After years of berating herself for everything and anything, Lucy Mangan is finally giving guilt a rest.
I started listening to The Guilty Feminist podcast – in which presenter Deborah Frances-White and guests wrestle with the difficulties of living your feminist truth while, as she once put it, “also wanting to look good while sitting down naked” – as a safety valve.
Here was one place where, for one hour, about one aspect of my life, I could hear that I was failing in the same ways and no worse than other people.
It made me think more about my feminism, which was good, but much, much better was the way it gradually made me think about how many other areas of my life were being crippled by the grinding, useless but seemingly inescapable burden of guilt.
Actually, burden summons up the wrong image – of something external, pressing down from outside. For me, and for most of the friends I have consulted at length about the phenomenon, it is more of a roiling, twisting internal mass. It can infiltrate and shape itself round whatever situation, problem or simple question presents itself.
Or perhaps it’s fuel. Yes. Or an engine. Or both. It’s what I have run on all my life. Guilt about things left undone (no matter whether this was because of genuine sloth or because there were not enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks I had set for myself), guilt at the sight of my too ample flesh (followed by guilt about not being happy with my perfectly adequate, able body), guilt about having more money than some people, guilt about having less than others (I should have worked harder at school! Been more strategic in my career choices! Just… not been the person I am!) and on and on.
I’ve had endless conversations about it with my girlfriends. Just this morning I got an email from one, saying, “Woke up feeling SO guilty today”, which in a sane and rational world would be reason to worry. But instead of instantly writing back, “God! What have you done?” I wrote, “Anything in particular, or just life?”
“Just life,” came the reply. I have never had such an exchange with a male friend. Short, I imagine, of being an accessory to murder, guilt does not seem to affect them. “Christ!” said my sister once, “imagine if men felt guilty for all the things they had done, let alone the things they hadn’t!” A good point well made.
This question, the podcast, plus – I suspect – the wisdom accruing, despite my best efforts, as I wend my way through this wackadoo world, has made me realise the prevalence and pointlessness of the guilt we carry, which is both disproportionate to that which men experience and to whatever ‘bad’ things we may have done.
So I have started to lay down my burden. At first it was for minutes at a time. Now I can sometimes go hours without berating myself for not beating the clock, for having a bum like a pie, for not having expelled decades of internalised negative messages about pie-bums, and for not earning whatever mythical amount it is I deserve in relation to where I stand in the mythical ranking of people that some primeval part of my brain apparently believes in.
Nowadays I try to ask myself only if I did something morally crappy and need to make amends. If not, I move on with my day. I used to wonder what would get me through the day without guilt driving me onwards. If you do, too let me tell you – it’s all the energy you used to burn your innards to ashes every day, now available for constructive use. Go build yourself a new and better way to be.