The Guilt Diet: How and Why I Fell Off the Wagon

Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 6, 2014 in Mothers and Daughters, Relationships |

Originally published July 24, 2012

I know a lot about guilt, at least when you consider I’m not Catholic. In fact, I was raised Lutheran, and the great thing about being Lutheran, idealistically speaking anyway, is that not only do you not need intercessory prayer to wipe away your sins, your sins aren’t really anybody’s business anyway. At least that’s what Martin Luther said. All that muck is just between you and God.

Or between you and your mother.

If the Judeo-Christian Diaspora had need for a patron saint of guilt, my mother would be it. No improper action is unworthy of her note. Just the other day, in fact, as I sat across the kitchen table from her, to give her 20 minutes of painful and dutiful conversation, she remarked on my use of a four-letter word in referring to a less than ethical colleague. “Do you talk like that in front of Heidi? I just cannot believe the language you use.”

I am 37 years old, and I suddenly decided it was time to grab my four-year-old and hit the road before my mother began remarking on the unusual color of my toenails or advised me it was really not appropriate, given my age (nevermind I have great legs), for me to wear skirts with hems above the knee.

My mother comes by her guilt-inducing tendencies honestly enough. The great-granddaughter of Norwegian immigrants who managed to prosper through dedicated and pretty much non-stop labor in the rich soil of the American Midwest, she was raised on a solid diet of hard work, steel nerves, and eternal faith that anything that could go wrong would go wrong. Leisure time is the next best thing to a sin in this world view, and love is reserved for children who are under the age of back talking. Spouses, adult relatives, pets, and neighbors can fend for themselves unless, of course, they have reached drooling stage at which point you tend to them with a rough and exasperated sense of duty.

When you come of age under this kind of rearing, guilt becomes an everyday thing, hardly noted oftentimes.  You think being reminded for the 923rd time that it is all your fault your parents had to sell a quarter of the farm to send you to college is normal. And you really don’t think about the fact that the reason you haven’t told your mother you’re going on a European vacation is because you don’t want to feel bad for enjoying yourself and (God forbid) spending hard-earned money on something frivolous like seeing the palaces of the Russian czars or taking a gondola ride on the Grand Canal.

There is nothing healthy about consuming a steady diet of guilt, however. Guilt represses and controls, which is, of course, what it is designed to do, but most of us who have been raised on a guilt diet, whether it’s one of moderate or gargantuan proportions, end up leading lives where duty (however it is defined by the ones holding the guilt strings) holds sway over everything else…including happiness.

And if you think happiness is for the afterlife and not for the here and now, well, you might as well stop reading. I have no argument for the doggedly, miserably faithful. Ecclesiastes noted that “all is vanity,” and “all go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” In other words, we’re all headed for the same destination whether we live lives burdened by guilt or not, so why waste time feeling bad for being who we are and for enjoying the life we have been given?

It is a question I have often asked my mother. She has never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. Perhaps that’s because the answer is ultimately that she, like so many people, from priests to politicians, has found guilt to be a handy way of getting what she wants from other people. If you can make someone feel bad enough for pursuing his dreams, perhaps he won’t pursue them and leave you behind. If you can force someone to be devoted to you by reminding her all the time of all you have done for her, perhaps she won’t abandon you, no matter how horribly you treat her. It is the same thing churches and governments have used for millennia—do the “right” thing, and no harm will come to you; no one will judge you; and life will never be hard. You certainly won’t have to make tough choices.

And, in the end, isn’t that why most of us raised on guilt diets stick to them? Much though we may resent the steady ingestion of our unworthiness, it’s far preferable perhaps to having to put ourselves out on a limb and risk censure or ridicule (or maybe disinheritance) by doing our own thing.

I think perhaps it was watching my father that finally made me ditch the guilt regimen. Raised by a rigidly religious mother and a father who was eternally disappointed in him, my dad ingested guilt almost from the cradle. The result was that he was and still is always trying to please with some ragged hope that maybe one day he’ll be good enough. His parents are long since gone from this earth, but my mother has done a fairly good job of assuming their place and discouraging my dad from following his heart if it in any way leads him away from her…even if only for a day.

Guilt like this is everywhere, and sometimes it’s not other people who impose it on us.  Sometimes we impose it on ourselves.  How many women friends do I have who are reluctant to go out for the day with friends or to take a vacation without their kids?  Somehow they have ingested the idea that they are poor wives and mothers if they give any attention to themselves. So they doggedly devote themselves to their duties—taking care of their careers, their spouses, their children—to the exclusion of caring for themselves.  The result is a life of groundhog days.

Not too many weeks ago I was standing in the prettily landscaped backyard of a well-to-do friend who, like so many of us, on the surface has it all.  I could not help but remark, as I watched our children playing together and her husband grilling on the deck, “You have a good life.”

She literally guffawed, “Yeah, right.”

I knew what it meant, and I kind of chuckled, now admiring the new deck furniture she had purchased, pretty green cushions and a jauntily tilted patio umbrella.  “Well, at least you have great deck furniture,” I said.

We both fell into stitches of laughter. Because it was all too true. When we let duty rule our lives too much, we end up clinging to absurdities for our happiness. Maybe we resent our spouses or hate our jobs, but at least we have a really nice car. Or maybe we’re angry we have to work horrible hours, but at least we have a really beautiful house to sleep in. We cover our guilt with salves of pretense.

I’m not sure when exactly I gave up the ghost and decided to start eating life raw and real. Perhaps it was somewhere between my mother remarking, “well, it must be nice to be rich” and me replying, guilt-free, “yeah, it is,” and walking out at Christmas one year when she told me to “get out,” fully expecting I would never be so lacking in guilt as to actually do it. The funny thing about resisting the guilt diet is that the more you call the bluff of the guilt reapers, the more they back off…or at least keep their guilt-inducing opinions to themselves.

Plus, you’ll find out who really loves you. Trust me, it’s not the person who tries to make you feel bad for following your heart or doing your own thing. It’s the person who makes you feel good for being who you are.

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