Whether we realise it or not, every day we exchange our skills and energy for the opportunity to live in a structured society where, generally, we are safe, able to earn a living and pursue our dreams and aspirations.
We do this by being good citizens, living within the boundaries of our laws and customs, supporting others and being part of the community. This arrangement works well for everyone except when the ‘system’ places unrealistic expectations unfairly on one group of people.
This can happen particularly to women, who, surveys continue to show, still carry a disproportionate share of household and work responsibilities, resulting in negative effects on women’s emotional well being.
The way that many women experience their contribution to this expectation is through guilt when the expectations are too high. This can result in a sense that they are not in control, and this adds to the growing demand for counselling services. So what do women feel guilty about? Well, pretty much everything – neglecting their relationship with their partner, leaving their children in child care, not being able to have children, not spending enough time with their children, or parents or extended family, not doing volunteer work, squeezing their friends out of a crowded schedule, not being dedicated to a charitable cause, placing elderly parents in aged care – the list is endless.
As illogical as it is, most women actually know that they are accepting this guilt burden, even if it is unfair.
However, without some tools to help them manage it, the load continues to build until they are forced to either give up something or be over-come by self-doubt. Unfortunately, the things they give up are usually things they find personal pleasure in, like relaxing at home, taking an art class or visiting friends. They feel selfish, the guilt emotion kicks in and they see no choice but to abandon their own pleasures or feel like failures.
When the guilt is accompanied by resentment, a once happy, confident and capable person can become depressed, angry, overly emotional and unable to make the conscious, rational decisions essential for effective functioning in life.
Family life suffers, relationships can break down, work performance decreases and the people most affected are those for whom the woman has initially accepted the guilt. A sign that someone with a guilt burden has not recognised their situation is through constantly giving in to unreasonable requests for their time and energy. Professional assistance to come to this recognition, and learn how to manage it is available by consulting a psychologist. The number of sessions required will vary depending on the extent of the issue, and the willingness of the client to manage their situation.
While there is no doubt that society places unfair expectations on women, once women recognise this and are provided skills and insights, positive changes can occur.
This might initially be followed by people around them who are used to them taking on board everything feel angry and let down as some changes happened. However many women find that these people start to value their time more and eventually show them more respect. It’s good to know that there are ways to navigate through the mountain of guilt.
Delaney is a senior registered psychologist working with people of all backgrounds and with a special interest in LGBTI+ people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and Indigenous people.