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How do I stop feeling guilty and resentful all the time?

book excerpt letting go

Earlier this year in one of my classes, a veterinarian shared that she wanted to stop feeling so resentful and guilty all the time. 

I can totally relate. I’ve been there. 

Resentment and guilt are like the peanut butter and jelly of emotions for people in helping or caregiving roles. 

As I thought about their relationship with each other, an equation emerged:

An overwhelming sense of responsibility = crippling guilt = not setting boundaries = profound exhaustion = resentment

Like I said, PB+J. Only this jelly is bitter and the bread is all crust. 


People who work in helping professions, myself included, tend to have unrealistic expectations of themselves (and others) and often have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. 

We can easily tip into something I refer to as “lone hero mode.” You can read more about that here.

When we’re in lone hero mode, it feels like everything is riding on our shoulders, so how can we possibly take a break? 

How can we stop working and take care of our needs when that means animals might suffer or even die?

If and when we finally take a long overdue break, we’re so wracked by guilt that we’re miserable. This feeling confirms our belief that we’re doing something wrong when we take care of our needs.

I’ll just keep working until I collapse, thank you very much!

You know how every month I share an excerpt from one of my favorite books? Well, this month I wanted to share a series of quotes that helped me connect some important dots…



Let’s start with the brilliant Clarissa Pinkola Estés who counsels us: 

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.” 

When we feel overwhelmed by how much work there is to be done and all the beings that are suffering and need help, Dr. Estés reminds us to right-size our sense of responsibility. 

We do this by focusing on doing the best we can with the very limited resources we have at the moment. Those resources include our time, health, and energy. 

Our sense of responsibility can’t consistently exceed our resources if we want to do ethical, effective, and sustainable work. 

Our own care is critical. But when animals and people need immediate help, setting limits so that we can take care of ourselves feels…bad.


So, let’s turn to the classic Trauma Stewardship, in which author Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes: 

“When we try to get a handle on guilt, we have to grapple with questions like these: How do we live in a world where there is such a disparity of resources? 

And how can I cope with this, enjoy my life, and not be immobilized by guilt?” 

This is such a good reminder that it’s normal for compassionate people to feel guilt, even when we haven’t done anything wrong. 


In my experience, feelings of guilt don’t go away completely. But, we can be aware of and examine guilt when it pops up, especially if it’s chronic and/or impacting our ability to function.

Dr. Kathleen Ayl, the author of When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession, advises us:

“To cope with guilt…we must be clear about where we feel that we have failed, and then we must examine our expectations

If, on examination, we find that our expectations are not realistic, our next task becomes working on letting them go. 

If they do appear realistic, we can then decide how we will act differently the next time that those feelings come up.”

In other words, if you feel guilt: learn from it or let it go.

That passage helps me because it’s a reminder to examine guilt in connection to our expectations of ourselves. 



The work we do is unavoidably painful and we need support to cope with, heal, and let go of that pain. 

But we also tend to add an unnecessary layer of suffering on top of that pain.

We do that when we tell ourselves that we’re to blame for outcomes that we were not responsible for (or not solely responsible for) and when we feel guilty for things that were never in our direct control. 

We need to recalibrate our expectations of ourselves if we want to release some of our guilt. 

If we feel guilty every time something goes wrong and every time we try to rest or play, we won't take care of ourselves. 

Then we become so depleted that we need someone else to rescue us

That’s how guilt leads to exhaustion and then resentment. 

When we’re depleted, we start resenting everyone who makes any demands, reasonable or not, on our time or energy. Every request feels like an assault.

We just want everyone else to stop being so needy and stop making such a mess of things. We feel helpless and out of control.

Can’t other people just do better, so we can get some effing rest already?! 


America’s favorite social worker Brené Brown has this to say:

“Resentment is an emotion we experience when we fail to set boundaries or ask for what we need, or when expectations let us down because they were based on things we can’t control, like what other people think, feel, or how they react.”

She goes on: 

“Resentment is an indication that you’re not taking care of yourself. Resentment is not about them. It’s about you

Resentment means you want to say no…The resentment is the healthy part of you trying to get you to pay attention and act differently.”

When we feel resentment we might take that as proof that other people are trying to take advantage of us or that they are doing something wrong to us. 

But resentment isn’t evidence that other people are doing anything wrong. Resentment is evidence that we need to change OUR behavior. 

Resentment tells us to focus on what we can control and to take care of our needs, even just a little bit. To do that, we need time and energy. We need boundaries.

Lots of us view boundaries as selfish and hurtful to others. We couldn’t be more wrong. 

Brown’s research showed that: 

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”


It HURTS to set boundaries so that you can care for yourself when so many animals and people are suffering.

But it’s still the right thing to do. 

Boundaries protect us from exhaustion and illness so that we can continue to care for others effectively, ethically, and sustainably. 

In order to hold that healthy boundary we need to be able to tolerate the temporary discomfort of guilt and sadness that may come up. 

Brown counsels us to “choose discomfort over resentment” when setting boundaries. 

If we can do that - with the help of self-regulation, support, and self-compassion - that’s when we begin to shift the equation: 

A right-sized sense of responsibility = reduced guilt = setting healthy boundaries = our needs get met = sustained, compassionate caregiving


Look, these equations aren’t airtight! I know there are other ways to interpret these experiences and feelings.  

And as always, I’m not saying any of this is easy. 

I’m aware that there are real life-and-death consequences to setting boundaries. 

I’m also not saying you shouldn’t be angry about toxic workplaces and systems that make it very challenging to take care of yourself. 

But just for right now, see if there’s any connective tissue in your life between having unrealistic expectations → chronic guilt → exhaustion → resentment.


If you do notice this pattern in your own life, focus on whatever is within your control and ask yourself:

What am I feeling?

What does that tell me I need? 

What action can I take to meet that need (even if it's just a little bit)?


Want to keep exploring these ideas? I highly recommend reading Trauma StewardshipAnd if you’d like to take a class with me so we can talk about this stuff more, check out Compassion Fatigue Strategies, Plus! The next session starts in October (early bird pricing ends Sept, 1st) and I’d love to see you there. 


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