I was working through an exercise with a colleague in my Positive Psychology course, and I shared with her something that I heard years ago that I found almost unbelievable and quite life-changing.

“If you feel guilty when you do something, it probably means it’s a good thing to do.”

She had the same reaction I had when I first heard it. She gasped, said, “what? Really?” and wrote it down to remember it. I smiled.

Our course facilitator walked over to ask what we were talking about, and when she told him what I said he paused and asked, “what about the guilt you feel when you don’t do something you’re supposed to do?”

“I don’t feel that guilt,” I answered. “I very rarely, if ever, don’t do something I’m supposed to do.”

I’m not saying that my tendency towards over-responsibility and over-needing to accomplish everything in front of me is a good thing, but it is the way I’m wired. (And I’m working on it.) I am saying that for many of us, even those of you who aren’t wired as tight as I am, a bit of guilt is a good thing.

Guilt is a human emotion that, in many ways, can and does help keep our relationships strong. It can compel us to do for others, do what we say we’re going to do, and do our best to keep our organizations and institutions running well. However, I’ve come to believe that there are many of us who are too prone to guilt, and too programmed to put ourselves last.

When is guilt a good thing? When you’ve been heads down on a task and haven’t taken a break, and you stop to chat with a colleague for a few minutes (about non-work-related things) or you head outside for fresh air and a walk around the block…and you feel guilty. When you take time away from your work and home responsibilities and exercise, or meditate, or read a book, or laugh with a friend…and you feel guilty. When you say “no” to that extra task someone asked you to take on, or you get in bed early to get enough sleep, or you opt out of a meeting that you’re pretty sure you don’t need to be at because you have a project you need to finish…and you feel guilty.

I’m not saying that we should always do anything or everything that we feel guilty about. There are times that we probably need to hunker down and get “it” done. Instead, I am saying that we will all have more to give – and more strength to lead, manage, parent, collaborate, and relate – when we put our own oxygen masks on first, fill up our own energy tanks, and do something just for us.

Watch your guilt-o-meter and when it kicks in, ask yourself if it’s something you really want to do, and if it’s something that would be good for you to do. Feel a little bit of guilt when you focus on yourself…and be a better leader.

When have you done something you felt guilty about, and how did it work out?
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For support in doing a few more things you feel guilty about, contact Lisa at lkohn@chatsworthconsulting.com.

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