably don't care that much about little things, or that they'll forget them right away. Very few people are sitting there racking up lists of disappointments they in people. I would imagine that you're pretty happy with most of the people you know, and your feelings are reflected in them.

So relax :)
posted by delmoi at 4:31 AM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Try reading some Kafka sometime.

It might not help you, but then maybe it will. On the other hand it could make things worse.
posted by SebastianKnight at 4:42 AM on October 13, 2009

You place this in a Calvinist context; I wonder whether your religion, if you're still religious, has any resources you could draw on (a catholic might be able to go to confession).
posted by Phanx at 5:37 AM on October 13, 2009

Response by poster: Additional information: I'm not religious any more (having had a deep period of soul-searching). My parents and a few siblings, on the other hand, still very much are. I now live in a completely different country from them, but we are on good, though sometimes emotion-ridden, terms ('I'll never see my grandchildren!' - Mom).

I have a lot of contact with other cultures and perspectives, which can bring on the fear of making other people upset (good point, delmoi), but I do really enjoy interacting with a more international set of people.

I wouldn't consider myself terribly judgmental, and I would never say the things I say to myself to other people.

Answers so far have been very helpful! Many thanks!
posted by brambory at 6:25 AM on October 13, 2009

I used to have similar feelings that did not manifest as physical illness, but that caused me to work to the point of exhaustion. I finally figured out that I thought I was totally unlovable unless I was perfect and that everything I did was perfect. I chose men who reinforced that view. I have no out of the box solution. My DH who tells me I'm beautiful even when I'm covered head to toe in muck from the garden, and becoming chronically ill making it impossible to be perfect, have proven to me that I'm not unlovable. Mind you, it's not always comfortable to be vastly imperfect and loved. It's taken years and I'm still adjusting, but I'm mostly not guilty any more.
posted by x46 at 8:22 AM on October 13, 2009

Best answer: x46 has a very good point. Guilt linked to perfectionism seems to be commonly linked to feeling unlovable, unacceptable, inadequate, less valuable as a person if one is so weak as to make mistakes or fail to do one's best at all times. The thing is, we all make mistakes and no one is at the top of their game 100% of the time.

Talk with your new therapist about these feelings, definitely. You can start right away with some positive self talk, or at least negation of the negative self talk. Talk to yourself the way you'd talk to someone else you love. Would you beat up (verbally) your best friend over a typo? Remind yourself that "flawed" and "fabulous" are not mutually exclusive.
posted by notashroom at 9:44 AM on October 13, 2009

Nthing x46. I feel the same way, not worthy or worth anything unless all that I did was perfect. I also have a weird twist in that I worry that my bosses expect everything to be perfect, and the first mistake I make, however trivial, is grounds for firing for incompetence. Of course, that is a nasty downward spiral, as is any pursuit of perfection as an absolute.

And I think that's the key. Perfection cannot be an absolute when attempted by humans. Therefore, a human being can do their best on a given task, but that "best" is going to be different for everybody and even different for the same individual on different days and under different circumstances. You won't be as "on the ball" when you have a cold, for example.

So, bottom line? Pay attention to how energetic you feel today, and get to know your limits. Recognize that you can accomplish only so much per day. If it helps you, here's what I do. I make a list and work my way down it when I start to feel the perfectionism taking over. I did that last night so I could get to sleep, and I'm delighted to say I'm halfway through as of posting this! And, I have time to read Mefi and answer some questions. Go me!

Good Luck!
posted by LN at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2009

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