Social Guilt

Gloria, a 55-year-old woman with four kids, wanted to be at the funeral of her favorite aunt in New Mexico. Gloria was torn: She was going crazy setting up a wedding for her daughter and providing lodging, recreation and food for guests. Plus she had her own very busy life. Yet, she felt very close to the aunt. Should she go?

Not only do we have a variety of social obligations, we have our own lives with both responsibilities and pleasures. Do we feel guilty when we put our own responsibilities or pleasures ahead of social obligations?

Because of the enormous increase in social mobility, families and friends are geographically apart. Many of us know people who have aging or ill parents in Florida whom they want to help, but the time, distance and the expense makes it difficult. Frieda’s ill parents never complained, but stated how much better they felt when Frieda visited. Every time Frieda visited, she came back feeling both annoyed and guilty—annoyed that she had the subtle pressure of visiting placed on her, that she could not do many of the things she wanted to with her friends and family on Long Island and guilty that she wasn’t doing enough.

Obviously, these issues generate differences among people. The conflicts are amplified by the nature of the relationships involved. For example, some people feel good about helping the aging parents whom they have a strong bond to, while some feel guilty about not helping parents who were selfish parents.

Conflicts of priorities are part of life. Weddings, bar mitzvahs and parties require limits. Where do we draw the line? We would like to invite everyone, but limits must be set and feelings are often hurt. One woman whom I am seeing in therapy now was told by her son that her close cousin won’t be invited to his wedding. To try to avoid hurting feelings, she decided to tell her son not to invite any of her cousins. What “should” be a joyous occasion now carries tension with it.

Family situations are tough. Diane has a toxic needy cousin, Celeste, (a real pain-in-the-ass) who asked to be invited from Georgia to the family Easter in New York. Diane’s daughter was due to give birth and she wanted to be available. However, due to her guilt about deferring several of Celeste’s other requests, she accepted. As expected, the visit was a disaster. Celeste complained about the food, required constant attention, broke things and whined about her aches and pains. Rather than give in to his growing urge to strangle Celeste, George, Diane’s husband, simply left and went back to their house in Babylon, saying he had things he must do. He was gone until Celeste left. When he returned, he was in a quandary: He didn’t want to see Celeste again in the future and didn’t want to insult his wife’s family. The problem was eliminated when he came home and saw Diane sitting on the couch staring straight ahead. Without even saying hello, Diane muttered into space, “I don’t ever want to see that woman again.”

Diane should have declined Celeste’s request. If we have good reason to believe we are going to resent meeting the “obligation,” it is generally better to decline than generate a trail of resentment. Usually, when there is resentment, it intrudes into the relationship on both sides. Diane didn’t know whether Celeste enjoyed her visit and Celeste is probably telling people that Diane was a lousy host. Saying “no” should be in our vocabularies.

I have a general rule: Don’t sacrifice. Usually, if it is viewed as sacrifice, there is resentment, often on both sides. We know we have social and family responsibilities. We should meet them in a positive manner or else decline. “No” is not a dirty word.

Would you go to Gloria’s aunt’s funeral? If not, would you feel guilty? Tell us at