Guilt Just Makes You Feel Guilty About Your GuiltS

I was going to ask you how often you, as a woman, feel guilty. But I don't have to, because studies have shown that you feel guilty all the time. At least once a day. And for the high-level worriers among you, the awful feeling in the pit of your stomach that you've yet again failed to do or be something better than you actually are can strike up to four times a day. That's a lot of sad trombones, ladies. What's our damage? Let's excavate.

In order to feel guilty all the time, a few components have to be in place: you'd have to feel enormous pressure to achieve an arbitrary benchmark. For women, that ideal no doubt, is "goodness." To be good. We are taught from an early age that we are nicer, kinder, sweeter, more compassionate, more delicate, more gentle souls. Spiritually nobler, sexually less tempted. This ideal of goodness, however, is at odds with our actual humanness, which causes untold levels of dissonance as we try to make our way through the world as people first, and women second, all while being so good.

Another component in place for guilt is that you'd have to believe your ability to be this thing you're supposed to be, in our case, "good," is entirely within your power, so that when you fail to hit the mark, you correctly deduce that it is your fault. So when you are treated badly, or skipped over for the promotion, or ignored, or worse, when crimes are committed against you, you search yourself for your own culpability.

In a Germain Greer piece over at CNN called "Guilt Poisons Women," she cites a Spanish study that found that women are "more susceptible to guilt."

Guilt is one side of a nasty triangle; the other two are shame and stigma. This grim coalition combines to inculpate women themselves of the crimes committed against them.

While some guilt is, of course, necessary for us to become "considerate, conscientious adults," on overdrive, it's a paralyzing anxiety that leads to real depression. And women tend to feel this at a much more significant level.

In the study, some 350 people were interviewed, aged 15 to 50, about their feelings of guilt about a variety of daily occurrences. Women, it turns out, cared a lot about hurting other people, whereas men felt guilty when they overate or binge drank, but not so much over things that actually affected other people who were not them.

The heightened worrying, it was concluded, led to a weakened defense system with fewer antibodies in their saliva, so that even when a woman was doing something she liked, it didn't make much difference if she was also fretting about what she should be doing instead. So much for escapism.

For many women, this becomes a kind of ever-present background anxiety over angering friends, forgetting a birthday, not being attractive, not being generous enough, and on and on and on.

Greer says:

Rescuing women from their burden of unwarranted guilt is going to require "educational practices and socializing agents" even more effective than the ones that have been relentlessly loading female humans with responsibility for other people's behavior from their earliest childhood.

I doubt there is a woman among us who hasn't been told to smile more, be nicer, be more pleasant, make nice, play nice, share more and in general, sunny up whatever joint she happens to occupy. Certainly men are taught to be polite, too.

But you can't throw a friendly dart today without hitting a mixed message about "how to be" when you're a woman in terms of balancing other people's feelings with your own desires and goals. This very debate rages today over women in the workplace having to mix deference with determination in pursuing that corner office.

These lifelong messages of deference and greater sensitivity to others — some of which are incredibly useful, such as in the care of babies — combined with the pressure to achieve on equal footing with men, are a perfect recipe for guilt. It can become so ingrained in women to consider others at all times, that healthy activities that promote well-being that (may) serve only us, whether getting a master's or masturbating, can be loaded with guilty feelings of self-indulgence.

And this goes back further than our collective childhoods. Women have historically been handed a swirling cauldron of mixed messages about their "true nature," and it is almost always one of perplexing duality as viewed through man's eyes: we are pure, but evil, spiritually superior, but a gateway to sin. We are noble, but we have to be, since we're lower forms of life. Even our ability to carry children has been viewed with great awe and greater suspicion. Viewing ourselves through this distorted kaleidoscope of femininity as defined by others has not made it easy to become fully enfranchised human people, particularly when we are still fighting for the concrete laws and protections necessary.

In my view, the problem of women's guilt is precisely that gap between being "female" and being "human," when the very definition of feminine still comes heavily burdened with implicit or sometimes explicit instructions on the care and concern of others, and always, about how you come off and look. There is nothing in connotations of maleness per se that suggests a similar kind of reflexive, selfless concern. (Saving people is one thing; caring for them quite another.)

Sometimes it seems as if we decided collectively that women could join men in equality, but only if we promised to still be nice. Being "tough" — like men — while still feminine, as in pleasing, deferential, is still a recipe for success, even when the femininity is the very argument being used to keep us out of the things we want into, whether it's the military or the boardroom. Doing otherwise is seen as impractical.

But in a world where the blame for men's crimes still lands squarely on women's shoulders, "nice" feels like a suffocating mask. Or worse, it's massive scapegoating.

And Greer sees the cost of this scapegoating as a major impediment to women's true equality:

Women feel more guilt than men, not because of some weird chromosomal issue but because they have a history of being blamed for other people's behavior. You get hit, you must have annoyed someone; you get raped, you must have excited someone; your kid is a junkie, you must have brought him up wrong.

Any victim of sexual offenses who denounces the perpetrator should incur no shame. But she does. And to conceal the identity of a victim of a sexual offense, which is routine, is to endorse this profoundly misogynist prejudice. Until women feel free to identify offenders without shame, the wounds inflicted on them will remain unhealed.

Those wounds have been unhealed for a long time already. It was St. Jerome who allegedly said that women are the root of all evil, but St. Clement of Alexandria totally had his back when he said that the "consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame."

What is shocking about that is not that some misogynist dudes from the single-digit centuries — venerated Saints, no less — thought women were intrinsically shitty and ought to know it, but that women still suffer gravely from these attitudes to this very minute. Says Greer:

For example, the Indian gang rape victim who was given the International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State Department on International Women's Day recently is known only by a collection of sobriquets, of which the popular favorite is "Nirbhaya," or "Fearless."

No member of her family was present at the ceremony to hear U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry say fatuously that there would be "no more stigma against victims or survivors" when he had perpetuated that very stigma by refusing to reveal Nirbhaya's identity.

Why can we not know who Nirbhaya was? Because to be raped by a gang of drunken goondahs is to be dishonored. The stigma extends to her family, her community and even to her university. She has been honored because she did the decent thing. She died.

She is not around screaming for justice; she is dead. Her achievement is to be a victim. When the Obama administration hooked its wagon to the star of a sex martyr, it did little for the women who endure humiliation and stigma every day.

And so we go on with our lives of continual apology. Greer says that, "Until women themselves reject stigma and refuse to feel shame for the way others treat them, they have no hope of achieving full human stature."

This is important, but easier said than done. And we cannot lay this at entirely at women's doorsteps. Feeling less guilty, while critical for women to behave as free people in pursuit of their own autonomous, emotionally healthy lives, still won't single-handedly change the compulsion for men and society to tell women what they are like, or how they are to behave, or to blame them as victims. But greater sensitivity from men for women to define themselves on their own terms could prevent all this from happening in the first place.

Image by Jim Cooke