By Esther Mann, LCSW
My brother and I grew up in a home where excellence was always expected of us. My mother used to always say, “All I ask is that you do your very best.” If we brought home a mark of 98 on a hard test, my mother would ask me whether I had done my best. I’d think, “Did I really do my best? I could have studied 40 hours for a test instead of 38 hours. Maybe that would have allowed me to get a 100 on the test.” I used to wonder how anyone could be certain if they did their best. No matter how hard we tried, I suppose there was always the possibility that we could try harder. But I was always left wondering how I would know for sure whether or not I did my best. It felt like a question that could never be answered.
This attitude applied to everything in our lives. Were we polite enough? Were our rooms neat enough? Was our tone obedient enough? Sometimes I thought I was on the mark, and yet still received criticism because something in my behavior was lacking. I never was able to feel secure about myself, always self-doubting and feeling “less than.” The feeling was that if I were just better, my parents would be truly proud of me. But my brother and I never felt totally OK about who and what we were.
Sometimes relatives would tell me that my parents spoke about me in glowing ways. Since I never heard these compliments directly from my parents, I was left feeling guilty, because I thought that I really didn’t deserve for my relatives to believe I was good—deep down, anyway. It felt false to my ears.
As a result, my brother and I have grown up with enormous guilt. We never feel like we are good enough, and therefore we feel guilty about our behavior and choices, to the point where there is no relaxing because we are both always second-guessing everything we do and worried that we could have and should have done things better. There is no escaping the feelings of guilt that swirl around just about everything we do.
If I’m being objective, I will tell you that my brother and I are solid individuals. We are successful in our careers, we both are married with families, and we continue to be, in my opinion, wonderful children to our parents. But from an emotional standpoint, we often feel as though we are a mess. My mind is always working overtime, obsessing over what I said or did and looking for—and usually finding—the flaw in my choices, my words, my behavior.
I find it to be a hard way to live. The constant judging and, more important, guilt, is very distracting. It keeps me up at night and dominates my thoughts. And I’m sure it holds me back from an even more successful life.
I wonder if there is some kind of trick to use to rid myself of all this guilt. It’s becoming too much for me to bear because as my family has increased in number, I have that many more people to feel guilty towards. It’s crazy making!
If I could wake up one day and not feel any guilt about anything, I think I would be the happiest person alive.
Sounds like you had a pretty rough time growing up and still suffer because of the bar being raised so high for you and your brother that there was never any possibility of winning. Winning—as in knowing in your heart that your job was well done. That it was good enough and, as a result, you were good enough.
Some parents believe that praise needs to be earned and if it’s applied too generously to accomplishments that are no big deal, their children will never have the opportunity to develop fine character. When this approach is used to an extreme, as in your case, it translates into bringing home a 98 on a challenging test and receiving only what sounds like criticism for not receiving the grade of 100. Sadly, the hard work that went into earning the 98 grade goes unnoticed and does not get recognition.
On the flip side, some parents believe that every little positive action done by their child deserves enormous praise, in order to create healthy self-esteem within the child. A stick drawing done by a four-year-old can earn the child the abundance of praise that would be deserving of a Picasso painting.
Both of these approaches are extreme and can be damaging. Hard work should be recognized, even if it isn’t a home run. Mediocre work can be acknowledged in a positive way, but shouldn’t be interpreted as if it were perfection. Overkill in either direction is not helpful.
Clearly, your parents’ approach was the former. As a result, you and your brother are living proof that the overboard nature of their expectations left you both feeling guilty over just about everything—for no good reason and to no good advantage.
Let’s talk about guilt for a minute. There is good guilt and bad guilt; useful guilt and hurtful guilt. But everyone should on occasion be in touch with it and deal with it in a manner that is helpful toward living their best lives. Generally, the only people who are not in touch with guilt are psychopaths, sociopaths, and sometimes narcissists. Because of their cold-heartedness, their lack of empathy or remorse, their egocentric behavior, guilt is simply not on their radar. They can act in criminal ways and still feel nothing.
You mentioned that if you could remove all guilt from your life, you would be the happiest person alive. Sorry, but I don’t believe that should be your goal. Guilt can be good, if and when it relates to areas of our lives that reflect behavior that is hurtful to others or even ourselves. There is a type of guilt that propels us to think and act in ways that are healthier and kinder.
Though your parents’ intentions were no doubt to inspire you and your brother to ultimately be your best selves, it appears their strategy backfired in some fundamental ways. They gave you and your brother a clear message that you were to be perfect. The problem with their message is that we humans are not meant to be perfect. No one is. Looking back on our history, no one ever was. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t fabulous, lovable, and perfect within our imperfections. Though we are not meant to be perfect, we are meant to live lives that are well purposed. Lives that are loving and forgiving toward ourselves and others so that ultimately we can discover an inner peace that reflects a life well lived. That would be my wish for you.
As an adult, you alone have the ability to lower the bar a bit. Practice the art of feeling satisfied with yourself because you know in your heart that your intentions were the best, despite not necessarily receiving an outcome that is perfection. This requires a change in the way you think and feel. It takes a great deal of practice to create this type of shift within your psyche. But, like working toward breaking any other bad habit, with time and focused work, change is most definitely possible.
As you grow into the person you are meant to be, a person who is able to feel really good about yourself, be careful to not necessarily run away from those occasional moments when you are feeling that guilty itch come upon you. Sometimes that itch is there to tell you that you need to examine something you have said or done that may require an adjustment. And that’s fine. Paying attention to these itches enable us all to continuously grow. The important thing is to take it at face value, work on it, and move on. Your action may be the problem, but you are not the problem. Therein lies healthy thinking.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.