Artist Therapy: Guilt

Artist Therapy Posts: Where we face the feels all artists struggle with.

There are two kinds of guilt, and it’s a toss-up which is worse: guilt you feel towards yourself, or guilt you feel towards others. In fact, they’re two sides of the same coin — but heads or tails, you’re losing either way the toss comes up.

The definition of guilt is “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation” but I think that sentence inadequately portrays the particular feeling of horror, squirming, embarrassment, and failure that comes wrapped up together when we feel guilty. When I was picking fonts & colors for the post graphics, I completely unconsciously made them as toxic looking as possible, because guilt is something I struggle with all the time and it feels utterly horrible. I constantly feel like I’m letting someone down, and no matter what I choose it feels like I’m taking energy away from others or I’m running myself too far into the ground.

Now I’ve been in years of therapy, and while it’s something I advocate strongly for everyone, I know not everyone has the resources or health coverage to have access to a therapist. That’s a big reason why I started writing these columns. That said, after a lot of therapy, I know why guilt is such a big struggle for me. First off, I’m Italian, and in Italian families obligation, responsibility, and guilt are the currency of how a family runs (we’re not the only ones, but we’re one of the heritages most famous for it). Then combine being an only child who was trained to “be a good kid” and always please the adults with a job that sets me up for never being able to please all the people all of the time and I live in a layer cake of guilt. For icing, throw on a topping of hundreds of artist emails a week I will never have the time to be able to answer and it’s surprising there’s ever a moment I don’t feel actively guilty. More than anything else, finding ways to deal with guilt takes up the lion’s share of my therapy time.

The first big breakthrough trying to learn how to deal with guilt was realizing this one thing: We are the ones in control of our guilt. We cling to the feeling of guilt even as we despise it. Other people can try to make us feel guilty, but the only person that actually makes us feel guilt is ourselves. We may struggle under the feeling of guilt, but it often feels like a noble emotion. It makes us feel important. It is an illusion of control. We can only feel guilty about things we feel we could do, we agree we should do. But we are rarely realistic about our capabilities.

This is why Guilt and Perfectionism and Busyness are linked. We are stuck in a cycle of overestimating our capabilities, then drowning in despair and burnout when we can’t achieve everything we think we should.

That “should” is the place where you start to unravel your guilt. We have to be more realistic about what we can possibly do, and then hold the line.

There’s external obligations and internal obligations. External ones are family, friends, work, community, charity. When your child’s teacher approaches you about making a cake for the bake sale, instead of agreeing automatically, take a moment and think about it: is this an obligation or a request? Do you have the free time to take this one this time? Will it affect your child if you don’t bake the cake? Can you bake for the next sale instead? Whichever way you decide, try to be realistic about your time and energy and priorities. There are only so many hours in the day. You are not going to please all of the people all of the time. Focus on the things that count. Do your best to achieve those. And draw a line in the sand that you will not allow yourself to feel guilty about the ones you need to say no to.

Internal obligations are trickier. This is where we can drown in our best intentions. You can spend all day on the internet looking up great advice (hopefully even on this blog) about what you should be doing to further your career, be more productive, make more art, do more, be more. And all that advice can be perfectly helpful, but you have to accept the fact that you cannot follow it all nor should you be trying to. Exercise. Cook healthy meals. Meditate. Draw every day. Put time into your social media. Plan a personal project. Network with your dream clients. Research your idols. These are all solid pieces of advice you will find on this very blog. But you have to accept that you are a human and you can only do so much at the same time. Pick a few things to work on now, table the rest for later. And the key is to not feel guilty about the things you consciously table for later. And do not feel guilty about the things you give an honest try that do not work for you.

Remember “shoulds” lead to guilt. Choose consciously what you can do, and what you prioritize doing. And try very hard to start chipping away at that knee-jerk guilt response to everything else. Little by little, you’ll start to climb out of the quicksand. Life is too hard to keep on top of without the added weight of guilt on top.


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