Unpacking guilt can be complex and time-consuming. It makes sense that we’d feel guilty for actions in the past before we knew better or when we were different people. Sometimes, though, we have guilt for something we haven’t done or things that should be positives in our lives, like earning more money or getting a promotion. Being successful comes with many benefits, but one downside is that many people feel guilty for achieving financial success when others haven’t.
Listen to this week’s episode of the rich & Regular podcast where we discuss unpacking success guilt, and read below for some ways to move through that guilt.
Understand your guilt.
Knowing what kind of guilt you’re feeling is a good place to start. When you’ve done something to or against another person, guilt should act as your moral compass, letting you know your actions were wrong and you need to apologize or otherwise make amends. But often, instead of serving as a barometer of our actions, guilt gets clouded with other emotions like grief, fear or anger, and it can quickly become difficult to untangle. Excessive guilt can even be a sign of trauma and misplaced emotions.
When it comes to guilt associated with success, we can feel like we don’t deserve or aren’t worthy of the good things in our lives or that we just “got lucky” where someone else didn’t. While that might be true, depending on the context of the situation, the chances are good that at least part of how you got lucky was because you worked hard.
Diminishing the work you accomplished doesn’t make anyone else shine brighter—it just keeps you feeling small. Working through guilt feelings can take time and emotional energy, so make sure you give yourself space. Think about the ideas below to help you unpack your feelings of guilt and move forward with your life.
Define your success.
Our society tends to equate success with having a lot of money, but it doesn’t have to be how you define success for yourself. If you have been financially successful by society’s standards, that’s great and should be celebrated. But understand that success isn’t just about the amount in your bank account, and there are many different ways to be successful.
Many professions and jobs are underpaid, which isn’t a reflection on you as much as on societal values. Gauging your success against your siblings, friends or parents will only bring comparison and cause resentment or anger.
As you devote time to examining your feelings of guilt, sit with your journal and work on defining what success means to you and why you might feel guilty about that by reflecting on the following questions:
- As you think of the word success, do any images or memories from childhood come up?
- What message did you receive about successful people from your family as a child?
- How do you want success to feel in your life?
- What would make success feel positive for you?
- How do you want your kids to define success (if applicable)?
Don’t equate your self-worth to dollar figures.
Whether or not you feel financially successful, remember that your worth is not tied to your bank or portfolio balance. Keep yourself grounded and aware of your worth whenever you’re around people who like to either comment about the money they have, make remarks on how well you’re doing or insinuate that you owe them something for your success.
If those remarks make you feel put down or otherwise less than what you’re worth, consider staying away from that person for a while so you can get clarity for yourself around your finances, how you feel about the success you’ve achieved and the feelings you’re having about that success.
Sorting feelings of guilt, shame, anger and fear can be incredibly complex and should probably be done with a professional counselor, therapist or a trusted mentor. It can be tempting to work things out on your own or stuff down your feelings and just ignore them, but that tends only to make guilt (or shame) grow.
Discussing what you feel with a trusted adviser can help the feelings dissipate and be put into their proper perspective. Working with a trained therapist can save you a lot of time and energy as you try to unravel these confusing feelings.
Keep moving forward.
Identifying and working with your guilt feelings can be an exhausting process, but one that could help you move forward with greater clarity and ease in your life. We all have things in life we wish we hadn’t done, but we often carry guilt that doesn’t belong to us. Knowing the difference between the guilt you need to own and make amends for and the guilt you’re holding for someone else can help you create healthy boundaries and also move forward onto even greater success.