Guilt is in the spotlight. Check out the conversations among professionals struggling to achieve balance in their lives. There’s a huge acknowledgment that guilt drives our detrimental decisions. We make decisions to take on extra work, neglect family needs, and break our own daily commitments to hit the gym and get sufficient sleep – all in the name of guilt. This guilt is generally linked to a fear of disappointing others; we don’t want to say ‘no’ and let people down. Obviously – yet perhaps ironically – when we try to please everyone, we do let others down. And we often let ourselves down in the process. So how do we get rid of the guilt? I’m not sure, but I have a different proposal: try living as if you don’t have it.

make guilt irrelevant and get priorities straight

You’ve already heard the concept that a ‘yes’ to anything is a ‘no’ to something else. Consider more deeply that the automatic ‘yes’ to the requests of others (including work) means that your default ‘no’ is to the people who matter most to you (this should include yourself). This is not a desirable default. It’s very likely inconsistent with your core values, and it isn’t sustainable if you intend to bring your energized, dedicated, best professional self to your work. Bring a clear awareness of this tradeoff to the forefront of your decision making. Staying anchored to this concept will help you take a few simple steps to live as if you don’t have guilt.

First, try this experiment. Each morning, before you start working, determine and write down a time and an action that will the define the end of your work day. What? End of the work day? I’m suggesting that there be a demarcation that clearly separates working from the other aspects of living. You must write it down. You must make it objective and clear. It can be an actual time of day (e.g. 5pm) or a milestone time (e.g. when the faculty meeting is adjourned). And it should be accompanied by an action – closing your computer, turning off work notifications on your phone, changing your clothes – anything you choose. Write it down before your day starts, and stick to it. Simple, yes, but not easy. Not easy, but life-changing. Have an end to your work day. What’s that you say? But some urgent thing always comes up? You’ll feel guilty if you don’t step in to help and handle it right away? This is all too common. Use your anchored awareness that a ‘yes’ to putting out these fires is a ‘no’ to your family and to yourself. It’s also an eventual ‘no’ to your colleagues and your patients, as your unsustainable efforts to please spiral into burnout. You may feel the guilt, but go ahead and live as if it doesn’t exist by sticking to your plan.

Second, practice simply declining. “I wish I could help, but I am not available to stay later this evening.” Perhaps defer to the next opportunity that falls within your work day: “I can certainly work on this, and can give it my attention tomorrow afternoon.” I won’t lie – this will probably feel incredible uncomfortable, which is why you’ve got to practice living this way! What’s the worst that will happen? Almost nothing is a genuine emergency, even though requests often come described as such. It’s really important to have the experience of setting a boundary or declining a request, and then living the fallout. Very likely, you are imagining an exaggerated aftermath. The sky will not fall. The organization will not crumble. There might be no consequence whatsoever. Or, you may be surprised that the consequence is favorable, as colleagues respect your commitments to others in domains that aren’t exclusively work.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you don’t pitch in and do your part. To the contrary, I am assuming that you are. Even then, the only person who will protect your well-deserved ‘protected’ time is you. There will be the occasional true emergency and you’ll use your judgment to know when you are truly needed. This is part of maturing in your role as a leader – triaging and managing your time and energy wisely. So live like a strategic professional instead of a victim being pushed around by guilt.

Finally, realize that you will never be ‘caught up’ at work. And that’s OK. Sure, you may keep a zero inbox and check off your to-do lists, but – reality check – there will always be more work to do. Work will expand to the size and timeline you allow. Time is limited, and you must be a responsible steward of your time.

overcoming mommy guilt and guilt at work for doctors with burnout guilt

When you find yourself thinking about your admirable colleagues who seem to be able to do it all, know that they are not. While they may be doing a lot, and doing it well, they are saying no to plenty of other things that could take precious energy and time. When you find yourself feeling a jealous twinge that a colleague ‘has time – must be nice!’ to exercise, get a massage, have a social night out, etc – know that no one simply has time. They make the time. They claim the time by living as if the guilt doesn’t exist. Do they still feel it? Maybe. But they live as if they don’t.

Say what you want about your values and priorities. The words matter very little. Write them down if you wish – that doesn’t make them align. How you actually spend your time and energy reveals your priorities as they truly are. For many of us, this is a harsh truth because it reveals priorities that aren’t the way we intend them to be, or wish that they were, or plan for them to be after we achieve that next milestone and our lives become less crazy, as if that’s going to happen. Only the act of living with behavior that honors our values makes them real, even if we feel discomfort in the background. Don’t waste more time trying to eradicate the feeling of guilt. Instead, live as if you already have. This has helped me enormously. I hope you’ll try it too, and let me know how it works for you.

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