Letting Go of Guilt To Be A Better Leader

Feeling guilty at work?

Do you feel guilt for asking your employees to stay late to work on projects? What about feeling guilty for asking upper management for more support? Or maybe you feel guilty for taking your vacation?

Guilt is an emotion that helps us stay within our values. It is a clear and sometimes painful signal that we have done something wrong. In it’s useful form, guilt can reinforce core values that make us descent humans. At it’s worst, guilt can be used to instill fear, promote low self worth and encourage an inner drive that tells us we are never going to be good enough.

That is what I refer to as irrational guilt. Irrational guilt is when we experience guilt outside of breaking a core value or belief or feel pressured and manipulated into feeling guilty for no good reason. Some of us may have been raised to believe that guilt (even when unwarranted) was a powerful motivator. As a child we may have been guilted into any doing number of things that your parents, religious organizations or others in places of authority told us to do simply as a tactic of control. This toxic understanding can be something we carry with us into adulthood and act out toward ourselves or others in the workplace. Some examples of irrational guilt interfering with our quality of life at work include:

  • Guilt for holding boundaries. You always have the right to say no. Oftentimes high pressure work environments foster a culture where employees are afraid to say no to bosses and managers are afraid to say no to employees. Both of these are super unhealthy. Knowing our limits at work makes us and everyone around us feel more secure.

  • Experiencing guilt because of other people’s emotions. Sometimes when we start to set healthy boundaries people get upset. This is understandable because people prefer things to stay the same. When we set a boundary and someone has an emotional reaction, we do not have to take responsibility for or feel guilty over their emotions. Outside of intentionally abusing someone, the only person’s emotions you are responsible for are your own.

  • Feeling perpetually guilty for a mistake. Maybe you really did do something that warrants feeling guilty. Ok. Fine. We are all human and we all make mistakes. Irrational guilt can also come in the form of torturing ourselves over one mistake.

  • Being manipulated into feeling guilty when the blame is actually on someone else. Oftentimes emotionally unhealthy individuals will try to manipulate and place blame on others in an effort to avoid responsibility. Be mindful of colleagues trying to pass feelings of guilt onto you.

The one most important thing to know about irrational guilt is that we need to set internal and external boundaries to protect ourselves against this type of toxic thinking. We can do this in 3 ways:

  • Set clear boundaries and practice them. Practice saying no. Practice telling others what you need. Practice standing up for yourself even if it feels uncomfortable.

  • Take note of your irrational thoughts. Jot down when you find yourself apologizing for no reason or feeling guilty for something that has nothing to do with you. Just noting it on paper can be tremendously helpful.

  • Talk to your therapist or trusted loved one about feelings of guilt. We all make mistakes. There will always be someone to help you put things in perspective.

Need help with managing guilt? Schedule a 15 minute session with one of our therapists today.