When Guilt Comes Knocking

Years ago, when I lived in Boston, there were days I dreaded walking the short distance from my office building to the subway stop. Not because of the windchill, which could drop to well below freezing in the winter, but because of a few idealistic young adults on a mission to save the world.

“Do you have one minute to help feed starving children?” 

“Can you spare one minute for the environment?”

I wanted to sink into the ground. There was no comfortable way out. If I said, “no” I would like feel a total a-hole. But if I stopped and listen to the engaging yet lengthy script, then I would feel guilted into making a contribution on the spot when my intention was simply to go home and cook dinner.

What strikes me now is my conviction that I had no choice in how I could feel. I could either walk on and feel guilty, or stay and feel guilty.

How others perceived me was more important than what I thought of myself.

A few years later, another young, friendly-looking man with a smile and tell-tale identity badge appeared at my door. I could see him through the window, which gave me time to plan my escape. Every time I saw him at the door (three before he gave up), I would pick up my toddler who was playing happily on the floor. Naturally he would begin to protest and try to squirm free to get back to his toys. Then I would open the door, shrug my shoulders and say over my child’s protesting cries, “Sorry. This is isn’t a good time.”

I was delighted how well this scheme worked. But it didn’t change my underlying belief that guilt was inevitable unless I escaped the situation. I didn’t realize that I was giving away my power.

This was how I was raised. Be kind. Smile. Don’t be rude (even if you have to fib to protect someone’s feelings). How others perceived me was more important than what I thought of myself. Managing another person’s emotions was more important than managing my own.

It left my emotional state in the hands of everyone but me. A stranger on the street could make me feel guilty, stingy and selfish.

It didn’t occur to me that my own needs (to prepare and eat dinner) and desires (to do that without stopping to give a donation) also mattered. I needed to learn how to weigh competing needs without automatically giving priority to the needs and wishes of others.

Introspection helped but a big shift started when I began training as a Certified Money Coach (CMC)©. I learned that our emotional patterns, relationship patterns and money patterns are interconnected and inseparable. The money coaching sessions I received from my mentor opened my eyes to how much guilt I had been carrying since childhood, and the effect it had on my money choices and relational patterns.

I began to shed the shame about what I was doing wrong and became deeply curious about my patterns. I began analyzing my interactions, identifying when I gave away my power and imaging what I could do differently in the future.

This is a gradual process, and one that I am still learning.

Practicing embracing your own power feels uncomfortable. But living in your own power feels extraordinary.

The universe decided to test my progress last week. I was about to prepare dinner when the doorbell rang. I opened the door to find a friendly-looking young man with a charming smile and identity badge. He assured me he had “just one question” for me.

“What age should people be allowed to marry?” Upon hearing my answer, he educated me on child brides in Kenya and his passion for wanting to help them. Since I mentioned that children were too young to marry, would I like to contribute to his cause?

I explained that I don’t feel comfortable making a contribution or pledge to anyone on the spot. I asked him where I could go to learn more. He gave me a web address and many other details that went in one ear and out the other. To be honest, I had no intention of going to the website. I wished him success and said goodbye.

I closed the door and began to process what just happened.

At first, I felt proud of myself because I felt no guilt for not contributing. It’s okay for me to decide which charities and causes I will support financially, even if that means I will say no to some worthy causes.

Then I felt annoyed. He took up so much of my time (less than 10 minutes, but it felt extreme in the moment). He also led me to believe it would be a short conversation of “just one question.” That felt intentionally misleading.

I was also annoyed at myself for not stopping him sooner once I understood that he wanted a contribution that I was unwilling to provide. If I want others to be direct with me, then I need to be direct with them.

In that moment, I forgot that I had power. I had the power to decide I did not want to be drawn in by open-ended questions and emotional stories that were carefully designed to influence my decision. I had the power to say my truth regardless of what another person would think of me.

Practicing embracing your own power creates uncomfortable and messy situations. But it’s worth it because living in your own power creates inner strength and the confidence in knowing that you can manage any situation.

Here’s what I plan to say next time: “Let me stop you. I can see how passionate you are about this project. I’m passionate about several causes also and I choose to contribute my time and money to those projects. I’m going to continue supporting my passions and I wish you success in supporting yours.”

I almost can’t wait for that next knock.

Emily Shull is a behavioral money coach and founder of Me Myself and Money. 

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