Sometimes I Just Have to Live With the (False) Guilt

Years ago, after the birth of one of my babies, I went to see a postpartum specialist. All the emotions and exhaustion of motherhood felt manageable – until they didn’t.

I only saw this therapist a handful of times and, have to admit, we didn’t click. She was lovely, but I left each appointment feeling…about the same as when I went in. But she introduced to me a concept that I still think of regularly: The Passengers on My Bus.

Fairly quickly (within minutes of my first session) we identified the fact that Guilt is a primary emotion for me. I feel Guilt about eating the last piece of cake, Guilt over forgetting to call my sister on her birthday, Guilt over saying no when my children ask for one more snuggle, Guilt over career choices, Guilt over staying up late to finish a good book.

Guilt, Guilt, Guilt.

The therapist suggested I start visualizing my life as playing out on a public bus. (Stay with me here, it starts to make sense – I promise. I hope?).

I get to sit in the driver’s seat, map in hand. There are Detours scattered around the city but, for the most part, I get to pick the stops along the way to my destination. I set the speed and choose the route. I can even design the aesthetics of the bus. Sounds good so far, right?

But here’s the rub. I don’t get much say over who comes aboard as a passenger.

She told me to picture Guilt as another regular passenger, coming along for the ride. Guilt will come and go. So, for the most part, I have to make peace with Guilt and live with its presence.

A few weeks ago the kids were beside themselves over something I said they could or couldn’t do. (I can’t remember specifics but it likely involved treats or screens or the status of their weekend sleepover or heading out to look for a neighbourhood playmate 5 minutes before bedtime.)

I immediately felt guilt over my response even though I knew it was the right response in this situation. So I stopped and told myself: “Elisabeth, you’re just going to have to live with this guilt.

I can spend all sorts of time and mental energy trying to banish Guilt, but most of the time that approach is futile. And I don’t want to remove Guilt from my life entirely; sometimes Guilt will tell me something useful, direct me around a pothole in my blind spot.

What I really want to work on is minimizing the space I provide to False Guilt. I want to feel confident in the decisions I make; when I prioritize my own well-being over saying “yes” to someone else, I don’t have to feel Guilt. As a mother, I almost always need to put my own life jacket on first (which, in turn, usually allows me to be more present and engaged with my kids in the long run).

Hopefully, over time, Guilt will learn to take a different route through the city and avoid my bus. But I know that there will be (many) times I pull up to a bus stop and find Guilt waiting for me at the bottom of the steps. Sometimes I’ll panic. Sometimes I’ll try to wrestle Guilt off the bus. Sometimes I might temporarily give Guilt the front seat, giving it a turn at the wheel. But I’m working at saying: “Oh. Hi, Guilt. How are you today? Please find a seat at the back.

With any luck, Guilt will skulk off without much fuss and I’ll get back to driving the bus.

Thoughts? Do you struggle with feelings of guilt even when you know the guilt is misplaced? What “passengers” do you wish would stop causing a commotion on your “bus”?

Header photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

16 thoughts on “Sometimes I Just Have to Live With the (False) Guilt”

  1. Well, I think “guilt” is built into parenting! I still feel guilty about things I did or said when the kids were little- sigh. But I like the idea of learning to live with it. Accepting it gives it less of a prominent role in your life.
    My most annoying “passenger” right now would probably be this persistent feeling that other people have things figured out, while I’m still somehow faking my way through life. WHY??? I’m 56 years old, for goodness sake- I know how to do things. But, since that passenger refuses to get off, I’ll just imagine putting it in the backseat.
    Great post as usual!

    1. Jenny, I always have that same thought! My husband and I were recently talking about building a home (we aren’t building and are not planning to, but we just randomly got on the topic as we walked past a lot that was for sale). I said something along the lines of, “Well, building a house just sounds so complicated. I wouldn’t even know how to go about doing that- from the right type of loan, to finding a builder, designing it all to stay within your budget…. and all the rest….I wouldn’t even know where to start.” Yet, I personally know MANY people who have built homes. In my mind, clearly THEY all were born with step-by-step knowledge of “how to build a home” or something. ha! I think in actuality, nobody knows what they are doing when they first start something…. but yet I always assume that everyone else has everything all figured out. They all just magically have this mysterious “knowledge” about life that I must have missed out on somehow. I need to join you in parking that thought in the backseat, because it comes up for me all the time, too. 🙂

      1. Just chiming in to say that we built a house and it was by far the worst year of my life. We got a beautiful house out of it but I would not do it again, and to be honest I still have negative feelings about the house because the experience was so hard. It was an incredible strain on our marriage, finances, and sanity. Maybe this helps.

        1. I just about had a panic attack this year after I spent 30 minutes talking to our contractors about gutters. Gutters?! Minor renovations give me the sweats and I absolutely cannot imagine building a whole house. There are just so many decisions.
          I’m glad you made it through, but can relate to still having “negative feelings about the house.” We bought a 1970’s house and a week after moving in had major issues to deal with; only now (almost 5 years later) do I not feel “scared” of the house. I literally felt so uncomfortable and betrayed (?) in a way. It didn’t really feel like home until quite recently. This is a tangent from the topic at hand – and I haven’t built a home – but can tangentially relate!

    2. “My most annoying “passenger” right now would probably be this persistent feeling that other people have things figured out, while I’m still somehow faking my way through life. WHY???” YES! Wow do I resonate with that. I’m 50 (had my kids “late” and feel guilt over that a lot) and feel like I should have things figured out as well!

      Parenting is my biggest guilt trap but other decisions as well. I agree that this is a great post.

      1. I had my kids young and feel like everyone else has parenting better figured out because they had their children when they were older – haha! Seriously. I do think about this; I would have been “wiser” with parenting if I had been older when I had children.

    3. Well, your comment that guilt is “built-in” does make me feel better.
      I actually have a friend who once told me she doesn’t feel guilty about her parenting. Apparently, her own parents weren’t great, and she just feels so confident that she’s doing the best she can for her own kids and that they have a better life than she did. My mind was BLOWN. She is also just one of the most laid-back, lovely people I’ve ever met…but still. To openly say you don’t feel guilt as a parent did not compute for me.

      Hmm. About the “everyone else has everything figured out” idea – I 100% relate. Imposter syndrome is real for me in so many areas.
      And yes, you definitely do know how to do things, Jenny!!!!

  2. I read this great article a while back (I should try and find it again) about how we’re all just faking it and it rang so true (esp. in regards to what Jenny and Kae were mentioning above).

    Guilt is definitely not just built into parenting (although I can see how being a parent can exacerbate that feeling). I feel guilty about a lot of things and I think it mostly comes down to the fact that I am a people pleaser and that I always want to make sure everybody else is “ok” before with a decision before I ask myself if I am or if it’s even right. Sitting with this “guilt” is not easy but I also try to remind myself that it’s an unnecessary or uncalled for feeling that I just have to ignore.

    Another “passenger” that I’d like to kick of the bus is the feeling of not “measuring up”… I often feel behind in “life milestones”. I don’t have house, I don’t have kids and I often feel other people are just “further along” in life. It’s not that I am unhappy, but it’s hard sometimes to compare your life to the lives of others and not play the comparison game.

    1. This: “It’s not that I am unhappy, but it’s hard sometimes to compare your life to the lives of others and not play the comparison game.” is SO true. Even if we’re happy at our current stage in life, it’s hard not to look around and see what other people have going on/have accomplished. I think it’s also normal to assume that the things they have aren’t major sources of challenges. For example: people that have a big home may also have a huge mortgage that is crippling them financially, someone with children might be struggling to juggle their parental responsibilities, someone with a big career might secretly hate the trajectory they’re on.
      I blogged once about how none of us really do it “all.” My tendency is to look at what other people do (e.g. run marathons, have kids involved in a lot of extracurriculars, have a major career) and assume they do all those things AND the things that I do (e.g. cook most meals from scratch, spend a lot of time adventuring with my family). I project the things that I do well onto their lives and assume they have reached this pinnacle of life perfection and satisfaction. Deep down I know this isn’t true – we all have insecurities and challenges – but it can be a hard sensation to shake off…

  3. Oh yes, guilt is something I definitely struggle with. I have a tendency to take on ownership of other’s emotions/experiences to an unhealthy extent. I also joke that I struggle with guilt because I was raised Catholic and Catholic guilt is joked about quite a bit! I think my people pleasing and conflict avoidant tendency are part of the reason that I feel guilty over things that I shouldn’t feel guilty about. Or I put too many expectations upon myself – unrealistic ones. I worked with a therapist during the fall of 2020 and we talked a lot about guilt/others expectations and she helped me separate out what I was doing from how others responded to it. It was helpful to focus on the decision itself and how it aligned with our values/beliefs and to set aside how others felt about it, which really comes down to establishing boundaries.

    I do feel that I’m getting better at dealing with guilt as I get older. Or maybe I am just so, well, overwhelmed by my life at times that I don’t have the capacity to focus on it? It also helps that my husband is very pragmatic about things and will push me to not feel guilty. Like this past weekend, my niece had her first communion and we did not go. I felt so guilty about not going because they came to Paul’s baptism. But it’s a 4-hour drive and Will SCREAMS on drives that are over an hour so it’s unpleasant for everyone. Plus we’ll be at her house the first weekend of June for my Godson’s graduation party. But I was feeling like we HAD to go to this first communion because my sister would be upset/disappointed. Phil was like – she probably really doesn’t care and he pointed out that her kids were much older when they came to Paul’s baptism in 2018. When I texted my sister to tell her we’d be at the grad party but wouldn’t be able to come to first communion, she basically said “sounds great” and I had to tell myself – “do not read into this and feel guilt over this decision. You have young children and car travel is very hard right now and you have the right to be particular about what you will say yes to.” But it’s hard to not go down the road of guilting myself!

    1. You raise such an important point – how often we feel guilt over something where the recipient of our perceived slight (e.g. you not making it to a first communion) doesn’t feel slighted.
      I’ve had lots of situations where I felt intensely guilty, only to find out that the thing I was feeling guilty about had been perceived in a positive/neutral light.

  4. Oooh I love this. My most hated passenger is What Will Others Think. It’s such a loud and aggressive passenger that it often drowns out all my own thoughts and affects my ability to drive. Fun times! I wonder if I could somehow train myself how to tune out this passenger?

    1. What Will Others Think – I suspect this is as common as Guilt in terms of the passenger list.

  5. This is such an excellent thought experiment! I should bring this up to my therapist during our next session because I love the visualization of these passengers that get on and off our bus throughout certain times in our lives. I don’t struggle with guilt as much as other people, but don’t you worry – I have plenty of other things I struggle with, like FOMO, living up to other people’s expectations, conflict avoidance, and worrying about every little thing from “how will I take care of my mom when she’s older?” to “did I leave my hair straightener on?” Thinking about all of these things as passengers that get on and off, rather than a searing indictment of who I am as a person, is super helpful.

    1. What a great, thoughtful comment, Stephany. Everything you list are passengers for me (some I see more frequently than others, of course).

      The hair straightener thing – this is SUCH a common worry for me if I’ve been using it right before I leave the house. Ditto with the stove. I get so paranoid if I’ve been cooking anything right before we leave (especially on the stove-top; the oven seems slightly less worrisome). I’ve been known to circle back home to double check. It’s not an OCD thing…I just legitimately can’t remember shutting it off. In normal routines I have fail-safes – my straightener goes back into the drawer, the heat-warning lights go off on my stove…but when I do those things right before I leave, it messes me up.

      I’ll be so curious if your therapist has any great insights to add. I’ll be all ears 🙂

  6. (I was out of town last week and I’m so sorry that I didn’t get to comment on this earlier! I know you told me to stop apologizing, but I can’t help it. :>)
    So, at first I read this and thought, yep, I’m right there with Elisabeth – I feel guilt over *everything*. But then I read it again, and saw Stephany’s comment that she has *other* passengers on her bus, but that guilt is not one of her big ones. And that got me thinking – sure, guilt is a passenger on my bus, but who are the other passengers? I’m still working through this, but right now it seems like it’s guilt, constant low-level worry about, well, everything, feeling inferior to my peers at work, and (likely related to the last one), the constant need to work more, work longer hours, and work harder than those peers. I think the last 2 could be bundled together somehow but haven’t landed on how best to do that. 🙂
    Thanks for (ANOTHER) thought provoking post. <3

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