How Much Guilt Is Too Much?

08/10/2010 06:58 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"I just feel like I'm not doing a good enough job at anything," John (not his real name) told me when he came in for a consultation. "I have a really demanding job. I work very hard but I never feel I'm productive enough at the office. I don't spend enough time with my wife and kids. I hardly ever talk to my parents or my sisters. My friends all volunteer for community organizations but I don't. So I feel guilty all the time."

Other people might behave exactly like John, but not feel guilty. They may be quite satisfied with the status quo. So why does it bother John?

John holds certain values quite dear and believes he is violating those values when he doesn't quite live up to them. He is plagued with the shoulds: I SHOULD work harder; I SHOULD be a better husband/father/son/sister/community member. Every time John perceives that he is failing to live up to his exacting standards, he criticizes himself. He always feels he is lacking in one important area or another. John doesn't have a psychiatric disorder. He isn't suffering deeply. On the other hand, though, he doesn't have peace of mind.

Some degree of guilt is natural and can be useful. If I don't call friends or deliver a manuscript in time, an unpleasant feeling of guilt can spur me into more adaptive behavior. And sometimes a degree of guilt needs to be tolerated. I have to accept the fact that I don't have the time to help everyone who comes knocking on my door. But a continual nagging sense of guilt borne out of unrealistic expectations for oneself isn't helpful and can interfere with one's enjoyment of life.

So how did John overcome his guilty feelings? Changing jobs to have more time for other activities and important relationships just wasn't feasible at the time. And it did appear that John felt much more guilty than many others in similar circumstances. So we focused on the expectations he held for himself.

I introduced the idea of "range of reasonable" to John. Instead of focusing on unrealistic ideals of behavior, I helped John develop more flexible standards. On the basis of our discussion, for example, John concluded that it was within the range of reasonable to be 80-90 percent productive on most workdays--but that a level of 100 percent productivity was impossible. When we examined his interactions with his wife and kids, he decided that it was within the range of reasonable to continue to stay for part of his son's soccer matches, even if he didn't have time to stay for entire games. He also recognized that while he might prefer to give his daughter his undivided attention for an hour each day, it was reasonable to continue to have at least some one-on-one time with his daughter on most days.

John also made a commitment to talk to his wife each evening about her day--and to really listen. He deemed his infrequent contact with his parents and sisters out of the range of reasonable, so he made plans to call his parents once a week and his sisters at least once a month. And while engaging in community activities was still a strong value for him, he determined it was too difficult for him to make an ongoing commitment, but he would ask his friends to let him know if he might be needed for specific tasks at various times.

Examining his activities and interactions and applying a more flexible standard led to productive problem-solving. I also helped John change his "self-talk." When he caught himself saying, "I should ...," he was able to ask himself, "Well, is what I'm doing now in the range of reasonable?" If so, he reminded himself he was only human and while it might be desirable to do more, he was already doing enough. If it wasn't in the range of reasonable, he would make a change. If he wasn't sure, he would ask his wife, who seemed to have a good handle on what was reasonable and what wasn't. John didn't need a whole course of cognitive behavioral treatment. He just needed a couple of sessions to get him on the right track.