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It’s Not You, It’s Me

I am a guilty person. Not in the sense that I am a career criminal or that I have skeletons in my closet. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, I was born with a natural (and strong) sense of guilt that has only grown with me as I have aged. As my mom jokes, “I felt bad giving Kelsey any formal punishment when she was younger, because if she made a mistake, she would punish herself enough.”

Now that I am an adult, I no longer have to worry about being grounded or having my car keys taken away. Unfortunately, the self-punishment and feelings of guilt that started in my childhood did not have the same expiration date when I turned 18.  Nagging feelings of guilt and anxiety followed me into my adulthood. They plagued every part of my life, and soon I was racking up the self-charges.

Ignored an email on the weekend? Guilty of being uncommitted.

Said no to taking on a project at work? Guilty of being unhelpful and selfish.

Decided to take a night off instead of working past traditional office hours? Guilty of being lazy.

Notice that I use the language “self-charges.” No one was telling me that I needed to work past five, or answer emails on the weekend. No one has ever been upset when I said “no.” Yet, I was constantly feeling guilty. My imaginary rap sheet was getting longer and unmanageable.

The shifting point for me came from a simple question presented while I was expressing my guilt over “letting people down.” I was asked,

Are other people setting these unreasonable expectations for you? Or are you setting them for yourself?

When we talk about boundary setting, it’s easy to think of those boundaries separating us from others – putting distance between ourselves and our bosses, our peers, even our significant others. But what about the boundaries we set for ourselves? How can we establish what is and is not okay for the items that are within our control, without feeling unreasonable guilt?

For me, it is helpful to take a step outside myself and to treat “Work Kelsey” like I would another colleague. Would I consider a colleague as being uncommitted if they didn’t answer a Saturday evening email? Of course not. So why do I treat “Work Kelsey” like a slacker when she allows herself time to unwind? Just as I give colleagues the space to balance their work and their personal lives, I am learning to do the same by allowing myself to treat “Work Kelsey” as kindly as I aim to treat everyone else in my life.

As we continue to work from home, self-boundaries are more important than ever. With our work now fully existing within our cell phones and our living rooms, we are our own last defense against threats on our work-life balance. However, if we are attacking ourselves from the inside, we are weakening our own defenses. By first protecting ourselves from our own unreasonable expectations that we set for ourselves, we can then extended these healthy boundaries to relationships that exist outside of our own minds.

By: Kelsey Richels, M.S.