Guilt

Am I wrong in saying that it feels a bit like deception to tell your employer you’re sick when from the outside you look perfectly healthy? – Julia W.

I feel guilty because there are people suffering with ‘actual problems’. – Kate F.

Let’s take a moment to answer Julia’s question. NO. It’s not wrong in the sense that we have a right to our own feelings and so many people feel this way (including myself), after all, guilt is a symptom of mental illness. YES. It’s wrong because we do not have to feel this way. We did not bring our mental illness upon ourselves. We cannot rid our mental illness. We cannot control how others perceive it and react. We can cope to help manage it but there is no on/off switch that we can press to magically control every situation we’re in and episode we experience. Self-care is not selfish, it’s essential. There have been days when I cannot move from my bed, have swollen eyes from endless crying the night before, painful headaches because my brain replays negative thoughts and worry over and over, racing heart and sweaty body just thinking of being in public – yet I go to work. I am absolutely not productive. I am swallowed in my own thoughts and cannot contribute to anyone or anything else until my brain is clear. But I go anyway. Why? Because I am worried of not being taken seriously. I’m worried that they will not believe me. I’m worried about being mocked. I’m worried that if the next day I come in and am feeling okay after taking care of myself that they wouldn’t believe how seriously I suffered the day before. If I come into the office, at least on the outside I will appear as a good worker and my image will not be tainted. It’s self-sacrificing. It’s me willing to put my health on the backburner and fake it with the thought that it will benefit other people and not harm the way they see me. I look up to individuals that take sick days regardless of these concerns because they are putting their health first as it should always be. Now we can touch on Kate’s statement. We belittle our conditions because we understand that our problems aren’t viewed as intensely as they feel. There is nothing tangible, like crutches for a leg injury, that I can have to in a way validate my problems and make me feel secure in taking appropriate action, for instance, taking sick days to take care of myself.

I feel guilty because I feel like I’m damaged goods. I feel guilty that I push people away. I feel guilty that I know it stresses my family because they do not understand. – Kate F.

For myself, the bulk of my guilt is the guilt I feel towards loved ones. My mental illness has at some point impacted and even hurt loved ones in my life and that stays on my conscious. I think to myself every single day how unfair it is to allow myself to be a part of the lives of my loved ones. For people that I push away yet they remain by my side, I feel undeserving and guilt. For people that I push away that leave my life, I feel like I wasted their time and guilt. For romantic partners that I make reassure and validate their affection and feelings towards me, I feel insecure and guilt. For people that I’ve leaned on that have never knowingly interacted with someone that has a mental illness, I feel embarrassed and guilt. For the time I take away from family and friends to focus on my mental health, I feel selfish and guilt. For the fear, the worry, the confusion, the stress that develops when caring for a loved one that has mental illness, I feel unworthy and guilt.

There is a thick layer of guilt over feeling this way when I know people love me and are counting on me to get better. – Vicki L.

But what about the guilt that others feel towards us? Guilt develops on both sides. Guilt of imposing when pushed away. Guilt of feeling responsible and the reasoning for the individual’s illness and struggles. Guilt of wanting to take away the pain and to help but not knowing how to. Guilt of not understanding. Guilt of walking away. Guilt of feeling disappointed over the cancelled plans and neglected over the unanswered texts and calls. Guilt of having a healthy mind. Guilt of feeling angry or hurt, even confused, unable to pick apart what is the mental illness versus the person you love.

I understand that it’s easier said than done, believe me. As I write this I’m thinking please do as I say and not as I do. The guilt eats at our sanity and our happiness. It is a waste of our energy, yet something that we can’t seem to shake. I have a challenge for us to try. For one week, play my version of good cop that I call, good friend. When you feel guilt, write down all of your feelings and from there, create a dialogue. Talk to yourself how you would a dear friend, how deeply inside you know you deserve to be treated. Give yourself the compassion and love that you don’t ordinarily. I’ve tried this during a therapy session and it was incredibly difficult, but we used a big sister/little sister metaphor instead. The little sister is your most intimate self, the part of you that is innocent and hurting, lost and confused, the part of you that is vulnerable and needs nurture. The big sister is your “good friend”, the part of you that holds all your knowledge, your empathy and concern for others, your sense of reason and compassion. I changed the metaphor because for me at least, it was difficult connecting with “big sister.” I understand it’s just a metaphor, but I need one that relates to me personally and one that I can see a clear separation. I may not be a big sister to anyone, but I am a good friend and that is a mindset that I can easily detach from my vulnerable self, a mindset that allowed me to write genuine dialogue. Writing down the situation, having a written conversation between yourself and yourself (“good friend”) feels uncomfortable, but when you respond to yourself the way that you would respond to your friend, take a moment to take in how light that feels. The weight that lifts from your shoulders when you silence the voice of your mental illness… and then the crushing impact when the weight immediately falls back onto them. That’s okay! Self-love takes practice and is not all-or-nothing. I think loving ourselves as much as we love others should be the minimum. Our mental illness is our worst enemy, but we have amazing potential to be our very best friend.

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