Confessions of the guilty women
Words by Emily Thompson
To me, guilt feels like a hollow pit in the base of my stomach where a very small flame, like the one that appears when you first light a matchstick, flickers inside of me.
Guilt - such a prominent emotion in my daily life that is almost impossible to describe. I participated in a twelve-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course last year to help me deal with some of the anxiety I was facing, particularly in my career. One of the most important elements that I learned was the concept of describing the physical sensations of our emotions, how they arise in our bodies. To me, guilt feels like a hollow pit in the base of my stomach where a very small flame, like the one that appears when you first light a matchstick, flickers inside of me. It’s rare that we really stop and consider how emotions physically feel within us. I am writing this from the mountains in Western Canada where my partner and I are currently living out of a thirteen-foot trailer as we make our way across the country. We started over 4000 kilometres ago from our hometown near Toronto, Ontario and have been on the road for over two weeks. It has been this year where my life has gone from complete madness to absolute stillness. All of it has been ridden with guilt. I left my fast-paced career at the end of 2018 to pursue a volunteer opportunity in Cambodia where I taught yoga and supported a group of incredible Khmer women at a social enterprise. I felt a strong sense of guilt leaving a job that supported me for two years and allowed for immense growth. I felt guilty leaving my family and friends to travel for three months, leaving my partner (physically but not literally) for two of those months to live in a place very far away from home, far from the familiar. Upon my travels in Cambodia, a country that only recently experienced a massive genocide and is still living under challenging conditions, I felt guilty for my privilege and where I stand in this world as a white middle-class woman.
The way in which we carry guilt is strongly influenced by the people that surround us, our religious beliefs, political affiliations, and our education.
It was in strong communities of women in Cambodia, the Philippines, back home in Canada and in England, where I was born, that I observed guilt on so many different levels (note here that I said "strong" as guilt does not make us weak but it most definitely exists among us.) During a conversation in Toronto with one of my closest friends and confidantes in life, we discussed our experience in daily life with guilt. We are both incredibly accommodating human beings with loving partners, yet we still feel guilty for not being enough. I’ve seen this interwoven as a theme among the generations of women in my life. We are not enough for our families, for our lovers, our friends. We apologize for things before they even happen. We feel guilty for working too hard but even more guilty for not working hard enough. We feel guilty for what we said last year, last week and even this morning. Many of us feel guilt for what we ate a few hours ago. Why does it seem that as women we have this guilty pit in our stomachs so often? Why do some of us still feel that we are not enough? Societal pressures come into play here without a doubt. We see articles splattered across the media about how women can make men happy, how to be a supermom and climb the ladder of your career at the same time, or even how the latest fad diet could truly change your life. We even discuss our "guilty pleasures" as if they are something to be ashamed of. The way in which we carry guilt is strongly influenced by the people that surround us, our religious beliefs, political affiliations, and our education. And from my observations, no matter our language, culture, upbringing or experiences, women across the world share this mutual feeling of undying guilt. I used to attend a mindfulness meditation group on Monday evenings when I lived in Toronto. This was my moment to retreat from the busyness of life and the constant bustle of city-living. There was a week that still stands out in my mind when we spoke about the emotion: anger. We discussed all things anger and meditated on it. Why is it an emotion, especially as women, that we must supress? What would happen if we felt it for all it was? And what if it taught us something? Well, this is what I’m trying to do with guilt. I’m trying to let it teach me something. Guilt is becoming a friend of mine and at a good time too. I’ve left my family and friends once again to embark on an adventure across the country. Rather than throwing guilt out the window, I’m inviting it in to teach me everything that it can. Perhaps you too can sit with guilt and discover what you’ll learn. Let me know what you find out. I will leave you with this quote from Brene Brown that inspired me (discovered after writing this): "I’m just going to say it: I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behaviour. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done – or failed to do – with our personal values. The discomfort that results often motivates real change, amends and self-reflection. … If you made a mistake that really hurt someone’s feelings, would you be willing to say, ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake’? If you’re experiencing guilt, the answer is yes: ‘I made a mistake’. Shame, on the other hand, is I’m sorry I am a mistake.’ Shame doesn’t just sound different than guilt; it feels different. Once we understand this distinction, guilt can even make us feel more positively about ourselves, because it points to the gap between what we did and who we are – and, thankfully, we can change what we do." – Brene Brown on Oprah, June 2012
Emily is a movement educator based in Canada teaching yoga and functional movement to different communities. She also has led several large-scale events and is a marketing and communications specialist. Emily has had the opportunity to visit many different corners of the world as she loves to travel and immerse herself in diverse cultures. She thrives off human connection and hopes to continue to share more of her thoughts through writing for supportive communities of women.
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