What If ‘Political Correctness’ and Guilt Trips Are The Same Thing?

I promise that this is not a political post, even though trying to avoid being seen as political is incredibly difficult these days! But I wanted to suggest a different approach to what tends to make both sides of an argument froth at the mouth, whether we are discussing political decisions or social ones, such as sexual equality or toxic masculinity.

I have seen for many years the “It’s political correctness gone mad” articles in the media, the latest being the poor unsuspecting vegan sausage roll from Greggs. As these things always do, it sparked off a debate around why people get so upset about things that, on the face of it, seem to have little impact on their life. And what I see missing from all of this debate is the part that to me is critical – it is the use of guilt trips. Guilt is used by others to control our behaviour – so we try to make someone bend to our will by making them feel guilty about what it is they are doing. We do this because it is hugely effective – you only need to look at the adverts around to see how often we are made to take a long hard look at what we are buying and reassess our choices.

But using guilt trips has four possible consequences: Firstly, it can indeed impact and change your behaviour – you listen to the opinion, you decide you agree with it, and you adapt. Secondly, you feel guilt being triggered but you don’t feel there is a way for you to change your behaviour and so you just feel bad about your inability to adapt and take it on as further criticism of you as a human being. Thirdly, you feel the guilt triggered but instead of taking it onboard you become indignant that you are being made to feel guilty and so you fight back not on the issue itself but on the person trying to make you feel guilty. Lastly you feel the guilt triggered and – without really assessing or caring whether you agree or not – you double down on whatever it is that you are being made to feel guilty about.

From my perspective, many of the political correctness arguments originate from the last two possibilities – that the attempt to make people feel guilty just makes them dig in even deeper, and then start attacking back. When one side suggests that behaviour should be changed, it is done in a way that it makes others feel so uncomfortable that they defend themselves by attacking the person’s right to tell them what to do. For added effect, they then do it even more. The drip feed of these guilt trips has been relentless and so the individual issues are inconsequential – it is now more of a fight around who gets to tell who what to do. This to me is the essence of the political correctness issue.

Now, we live in a society where a certain amount of compromise has to happen in order to maintain civil obedience. And the constant rumblings of ‘bloody political correctness’ have largely been tempered by the acknowledgement that you are not going to like everything that everyone does around you. However, we have reached a tipping point, where the amount of things people are made to feel bad about has made the discomfort of not being right so bad that there is now nothing left to compromise on. And when we no longer try to compromise, we end up with constant battles over who can win ground. Our natural instincts towards compassion and empathy for others are overshadowed by our survival instinct to protect ourselves.

We only change behaviour when we feel that we won’t be judged or embarrassed by doing so, yet the antagonism in society overall seems to have got to the point where it is no longer safe to change your mind and so your only other option is to fight back.

How do we change course? How can we begin to listen to one another without being defensive or hostile? The key is to understand this one thing – opinions are neither right or wrong – they are just opinions. In a democratic society, we are all allowed to voice our opinion, but we must also listen to opinions without judgement, and without fear of judgement. One person having one opinion does not mean that everyone else is wrong. Sometimes, the issue is less that there is a right or wrong answer, but that we say that someone is wrong without explaining an alternative. So we just leave them in the no-mans-land – and wonder why there is a backlash.

If you are vegan, eat the sausage roll. Tell people how tasty it is. Buy another one. If you are not vegan, buy a meat sausage roll. Tell people how tasty it is. Buy another one. Let market forces dictate whether demand is there for something that you don’t particularly like yourself. If someone asks your opinion on vegan or meat, say, “I think … ” and don’t get caught up in trying to convince them that you are right.

In the long run, it is nothing to do with ‘political correctness’ and everything to do with feeling that you are being made to feel guilty without the possibility of redemption, once too often.

Let’s Talk About Anxiety and Guilt

Anxiety is a diverse condition – it doesn’t care who you are, what you do, and how you do it. It will come after you and drag you down, and it can feel that there is nothing that you can do about it. Many of the clients I work with come initially because they have reached that point where their anxiety is out of control and they feel permanently guilty – even guilty for existing. They begin to feel that they are taking up too much space and that there is something wrong with them, feeling permanently guilty, but in fact, the anxiety is usually a mechanism their brains are using to tell them that something in their life is not only against what is best for them, but is so far away from who they really are that the brain just can’t make the two things reconcile.

Who we are and what is important to us can get hidden behind everyone else’s opinion of who we should be and what we should want. Trouble is, the more you listen to them, the harder it is to check that it is the right thing for you. The stress, overwhelm and anxiety brought on are alarm bells going off, that the balance has gone too far off centre, and you need to find yourself again.

You may recognise this as anxiety, low confidence, low self worth, feeling guilty, feeling overwhelmed – and you would be right in every single one. Guilt is a big red flag that something is wrong in your life, and my goal is to get rid of that guilt before the brain goes into protection mode and anxiety kicks in.

#MeToo and Guilt

The #MeToomovement and the more recent #WhyDidntIReport is an important illustration of what happens when you refuse to feel guilty any more. 
First up, I want to differentiate between guilt and shame. For many victims, the shame of suffering abuse of any kind never fully goes away as it creates a mark on your self identity (Brene Brown makes the distinction between “I did something wrong” and “I am wrong”). But holding onto the guilt of ‘letting it happen’, or refusing to report it can be overcome with the right level of support. It also takes a self awareness, that you were not responsible for what happened, and that from the moment it started your choices were the best you had at the time. When I read the accounts now being shared, I think there is a resolve and a resilience behind each statement that they will no longer own that guilt and they release it back to the abuser, which is where it belongs.

Are You Done With Being Someone You’re Not?

It’s so frustrating to look in the mirror and see someone who has been created by others – who looks like you but is racked with indecision and anxiety that they are not enough, that they are not right or perfect, and that they will not be accepted by others.

Then you wake up one day, and realise that you no longer recognise this person, and the anxiety turns to determination, and you decide there and then to be you, whatever that looks like. You can’t love yourself if you didn’t have some hand in what you are like, and yet it is scarily easy to lose yourself in others’ expectations.

When you look in the mirror – do you recognise the person looking back at you? If not, are you ready to say goodbye to them and hello to the real you, the one that is MORE than ready to be given centre stage?

Be Gentle With Yourself

You instinctively know how to calm a frightened child or animal down, by getting down to its level, by moving slowly and gently, and talking calmly and quietly.  You have to recognise that when you live with guilt, that guilt may very well present itself the same as a frightened child, as you can feel unsure or uncertain how to proceed.  Think of yourself as that child, that needs reassurance that everything will be okay, and to be encouraged to trust your own ability to figure things out.

If you have lived with guilt for a while, the change won’t necessarily come overnight, but it will come quicker if you are kinder to yourself in the process.

“Help Me Accept That Which I Cannot Change” – Er, No!

“Help me accept that which I cannot change”

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This is part of the serenity prayer that is fairly commonly shared on social media – this idea that we have to accept those things in our lives that we have no control over and so cannot let ourselves stress over it. Whilst I agree with the sentiment of this statement, I hear it all too often from people who assure me that they don’t feel guilt: they will tell me how there is no point feeling guilty because it’s out of my control, so what’s the point of worrying? I would love that we can stop an emotion just because it doesn’t make rational sense, but unfortunately that is not how this works! Just because something is outside of your control doesn’t mean you can switch off the emotions such as guilt (what bigger guilt trip is there that there is nothing we can do?)

I prefer this rewrite – “help me understand how to change my response to that which I can’t control” – because that keeps the ball in your court. There are some things that are going to happen and that you cannot change no matter how much you want to and that you have to accept. But you ALWAYS control your response to them and that is how you show up and become your best self.

New Parent? Use Your Village Wisely

As a new parent, you will no doubt want to get advice and guidance from your support network of friends, family, as well as medical experts and professionals.  This is normal as you want the absolute best for your child.  However, much of the guidance that you get will disagree and yet you will be told by everyone that their way is the ‘right’ way.  To be able to parent without guilt, you must listen to all of the advice but then take time to work out what is best for you and your child, taking into account what is important to you.  There is a treasure trove of tips and recommendations from others, but don’t let these give their opinions of what is best greater importance. 

There are so many examples of situations where you will get conflicting advice – co-sleeping or not, breast or bottle feeding, when to wean, when developmental stages occur – the list is endless.  If you listen to others too much, you no longer trust your ability to make decisions for yourself and the guilt of not doing the right thing grows.

But you DO know the right thing to do.  Listen to your instincts, listen to your child, and know that whatever choice you make, it is done with love and pure intentions.