Guilt Can Help Transform Us

August 14th, 2020

Last month, we hosted dinners on the topic of “Guilt” in 13 cities around the world. From Miami to Buenos Aires, Annecy to Singapore, women gathered (many virtually) to share and listen to our experiences on this topic. Here is what we learned.

But first, a personal story from Roxanne, Dinner Confidential host in Edinburgh, Scotland:

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” Pico Iyer

And travel I did. I lived and worked abroad for 15 years across 3 continents — Europe, Asia and America. Why did I feel so free and so ‘me’ when travelling? Was it about losing and finding myself as Pico Iyer so beautifully put? Was it about trying to make sense of my Scottish-Persian roots? Despite all of this joy from travelling, my back-pack was often very full and heavy with GUILT. I felt guilty about feeling so present — enjoying all the cultural beauty of the world while being SO far from my family and friends. I was this young fool tasting all the delicious flavours of the world while my family had to deal with real life. Yes I was home every Christmas, yes they came to meet me wherever I lay my hat. But no, I wasn’t there for them, not really there. I missed births and funerals and all the little insignificant but significant moments like spontaneous meals and walks in the park and hugs and conversations in the same time zone. I recently moved back home to Edinburgh, the city I was born in, with my wonderful husband. I’m trying to make up for all those ‘guilty’ yet joyous years apart, and I’m falling in love once more with home.

And now, our key takeaways…

Most of us feel a sense of “guilt” on a daily basis and culture has a lot to do with that

Across our tables, talking about guilt felt easier than discussing other sensitive topics such as fear or money. Perhaps, this is because we are so used to talking AND bonding over all the “little things” that continuously make us feel guilty like not doing enough exercise, spending too much time on social media or eating a ‘crappy’ meal.

But as we dug deeper into the topic, we realized there are big societal constructs that highly influence how many of us experience guilt. While guilt often turns us into victims, we understood that there were more empowering ways to relate to it.

The biggest source of our guilt comes from dominant cultural narrative expectations across these 4 key areas

  1. Sexuality — Some of our first recollections of feeling “guilt” are around sex and (self)pleasure (yes, even today). This stems from the inherited religious discourses where women are required to be “respectable” and “decent.” As we grow older, some of us recognize how oppressive this narrative is and enjoy more sexual freedom.

  2. Productivity — In a patriarchal global culture, success is about achievement. So, when we are not being “productive” guilt often shows up at our door. How can we approach “doing/achieving” with more pleasure, ease, and slowness?

  3. Body — While the media has become more diverse in terms of portraying women’s bodies, we still have residual programmings of what “beauty” means. No wonder food is such a source of guilt for so many of us!

  4. Motherhood—” Mum guilt” is huge (particularly for single mothers). Are we present enough? Are we too strict? Are we teaching the right behaviors? Are we balancing home and career? These are some of the questions that bring up a sense of guilt for mothers ALL around the world. This guilt feels oppressive on mothers — what can we change?

Besides all the societal driven guilt, we also experience “self-imposed” guilt because we haven’t achieved all that we expected and wanted for ourselves i.e..: having a partner, living in a house, having children, being successful (whatever that means to you), having x title…. Perhaps we are using the incorrect language here: what if we feel grief instead of guilt? How about grieving all the lives not lived to make space for what is and what will be?

Cultural Nuances

The societal expectations in Asia are high and the “good girl” narrative is firmly implanted in many women’s minds.

In Singapore and in Nairobi there’s a profound sense of guilt tied to “family duties” — there’s a common narrative around parents “sacrificing” a lot for their children and thus a lot of disappointment when expectations are not met.

Privilege & Guilt

Talking about guilt and privilege is challenging and brings up a lot of discomfort. The world feels unfair and unjust, and for many of us, the response to that is guilt — guilt for having “success”, guilt for our “happy lives”, or guilt for living in privileged conditions in countries facing deep economic struggles like Argentina and Kenya.

We all want safety, racial equity, and a world where no one is oppressed at the expense of another human being. Yet, we struggle to talk about this topic with real openness. It’s time to embrace these conversations with more courage and humility.

Important note: there’s a lot of overlap between guilt and shame, but they are very different feelings. Read our takeaways from the dinners on shame.

Photo by Priscilla Gyamfi on Unsplash

Guilt can be damaging not only for us, but ALSO for the recipients of our guilt

As children, some of us suffered the consequences of our parents’ guilt (maybe because they drank too much, lost their temper easily or neglected their responsibilities towards us). Guilt, often manifests as anger or coldness. Instead of facing our sense of guilt, many of us avoid the person or situation. We tend to become defensive or passive aggressive. The consequences of not addressing our guilt can end up being more destructive (to us and others) than the guilt itself.

Guilt can help us align with our values and be better human beings

At the end of the night, and across tables, we realized that guilt can become a source of growth. It can indicate when a boundary is being crossed. It is a stop sign that lets us know something needs to change. That change might be inconvenient and uncomfortable — it might require us to have hard conversations, change our behavior or force us to put others’s needs before our own.

If we indulge in our guilt we become victims of it. But if we choose to take responsibility and make ourselves accountable, we can create change. We can untangle ourselves from the systems that keep us oppressed and the systems that allow us to oppress others. When we take action we release our fear and align ourselves with the person we want to be.

To close, let’s finish with this powerful quote from the American writer Audre Lorde:

“Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”


  • Incorporate small acts of kindness in your day to day — what can you do to be kinder towards yourself and others today?

  • Practice compassion over empathy — Science shows us that “feeling FOR and not feeling WITH the other” can make us more eager to help others versus feeling overwhelmed with guilt.

  • Change the word “guilt” for “responsible” or “accountable” — Think about some of the things that make you feel guilty — like eating a few extra cookies or lying to someone you care about (or to yourself). What changes can we make if we take responsibility for our actions and make ourselves accountable?

Written by Veronica in Miami, Roxanne in Edinburg and Julie in Annecy in collaboration with Dinner Confidential hosts Rosalind in San Francisco, Caroline in Nairobi, Yolanda in Singapore, Mariasu and Vanina in Buenos Aires, Onna in Seattle, and euni in San Diego.

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