I know a lot about feeling guilty.

It is probably how I have felt for much of my life.

All of the guilt

Guilt at being a child witnessing violence.

Guilt at being a working class girl leaving home and ‘escaping’.

Guilt at being privileged in the academy – in terms of whiteness, passing as able-bodied (for a while), permanence of post.

Guilt at being a mum in a paid job.

Guilt at being in a paid job and being an absent mum.

Guilt at not being able to heal myself as my endometriosis progressively worsened and I was not able to continue over-working and masking.

Guilt at taking sick leave and having sick leave to take.

Guilt in being able to leave the academy when so many want in.

Why all the guilt?

Quite some list. And all of it unnecessary.

To the ‘rational’ mind, nonsense.

If another person told me this was how they felt, I’d have told them they were being harsh on themselves.

Yet, this is a refrain I hear time and time again – particularly in the context of academia and women attempting to ‘navigate it’.

We know why we feel guilt

We know women and girls are socialised to be the helpmeets of others. We know that women and girls experience discrimination as a routine part of their daily working lives. We know that women and girls are gaslight and dismissed in their success.

Guilt comes at women and girls from all directions and it collides with our own internalised perfectionisms and fears.

It is the patriarchy, innit.

In academia and other workplaces where competition is manufactured and valorised, guilt becomes a common trope in whispered conversations. No one feels they are doing enough. No one feels ‘fast’ enough. No one feels on top of their work. Everyone has guilt about something. It is worth revisiting Ros Gill’s 2009 piece on the ‘hidden injuries’ of neoliberal academia if you have not recently.

It is exhausting bullshit.

Ditching the guilt

I’m now almost 6 months out of the academy – in terms of my role as a full time, permanent Lecturer. Alongside setting up my own business, I’ve been having a long think about why all the guilt.

I’ve been working hard on letting it go.

I am a recovering guilt-a-holic.

I am unlearning the self-blame and internalisation of toxic messages of ‘value’ only in terms of ‘outputs’.

While a lot of my coming to terms with guilt is a result of leaving academia and the pressures of that working environment behind, I think there are some learning curves that may be of use to those still wanting in, trying to stay in, or swithering about getting out.

Is it really guilt?

In my own reflections, I’ve asked myself if what I am feeling really is guilt.

If we understand guilt as the feeling that comes from a fear that we have done something to cause harm, or failed to do something, then we can start to unravel it.

We might feel guilt when overworked because we can’t meet the conflicting demands on our time. It is inevitable that we are going to let someone down. But are we really letting them down? Or, have we become so acclimatised to our always on culture that trying to draw boundaries – reasonable and sensible ones – makes our actions feel illegitimate?

Do we genuinely feel guilt, or are we being ‘shamed’ ? I think this might be closer to it. That our work cultures – particularly in academia – thrive on inculcating feelings of failure; indeed setting us up to feel like we are never enough.

In a wider neoliberal context where we are always responsible for our ‘failing’, guilt becomes the default.

We could go even further. What is happening to some of us, who are working hard all of the time, yet are still feeling guilty?

Are we being gaslit? Whereby our organisational cultures are abusive. Cultures and structures making us question our own reality and experiences. We have, I think, moved beyond problems of shifting goalposts to something more insidious. This article in Grazia on ‘corporate gaslighting’ resonated a lot with me. It is something I want to explore further in a dedicated blog, or podcast. Let me know what you think.

It is better to feel, even the negative emotions, than to burn out

I’m not a counsellor. I’m not a health professional.

I’m a person who felt plagued and latterly in my career, paralysed by guilt.

I burnout.

Burning out can mean continuing on without feeling much. Without being able to recognise that you are beyond tipping point. Until you are made to stop.

In my case, I was stopped – physically and mentally.

Seeking help from my GP was the best decision I’ve made.

I even felt guilty about doing that. I had such a great life. I had zero reason to be unhappy.

And yet, I was not only deeply unhappy, I was seriously unwell.

So, if any of this resonates with you, try to ditch the guilt and if you need to, seek the right help.

It is not always possible, or desirable, to change your working context. Yet, having some time to think about what it is that is making you feel guilt, or shame, or anger – can make it easier to manage.

Written with love.