WHEN YOU SEE a police car in your rearview mirror, lights flashing, which one of the following best describes your reaction?
For many of us, the first response is the most likely. We feel guilty even if we’re not. And this same emotion can haunt us at many other times. One of the most common places to feel unwarranted guilt is on the job, especially around departure time each night. The dilemma: When can you leave work without seeming like you’re in too big a hurry? Many variables are at play. Are your colleagues still around? Is the coast clear of supervisors and busybodies? When did you leave yesterday? Was the boss in a good mood?
Many of us burn too much time and energy playing this game on the job, robbing the rest of our lives in order to avoid feeling guilty about not working hard enough. The work we do may not even need the extra time, but we stay on the job anyway—desperate to score points, fit in, jockey for position, and generally avoid looking like we’ve got a life beyond the workplace. To show you just how absurdly pervasive the guilt reflex can be, the top executive of one large company told me that he goes through the same furtive rituals as his staff. “I’m waiting for my managers to leave, so I can leave, and they’re waiting for me to leave, so they can leave,” he confided. “It’s a standoff.”
It turns out we don’t have to be slaves to our jobs; all we have to do is put guilt in its proper place. Not all guilt is bad, but irrational guilt can drain our energy, efficiency, and spirit. In the long run, it actually hurts the work we do. The first step toward pleading not guilty is to understand what guilt is. Only then can we begin to get out from under the worst taskmaster most of us will face in life—ourselves.
The unnecessary guilt we feel on the job is often in our heads, but it’s real enough that we fail to stick up for ourselves when the demands of work threaten to overwhelm our time with family and friends, community projects and favorite pastimes.
Our capacity for guilt can vary. If your parents were hard to please, for instance, you may be more prone to guilt—trying harder to please the authority figures in your life in order to avoid loss of love, a prime motivator in the guilt response. Certain personality traits can also affect the tendency to feel guilt. If you find it hard to express anger, if you’re too security oriented, if you’re shy, have low self-esteem, are overly driven or too judgmental, you’re going to be more subject to guilt.
The inner feedback between what we want to do and what we believe we ought to do sets up a familiar pattern. Make the slightest move toward doing what you want—or even just think about doing it—and a voice in your head suddenly sounds the alarm. You’ve broken the code, disappointed those who reared or hired or married you, and on and on. Because we tend to take these flitting negative thoughts as gospel instead of as the random noise they usually are, we wind up feeling guilty even when we’ve done nothing wrong.
Psychologists call these pangs of anticipatory anxiety “unreal” guilt. Real guilt helps you to show up on time to work, keep your word, and strike a balance between your private desires and those of the larger group. Unreal, irrational guilt is the nagging inner slave driver that pushes you to stay at the office longer, skip vacations, and generally make your life miserable.
Overwork pushes all the guilt buttons and inevitably leads to a place where you can’t win. You’re bound to be denying your time to someone who wants it. “I feel guilty when I’m at home and not at work, and I feel guilty when I’m at work and not at home,” declares Maureen, an exasperated Washington attorney.
As if your own guilt were not enough, there are sure to be co-workers who want to unload their guilt on you. Martyr types are especially skilled at easing their own guilty delusions about not doing enough by getting you to believe you’re not doing enough.
As you’ve surely noticed, guilt often gets passed along as thinly veiled humor. When Los Angeles managed care caseworker Troy Overfield took a day off to be with her ill mother in Las Vegas, she returned to barbed questions about how much money she’d won at the casinos. We’ve all heard (if not used) such corrosive zingers as “Leaving already?” or “Where did you get that tan?” And this grating favorite: “Some of us work for a living.” Because the work ethic is so ingrained in most of us, so pivotal to our self-images, we are easy prey to these accusations. Soon enough you feel guilty if you don’t go along with them.
Those who exploit guilt most effectively at work are often the bosses. They know that guilt is such an intolerable feeling that most of us would do just about anything to avoid it. A skilled manipulator can often get more time and work out of you without a word. Unspoken pressures are enough. The mere presence of a boss staying late is interpreted as a signal that it would be a good idea if you did, too.
It’s crucial to keep in mind that bosses have different stakes and responsibilities. And some workers may be aping the boss’s behavior because they have no life to go home to, or because they simply can’t help themselves. So all may not be what it appears to be after closing time. Hard work is a virtue, but it’s not always necessary to emulate your supervisors or colleagues—and not always healthy, either. Some of these freaks could cross the Sahara without a break for water.
An Australian clothes designer, Cristina, found that out in her first week working for a popular New York fashion retailer and catalog company. Operating under the taboo against asking when the office really closes, Cristina tried to keep up with her boss, who worked every day from nine to one—a.m. Cristina was lucky. As she neared the breaking point, her colleagues and a person from the human resources department intervened. They explained to her that her boss was a lunatic who spent most of her days chatting and only really started working after eight p.m. Cristina came to an agreement with her boss. “I work hard during the day, and my boss can see that,” she explains. Managers who run their own lives badly will do the same for yours. If you’ve been sucked into imitating such a boss and the routine is ruining your life, you need to speak up or change your behavior. If you do a good job at work, no boss worth working for is going to want you to become resentful or burned out.
The simple way to beat the cycle of manipulation is to stay out of it in the first place. Choose not to take the bait. Choice kills guilt. That said, it’s one thing to know that most work guilt is irrational, and quite another to control these habitual waves of angst. You’ll need to reprogram yourself to react differently. Here are some guidelines.
In the end, you have the power to eliminate or at least reduce this most draining of emotions. If you trust your work and your choices, there’s no reason to feel you didn’t do enough or stay long enough at the office. Focus on results, not appearances, and make sure your boss knows about your accomplishments. Mix hard work with a healthy sense of self-respect and you’ll have more time for yourself for a change—without the slightest twinge of guilt.
JOE ROBINSON is a travel writer and founder of Escape Magazine. His campaign Work to Live promotes more vacation time for Americans (see Utne magazine, Sept./Oct. 2000). For more information, visit www.worktolive.info. Excerpted from the new book Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life (Perigree, $14).