When I was little, I loved the bubblegum taste of ear infection medicine so much that I was always excited when an ear ache turned out to be a full blown infection. One year my mother thought my little sister's ear infection medicine was disappearing faster than usual. "Have you been drinking your sister's medicine?" she asked me. I hadn't touched it, but boy did I feel guilty. The very thought of stealing made me sick, and not in my ears.
This story should illustrate just how guilt-prone I am. If I buy airplane tickets a day before prices drop, I feel guilty. If I hold off buying tickets and the price goes up the next day, I feel guilty. I feel guilty if I say the wrong thing in class, or if I don't speak at all. If I act or I hesitate. If I give a student I'm tutoring the help they want (but shouldn't have), or I withhold the help even though I'm not busy. Not a day goes by that I don't feel guilty about something new.
I know I'm not alone. In fact, that's the very reason I'm posting this on a blog dedicated to discussing gender issues. I know many women who suffer from nonstop guilt. But no matter how prevalent guilt it, I think it's damaging, so lately I've been trying to prevent it from guiding my actions.
But where do you draw the line between feeling guilt and being careful about how your actions affect others? It's great to take others into consideration before you act, and sometimes the most moral decision is one you don't enjoy making at all but which allows you to serve a loved one. In fact, sacrificing something you want out of a sense of obligation can be downright empowering. But if concern about how others think and feel guides all your actions, you can get tangled up in dilemmas pretty quickly.
For instance, if you know that it hurts a friend to see you sad, is it wrong or right to pretend you're happy whenever you're around them? If you think another person needs you, is it wrong to keep them in your life even though you don't enjoy their company? These questions have been weighing on my mind for awhile, ever since an old roommate told me she didn't want to be friends anymore because she didn't want to be around someone as pessimistic as I had become after a recent break up. Friendship is supposed to include ups and downs, but sometimes you need space from friends. But how do you get the space you need without hurting someone else, especially if you don't know whether it's temporary space or permanent space? These questions become even more complicated in romantic relationships of course.
Maybe there are benefits to guilt that I simply cannot see, but for me guilt tends to have the effect of a straight-jacket - it constricts my movements and shrinks my emotional world.