Guilt – The Great Feminine Trap

For decades now authors have been writing books about women suffering more guilt than men. One survey by Stylist magazine found that 96% of women feel guilty at least once a day. While researchers in Spain published their findings in the Spanish Journal of Psychology stating that women of all ages experience significant higher levels of guilt compared to men.

Let’s start by defining the word guilt. According to the Macquarie Essential Dictionary guilt is defined as: ‘a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some crime, wrong, etc., either real or imagined.’

The Spanish researchers suggested that women were genetically programmed to feel more guilt. They linked it to women’s capacity to be more empathic and while I can accept the link I have a gut reaction to all stereotypes. The argument put forward, that because women from all cultures feel more guilt, it must be genetic for me is a flawed conclusion. I would suggest that all it proves is how prevalent the cultural conditioning of women is worldwide.
Without wanting to offend anyone, it must be asked, ‘why would women naturally feel more responsible for some wrong?’ For thousands of years Christian based teachings have blamed Eve, a woman, for the sins of man. We are born of sin because of the actions, largely of Eve, and for some modern Christians Adam too. But women get a bad rap and after centuries of storytelling, all women carry this subconscious message.

Two Kinds of Guilt

The focus for this blog is to identify the two kinds of guilt most often experienced and then discuss the first one in depth. Too many therapists blend the two sources of guilt together and this makes it more difficult to fix. The two kinds of guilt are:

1. Guilt that stems from transgressing our own value system
2. Guilt that stems from a fear of not belonging to others

Let’s explore the guilt that stems from transgressing your own value system. I have posted blogs in the past about values that are important to understand – Personal Values and Global Values – so check them out too.

For now I want to explore how it is that women end up living lives that are not true to who they are. This is shared free of judgement, and in fact, purely for the purpose of helping women, and the men or children in their lives, to understand how it happened, not to blame anyone for it. My ethos is: you can’t fix what you don’t recognise, acknowledge or understand. There is no shame in being human.

A Woman’s Role as Mother

Guilt stemming from not living from our values is more prevalent with women because of their role as mother. In the first two years of a child’s life the child’s needs are dominant. For a child to grow up healthy, emotionally and mentally balanced and productive its needs, ideally, should be met 100 per cent in those first two years. To achieve this, the mother gives up herself into serving the child’s existence.

Once a child turns two, cognitive and emotional development requires them to separate their identity from their mother and begin to form their own sense of self. At this point the mother can begin to re-establish her identity and needs as an individual. Often, the next baby has arrived and the subsequent two years is dedicated to serving its needs. Where a third or fourth child joins the family, the mother continues to serve their needs, putting aside herself for the welfare of the child.

When you think about it like this, it is easy to see how a woman has given up her identity, her sense of self, from anywhere between four to ten years and replaced it with the role of mother. After that many years’ women forget how to exist in their own right.

If every cell in our body is replaced within seven years then all a woman comes to know is herself as a non-existent individual. Instead she becomes an extension of her partner and her children. When giving up her individuality becomes the norm, it turns into sacrifice. For the purposes of this discussion, sacrifice is defined as giving herself up at a cost to herself.

What does it look like when a woman looks up her individuality?

It looks like a woman who no longer remembers how to set healthy, productive boundaries, can’t ask for her needs be met, assesses her worth on her relationships and family, defines her opinions by those around her and bases her behaviours on what makes a partner or children or extended family happy. This is how she transgresses her own value system; she forgets what is important or matters to her.

I admire a woman’s capacity to give herself up for the welfare of her child. It is an incredible privilege to nurture, support and enhance the unfolding of a new personality into life. That is not in question with the formation of value-based-guilt. It’s when the woman doesn’t take back her identity, her individuality, her right to exist as herself that she is at risk of transgressing her own value system.

Girls are groomed to sacrifice

But it’s not just about being mothers – girls who watch their mothers do all this absorb the message of their worth and mimic the behaviours they are seeing around them. Girls raised in patriarchal (male) dominant homes learn that they have to give in and give up to their brothers, father, male cousins, and grandfathers’ wishes. Where girls are raised being told they have to look after their brothers and fathers or if they get in trouble for their brothers’ behaviours, they are learning that they are responsible for men’s behaviours. This is how society, cultural and family conditioning grooms girls into believing that they are second-class citizens, do not matter, and are responsible for other people’s behaviours. These young women are already primed for guilt based on living against their own value system. This reality also explains the formation of self-blame, and the need to control whatever they can to artificially give them a sense of security. This could be a whole blog theme in itself! But suffice to say, there are some very good reasons why women are more likely to feel guilt that stems from transgressing their values.

While modern women are trying to re-establish their identity through working, their guilt is not on the decline. This is where the second source of guilt compounds the life of the contemporary woman. I will explore this in the next blog.

What has this raised for you? Can you recognise where some of your guilt and stress may be stemming from?