The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.

For Shame

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

As a kid, I spent my formative years receiving a Catholic upbringing. Every Sunday, we trooped down to church. (So, yes, I’m a familiar with the routine of kneeling and sitting and standing) I even spent a few years at a Catholic school, complete with a uniform and the overriding fear of Mother Superior swooping in on the classroom. I didn’t make my break with organized religion until after college. Which means a hefty indoctrination of healthy Catholic guilt.

And Catholics INVENTED guilt.

While I’ve successfully shrugged off most of the teachings jammed into my head during those early years, breaking that guilt chain hasn’t been so successful. And it’s tempting to blame the religion, but the world, in general, likes to beat you with guilt – especially when they know you’re susceptible to it. It’s like sharks scenting blood in the water. They see you twitch, watch the light in your eyes dim, and they know you’re a prime target for well-placed words or a specific tone of voice. Suddenly, you’re shouldering the blame for things that you barely glanced at. You’re carrying the weight of embarrassment and shame for something blown out of proportion. All for the glee and enjoyment of others.

Guilt serves a purpose. It’s the niggling voice of your conscience reminding you when you’ve screwed up. (And, according to Catholics – you’re always screwing up. Fun times) You SHOULD feel guilty when you fuck up, and you need to make reparations where you can. There’s nothing inherently wrong with guilt, when you think about it. But society has embraced the concept in order to torture people. And some of us are prime targets. We’ll feel regret over ANYTHING.

Bump someone’s coffee mug and cause it to spill? That’s worth a week of apologies and a gift card. (When, in reality, a simple apology and cleaning the mess is all the accident is worth)

Knock over a stack of folders on a desk when you trip? Clearly, you need to devote yourself to that person for the remainder of the month. (Never mind that accidents happen. And, honestly, who balances folders on the edge of a desk like that?)

Forget someone’s name? Oh, that’s the end of the world. You’d better order a bouquet of flowers and grovel for forgiveness. (Because that’s never happened in the entire history of the planet)

People see the shame on your face and seize control.

I speak from experience. I’ve turned myself inside out for every mistake I’ve ever made. I damn-near tack myself up for crucifixion! (To be fair, the Catholics don’t require that anymore) Every single slip-up is nuclear, and I crawl over coals and broken glass. And very few people stop me from doing so. Most add additional obstacles for the glee of the entertainment. They know I feel a bottomless, horrible shame, and they milk every second out of it. Notice a glimpse that I may feel better? Oh, no – time to mutter some choice phrases and knock my anxiety back into the stratosphere where it belongs.

And, ironically, those people feel no guilt over their actions. They consider it justification for the mistake, regardless of how minimal it may have been. It feeds into a loop that wasn’t healthy in the first place. Which makes breaking the cycle difficult, if not impossible. How do you stop feeling like a monster when people treat you like you’re an inch tall because you mispronounced a word?

It’s a wretched sickness.

I have to catch myself now. “Is their reaction appropriate to what I did?” The majority of the time (surprisingly), the answer’s coming up a resounding, “NO!” For my own mental health, I have to learn to apologize and walk away, leaving them and their nasty remarks in the rearview mirror. (Shaking apart the entire time because it’s still not easy to accomplish) I can’t let my guilt swamp up and choke me anymore. Of course, breathing through that gut reaction takes more effort than it should.

Some of us are programmed to accept a heavier burden of shame and embarrassment than others. It’s easier than standing up to someone else and point out their overreaction. When you already believe the worst of yourself, it’s easy. So people take advantage of it. And the loop tightens up – usually around our necks.

But most of those hiccups in the day? They’re nothing. They happen to everyone – including the people dragging out our torture (and you won’t see them groveling). We don’t need to balance a giant block of stone on our shoulders in response. If we stop to think for half a second, we’d realize that. Apologize (feel bad, because it’s an ingrained response), and move on. Don’t let the assholes get to you.

Known and Unknown

“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

~Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

When Pixar created the character Fear in Inside Out, I felt an immediate connection. The heightened awareness of everything going on around him. The jittery nerves (with or without coffee – though they clearly made him a caffeine addict). And the mile-high reports on every conceivable outcome for the situations being presented. Even the disbelieving stares of those around him at the more “outlandish” possibilities he listed in the reports. It was anxiety personified, but given a label of “fear” to appeal to every age group.

A little unfair, but not far off the mark.

Fear resides in the heart of anxiety. The tightening spirals we spin down develop out of fears. Ironically, the deeper we get into our whirlpools, the greater those fears become. We start on the fringe with “rational” concerns for every situation we encounter. Then we start to branch out into those possibilities the people around us start laughing at. The kind of things everyone assumes impossible and irrational. (Of course, the way 2020’s been going, I’m not sure how many people are still laughing at us)

It’s hard to interrupt those spirals. People with anxiety are always aware of them. We know when we’re generating our tornadoes. But stopping the process, putting on the brakes and forcing ourselves to breathe…it’s damn near impossible. Trying to do so is like – well, it’s like trying to stop a tornado. What if we overlook something? What if we forget to plan for an eventuality?

Pulses spike, our lungs take in less air, the brain clamps down in the skull, and our body starts shrieking a warning. (We forget to include that possibility. Ironic, right?) Now we’re lying on the floor with people standing over us, staring in shock. And the odds are the situation was minor.

One more time when the spiral won.

I panic over EVERYTHING. I have a 100% satisfaction rating and constant five-star ratings for my writing. Yet each time I turn in an assignment for a new client, I freak out until they respond. And if it’s more than a day, my brain twists in my skull. This is the time my words failed me. The assignment flopped. This client will hate my work and break my streak. I had an off day. I missed an edit that killed the entire article. I’m a complete hack. I’m an utter failure who can’t string one sentence together. It goes on and on until drinking water makes me nauseous. Suddenly, they’re reaching out to my other clients questioning why they’ve hired me.

And then they tell me it’s wonderful, and they’re pleased with my work.

And I repeat the spiral with the next new client. My track record means nothing to my anxiety-fueled brain. Hell, I conjure fifty horrible possibilites for why someone rings the doorbell in the space of walking from my desk to the front door! (It’s usually the postman) And don’t get me started on the phone ringing. I know the gut-check reaction isn’t rational, but trying to stop the flow of concocted possibilites is almost impossible.

While I’m aware elevated cortisol levels aren’t doing my body any favors, I’m pretty sure my system’s adapted to them by now. Let them drop, and I think I’ll crash. (See? The spiral really never stops) However, that cursed way of thinking comes in handy now and then. Thinking of everything means I PLAN for everything. I have a contingency for the bulk of my concerns. (I have no plans for aliens – not yet, anyway) Most people with anxiety work the same way, once they learn their thought patterns. It’s a pseudo-coping method that works with their brain chemistry.

“Okay, we’re going to overreact, but we’re also going to over-respond.”

I rationalize through the fear. It calms the racing pulse, and it keeps my brain from spasming. And it makes me a valuable person to bounce ideas off of. Maybe I come up with situations that aren’t always rational (odds are computers won’t gain awareness and seize control of your company), but most of the contingencies WILL. I can play Devil’s Advocate with the best of them, forcing you to think through things you normally won’t when you’re riding high on a dream. It’s one of the reasons I honestly believe I’ve been so successful in MY dream.

I sat down and wrote through every pitfall. (And at least a dozen that weren’t very likely) With them staring me in the face, I had a chance to think around them. It made stepping off the cliff’s edge easier. It also lessened the tension in my shoulders, around my skull. The practice drives my fiance’ crazy at times, but it gets him thinking. And it’s even made him pause a time or two when I’ve voiced a (real) possibility he didn’t consider. It’s a secret superpower those of us with anxiety have tucked away.

Yes, we’re frustrating. When we tell you we’re concerned about getting mauled by a bear on the subway, we drive you up the wall. But if you take a second to breathe and ask us to think through that statement (and what we can do to avoid it), you’ll steer us AWAY from a deepening spiral. We know the idea’s absurd (we honestly do). We just need help switching tracks in our brain. Figuring out a solution helps. And USING our gift of seeing possible problems when you need to plan – that makes us feel useful.

The spirals are always there. They don’t go away. We see them EVERYWHERE. We just need people to understand them.