Illustration by Denis Shifrin
I have rarely met a woman who doesn’t feel guilty about something...
I have rarely met a woman who doesn’t feel guilty about something...
Unlike in my country of birth, the United States, Israel seems to foster a national guilt complex. Having experienced the liberating 60s in the US, with its emphasis on “do your own thing,” I am often amazed at the extent to which attempting to ward off guilt feelings keep us busy doing things we might not normally do. For example, I have recently been working with several young couples who have no time for each other. These couples experience guilt if they don’t eat at each of their parents’ houses every week, meaning that all their free time might be taken up in making two sets of in-laws happy. As a couple they are lost in the shuffle of trying to keep so many other people happy. If you ask them if they're happy with the arrangement they will say no, but they don’t dare to change it because that would make them feel guilty.
Women are especially vulnerable to guilt as they try to maintain the traditional images of the perfect Jewish wife/mother, while somehow also having their own lives. Mothers feel guilty at not having enough time for their children while also feeling guilty about not advancing enough at work. The fact that it is almost impossible to satisfy both at once never seems to stop the guilt orgy most mothers here experience. This guilt makes women rush home to give quality time to their offspring - even if their children might even prefer time with friends. It also makes women willing to take on all kinds of tasks at work that no one wants, just to be seen to be doing enough. Married women take on enormous social obligations, party making, present buying and telephoning, but still have the feeling they aren’t doing enough for friends and family. Single women feel guilty about not having a partner and disappointing their parents, while divorced women feel guilty about breaking up the family. I have rarely met a woman in Israel who doesn’t feel chronically guilty about something!
I would venture that the feeling of guilt is so pervasive in women here that most don’t even know they are experiencing it. Feeling guilty is like being a bit overweight—it isn’t comfortable but then again, what can you do? That is the way things are. But who benefits from all this guilt? Do we really need it to function? Would women without guilt run off and abandon all their responsibilities? What would life here be like without every day being National Women’s Guilt Day?
Guilt is a form of social control. It is the way that people are kept in line and the way that society makes sure that people will fulfill their social obligations. There is no problem with that as it insures that people will overcome the natural human tendency towards laziness and selfishness. Guilt makes sure that we take care of each other and consider each others’ needs. The question is, why are women so prone to guilt? And who benefits from that?
From an early age little girls are trained to think of each other’s feelings. In an amazing research carried out in a maternity ward it was found that new mothers tend to hold their newborn babies differently depending on their sex. Mothers tended to hold their boys with the infant’s face turned away from the mother, looking outward on the world. The female infants were held with their faces towards the mother. That is, at only four days little girls were already being trained to relate. Psychological research shows over and over how girls are taught to care for others, to think of others' feelings and to understand what others need. Perhaps this is nature’s way of training girls to be mothers some day but the effect of it means that women are far more sensitive to other people’s inner states than men. And thus women care if their relatives are hurt, they care of their coworkers are let down and they care what other people think of them.
This sensitivity to others’ feelings leads to intense guilt when women think they have let others down. The worst thing for many women is to hurt someone close to them. The feelings of guilt can be so uncomfortable that women will give up their own needs and even their own lives not to hurt someone else. For example, Ruti is a woman in her early 50s. Throughout her 30 years of marriage to Boaz she was aware that Boaz had relationships with other women. Although humiliated, Ruti was so focused on her children’s needs that the idea of divorce never seemed relevant to her. She knew that Boaz was hurting her, knew that she was often depressed but she also felt that hurting her children by a marital crisis was far worse than her own suffering. Only when the last child left home did Ruti even consider the possibility of separation, and when she did her anger was so intense that she literally could not be in the same room with Boaz. Boaz had no idea what had happened to his loyal and devoted wife. For so many years she had accepted the situation, and then suddenly she reached her limits and in a drastic manner threw him out.
The fact that women are sensitive to others’ hurt means that women are the caretakers of society. Not by chance are women the nurses, the social workers, the teachers as well as the ones who care for the elderly, regardless of whether they be their own parents or their partner’s parents. It also means that women get left with much of the nurturing that needs to be done. Many young mothers have described how they prefer to be the ones to take care of their children because when they leave their children in their husband's care, the television or even his mother becomes the babysitter. Guilt towards the child keep the mother doing more than her share just to make sure that the care is of top quality.
The problem with guilt is that it only works on a superficial behavioral level. People who are trying to avoid guilt will do what they have to do. But inside they don’t feel good. Guilt doesn’t lead to a feeling of satisfaction or to feelings of joy. The best you get is the absence of guilt. So Ruti for example did what she thought needed to be done not to feel guilty towards her children. But she never experienced real happiness. Hers was a joyless existence ruled by doing the right thing but not by seeking pleasure.
The other problem with guilt is that it leads to revenge. No one likes to be taken advantage of. Even the most self-sacrificing woman has her limits, although in a case like Ruti's it took 30 years for her to feel them. But throughout her marriage Ruti got back at Boaz through subtle acts of rebellion, through hidden sabotage that even she was not aware of. For example, Boaz, an architect working out of the house, got Ruti to do his secretarial work, playing on her guilt that hired help cost the family so much. However, he also criticized Ruti for not doing the professional job a real secretary could do. Of course this made her feel even more guilty and she made all kinds of efforts to do a better job. However, she also found herself with a real memory problem, a problem that seemed to get worse over the years. Although the memory problem was not evident at the school where she was a teacher, she seemed to have a lot of lapses at home. Boaz never understood what happened to all the papers that got lost, all the phone calls that weren’t made, all the meetings that were never set up. Ruti didn’t plan these small resistances on purpose. They just happened. She never even connected them to her feelings of guilt and her rage at being exploited.
Guilt is like a heavy cloud that settles on the soul, hiding the guilty person’s real wishes and desires. Had Ruti been able to see through the guilt she would have realized how angry she was and how far she had gone beyond her own limits. The irony is that the more one feels guilty the more unreliable one is. The self-sacrificing Ruti, with all her devotion, drove Boaz crazy as her underlying rage drove her to punish him. Also, the guilty woman often takes on far more than she can really handle and thus can’t help but back out of some commitments, to forget her promises or to let some people down. Of course all these moments of failure only lead to more guilt and more attempts to be better. Women can get caught up in a cycle of guilt that feeds itself, overdoing and overfunctioning but never really feeling “Hey, I am a really good person”.
The solution is not that simple since guilt is a built-in part of what it means to be a woman. Guilt invades life on an almost daily basis and needs to be dealt with continuously over time. Resisting guilt takes a lot of effort and honesty and really shouldn’t be taken on alone. One way to fight guilt is to pay attention to how it dominates your decisions. Guilt can get you to forget your long-range dreams such as putting off studies, and it can get you to give up daily needs such as putting off going to the health club. A good way for women to fight the damaging effects of guilt is to talk with other women. However, it is important to choose the person with some thought and not to get advice from those women who themselves are overwhelmed with guilt, but from those who seem to have managed to get free. Every one of us knows someone like that, and while we might hate her we can also learn from her. These are the women who have their own lives as well as their social contacts, women who enjoy doing things for themselves and who don’t seem as pressured by all the “shoulds” society piles on women. In short, these are the “selfish” women who know how to take care of themselves. In talking to women like these we find that they have learned to conquer guilt and that they often have to continue conquering it each and every day. We learn that these seemingly carefree souls are just as tormented as we are, but they have strategies for tricking guilt or for getting guilt to keep quiet. One such woman told me that she always made sure to get out of the house when her husband was taking over care of the children. In that way, she avoided the guilty feelings that creep in when she noticed her husband wasn’t doing as good a job as she would have done. Another woman told me that she puts herself (using an anonymous name) in her appointment book, so that every week she has a date with herself! In this way she has built time for herself into her life, and no one knows that it isn’t work-related. She knows that she is being “bad” but on the other hand, as long as the appointment is written down, being such a basically good girl, she has to keep it. By realizing that guilt can come to control our lives, making us do far more than our fair share of the nurturing of others, we can commit to conquering guilt or at least to keeping it quiet for a while.
Claire Rabin is the director of the Claire Rabin Institute for Couples Therapy which has twelve clinics in Israel. She is a professor of family therapy and for ten years started and directed the Tel Aviv University School of Social Work's Continuing Education Department.
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