Choosing guilt over resentment

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Even though I am learning not to be a “nice” person, those old expectations that I will neglect my own needs in order to do for others run deep. And I am just as guilty of placing that expectation on myself as others are of placing it on me.

Those of us who have been trained to put others’ needs before our own are often faced with choices that feel like no-win situations. If we do what is expected of us and put others first when we don’t have enough to give, we often wind up resentful and angry, even when we hide or repress those feelings. But if we stand up for ourselves and refuse to give what we don’t have to give, we feel guilty.

How dare I refuse anything to someone who is lonely or in pain or in need? How self-centered I must be if I don’t give whatever is demanded of me! The guilt is excruciating, even when I rationally know that it is misplaced.

It twists my insides in knots and makes me wish to turn myself inside out as it descends into shame. That agony of guilt often drives me to abandon my own needs and try to give that which I don’t have to give, even when I know better.

Of course, that never goes well, but in the moment that I’m choosing, it often seems preferable to having sit with the guilt that feels like it will eat me alive.

The last few days, I’ve been reading a book called When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Maté, MD, that explores the health risks of our unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, emotional issues, and relationship issues.

In particular, his research has shown a much greater correlation between repressed emotions and multiple serious illnesses than the things that are commonly thought to cause disease. (For example, job strain has been shown to be more important in the risk of heart disease than all other risk factors combined, including hypertension, smoking, and high cholesterol! (p.224))

Because this book has so impressed on me the importance of dealing with my emotional issues if I wish to remain healthy as I get older, I made careful note of the following quote (p. 257):

“A therapist once said to me, ‘If you face the choice between feeling guilt and resentment, choose the guilt every time.’ It is wisdom I have passed on to many others since. If a refusal saddles you with guilt, while consent leaves resentment in its wake, opt for the guilt. Resentment is soul suicide.” ~Gabor Maté, MD

Always choose guilt over resentment. That’s an unambiguous criterion for choosing, and I love the clarity that brings to decisions.

The fact that it comes from someone who has spent years studying the effect that these kinds of emotions have on our bodies means that as excruciating as guilt can feel, it’s less damaging to me than the resentment will be in the long run. And I want to choose the option that is the least damaging as often as I am able because it ultimately means that I will have more to give than I will if I sacrifice my health. Therefore, I’m going to start choosing guilt and refusing to give that which I cannot give out of my overflow.

But if I’m choosing guilt, that means that I need to find better ways to sit with the guilt, when necessary, as I continue to work toward excavating the false beliefs that create that false guilt in the first place. That’s the harder thing to learn, I suspect, as sitting with discomfort is always challenging. At least I’ll have the knowledge that I am making the better choice to help combat the messages that are producing the false guilt to begin with.

If you also struggle with being “nice,” how does this choice between guilt or resentment strike you? Do you find it helpful? If not, why not?


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