Living Your Best Life Requires Getting Comfortable with Guilt

My closest friends all tell me I work too much. And when I hear this I feel two things. First I feel something close to indignation and despair that this is just how it is if you want to be successful. Then I feel a twinge of sadness and resentment that maybe that’s not true but I don’t know how to do it any differently.

Why have I bought into the story that in order to be successful I need to be an “over achiever”? Why have so many others? Is this something that is simply in our personality and DNA? Or are we a product of our environment? The age old question of nature versus nurture. Most research will tell you that nurture plays the bigger role in almost any such debate. And it does not take much reflection of the environment many of us live in to see it’s role here. Many cultures, that for one reason or another, focus on success tied to status which is acquired through titles, power and money. Industries which have an endless supply of problems and opportunities to “make things better” leaving all those high achievers hungry to be the first to claim victory. And a world that no matter where you turn there are countless stories of oppression and hardship where your time and energy could make a difference while also stroking your own ego about your community giveback achievements. The incentives to “over achieve” are endless.

However, it is more than just that drive to success, whatever definition you give to success, that is behind the forces encouraging our workaholic culture. It’s a more basic desire of wanting to belong. Wanting to be a part of a team and be accepted in an organization. And when that organization, for years, has valued long hours, back to back meetings, spending the weekend catching up, etc – then our minds tell us in order to belong to this organization I need to “keep up”. And when I push back, even when I’m given “permission” to do so there is this nagging feeling of guilt. Guilt that I am not doing enough. Being enough. Guilt that others are doing more. Guilt that I might be letting people down.

There are certainly systems in place that create and take advantage of the cultural norms that are clearly present in our society. Any leader, no matter how great they are, would be hard pressed to say they haven’t taken advantage of an over eager employee who wants to please and is willing to work long hours/weekends to not disappoint. I wrestle regularly with the decision of recognizing individuals on projects for working on weekends and pulling all nighters, knowing that of course we should be thanking our colleagues for their hard work and commitment but concerned what message are we sending when we do a less than stellar job of recognizing those who get the work done without burning the midnight oil.

I’m very proud of the leadership I notice within many of the IBM leaders I work with and with many of our partners and client teams. Their is a strong desire to address the dynamics in our culture that are creating burnout for many of us. Like the frog in the pot of water who didn’t know it was boiling until he died, many of us do not realize when we are burned out until it’s too late. As such we do need our leaders to “take care of us” and turn the dials on what ever systems exist that keep the water in the pot boiling.

Unfortunately there will be many dials to turn before we address this problem. We have started with creating several pledges to help align on expectations for that age old work life balance problem.  Our most recent “Live Your Best Life” pledge is aspirational – as it should be – and encourages the conversation amongst leaders on what can they do to bring this to life. It also starts to give permission to everyone to challenge when conditions are not letting them “live their best life”.

But here is the rub. Giving me permission only begins to address the guilt I have as an employee when I don’t meet to the expectations of what success looks like in my head. And by success I mean what tells me I am worthy and belong to this “family”. Every human being wants to know they have purpose and that what they are doing has meaning. That it has value. This feeds their self worth, self efficacy, confidence, and a myriad of other important psychological elements. And many of us have no appreciation of the very deep ingrained thoughts that drive our behaviors and beliefs around ourselves. Let me tell you a personal story to further make this point.

My mother was a single mother for most of my youth. And like most single mothers, particularly in the 70’s, she did not have it so easy. Often working three jobs to make ends meet. A bit ostracized by her parents and family for not having a husband. Trying to raise two little girls on her own. Struggling with her own issues as a human being.  She did the best that she could and I love her for it dearly. And, as a little girl, despite all that she did, I didn’t feel loved. I didn’t feel worthy until I was 8 years old and spent several months living with my grandparents.

That year my mother had taken on a couple of challenges that she knew would greatly limit her ability to parent. She arranged for my grandparents to take care of me while she and my little sister lived 30 minutes away. I would see them often but for many months I lived with my grandparents and started school in a new district. My grandparents were hard workers and busy people. They owned a store for which they lived just above, thus never quite getting away from work. They were strong southern Methodists church going people who would find themselves at the church at least 2 times a week if not more. They owned  a very large property with vegetable gardens and fruit trees for which we always seemed to be either tending to or canning the fruits of. Along with all of the activities I was expected to do around the house, store and church I was also put into tap dancing classes (which I was terrible at). There was structure to my weeks that was filled with an intensity of constant activity. Always something to do, to get done or just people to sit down with and entertain with a card game. And, as I was the only child in the house, they showered me with attention and love.  

It wasn’t until a few years ago that this correlation of “being busy = being loved=being worthy” dawned upon me in a therapy session. That aha moment hit me like a ton of bricks. I am extremely action oriented individual who struggles with silence and the thought of doing nothing just means I’m being lazy. I had, for the longest time, just assumed that was part of my DNA. And while that is possibly true, what is definitely true is that my childhood taught me to be busy and you will be loved. Even when I returned back to live with my mom I can recall the years after that I had noticeably changed. I was more active in school and would return back to my grandparents on weekends and summers looking for their praise for my achievements. I would start to see that my teachers would give me similar praise the more I spoke up in class or volunteered for activities. In high school I immersed myself into every sport I could to reap the rewards of team mates high fives and coaches smiles. Those few months with my grandparents put me on a path of seeking love and affection through being active and productive. I’m re-programming my brain to think differently. But I’ve got years of built up learning to unlearn. 

I share this story to emphasize that the pledges are great. Love them. We absolutely need to deal with the systemic issues that encourages or even demands that people work through lunches, be in back to back meetings, leading to late nights and weekends to actually get work done. We need the pledges as a reminder to stop putting ourselves last in the “take care of” pile. We need these pledges, social contracts, policies and laws to encourage something different. We need to challenge the system we are all part of to stop pushing the envelope, stop trying to “win the race”, etc, etc. And with that we might claim some victories with those strategies.

But until we also remember that we are each individual humans with years of programming to unlearn. Programming which creates daily micro moments of guilt that “I’m not good enough unless I put in the long hours and do more than the next person” then we will be disappointed with the results. We will measure the outcomes of our aspirational visions and shake our heads in confusion as to why no one is “living the pledge” and possibly just give up on the cause. Before we do that let’s be ready to address the elephant in the room that we all need a bit of re-programming to let go of the guilt.

Leaders can make a difference here in not only setting the aspirational vision and breaking down obstacles but also walking the talk. Leaders can be mindful of the bigger issue and recognize it will take months, if not years before an employee might fly out of the cage that has been built around them even though the door has been left wide open. We can be more mindful about the behaviors we reward and the incentives in the system that might have too much collateral damage when it comes to employee wellbeing. 

We also need leaders who are comfortable encouraging their employees to reflect more. Build their self awareness and the capacity and courage to seek help from qualified professionals that can help them navigate their own re-programming. To seek help to understand the tools available to help us set better boundaries, create self-care plans and most importantly turn these into daily habits. There are a myriad of methods to be considered and now self-help apps available to be downloaded. Regardless of which approach a person chooses, having someone to listen, have empathy and most importantly holding the mirror up for those pivotal moments of reflection is key to our long term human success. Not all leaders are equipped to be this for their people. But at a minimum they can create the psychological safety to talk about our mental health and wellbeing and encourage us to seek help. 

If we want to address employee burnout and improve wellbeing we have to deal with the feelings of guilt many of us feel when we are not working. Look for those signs that employees are not prioritizing their own self care and get curious about what is behind that. Most importantly, what you can do to support them in Living Their Best Life.

One thought on “Living Your Best Life Requires Getting Comfortable with Guilt

  1. Once again , excellent insight! Now that I have retired and with my perfect hindsight vision, I can see just how big a role my own”guilty” feelings played in driving me to work long, arduous hours.

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