5 Ways to Free Yourself from The Guilt of Success

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Are you the only one in your family with success? Here are five ways to move past the guilt and feel connected to loved ones, regardless of their life situation.

Succeeding in life when your family is struggling comes with a treasure trove of difficult emotions and awkward family dynamics. Guilt, shame, and loneliness are the most common and you may cope by dimming your personality, playing down your success, shying away from others, or responding defensively to innocent questions or comments. And to make matters worse, the holidays are here to shine a big fat spotlight on the disparity between you and your family. Thanks, holidays. Thanks a lot.


The good news? You can learn to connect with family as your true authentic self sans guilt. It starts by challenging your mindset and old thought patterns. This year, try looking at your differences … well, differently … with these five simple reframes. Repeat after me:


Reframe #1: I’m not the only odd-one-out.

Even if they don’t talk about it, a lot of people have trouble fitting in during family gatherings — maybe even one of your family members. This year, look for that person and try connecting with him or her by asking about his or her interests. If no one stands out, call your friend who also struggles with his or her family to ask how it’s going.


Reframe # 2: No one has a problem with my success.

It may just be a fantasy that everyone is noticing and dwelling on your success, how it makes them feel and how different you are. Even if they mention your fancy watch or nice shoes, it doesn’t mean they’re thinking about them 24/7. Try to take the comment at face value, say thank you and move on. (And make a mental note that your family member might be interested in a nice watch for their next holiday gift.)


Reframe #3: If I didn’t feel guilty, it wouldn’t bother me.

Yup, it’s really common to feel guilty when you’re the lone, successful wolf. To help ease the pain, keep track of the mental chatter surrounding your guilt. It may sound something like, “I shouldn’t flaunt my success because it will make them feel bad,” “My success reminds them of their failings,” “I don’t deserve my success,” “They think my lifestyle is wrong/bad/frivolous,” “I need to make everything better for everyone,” etc.


These thoughts can be very damaging, and often, untrue. When you start examining the story around your guilt, remember three things:

  1. Everyone defines success differently. Your family might not feel unsuccessful, and therefore, don’t need your pity, guilt or help.
  2. These thoughts are just your fear talking and not necessarily reality.
  3. If someone does have an issue with your success, it’s their problem and not your job to fix it. Allow them to own and process their negative emotions by refusing to get caught up in them yourself.


Reframe #4: We may be different, but we’re really similar, too.

Instead of focusing on the differences, try focusing on the commonalities. Find an old, happy family memory to recount: “Remember when we took that trip to Montana and Katie fell in the lake? That was fun.” Try asking about the family tree and the personalities of deceased relatives. Maybe there’s a young person in the room who has a similar interest to what you do — tell him or her about the pros and cons of your work, business or hobby and maybe offer to mentor him or her.


Reframe #5: Our differences are something to celebrate.

Differences enrich lives and provide opportunities to explore new ideas and experiences. Look for ways to dive into the differences instead of avoiding them. If you’re married, suggest your in-laws try on a tradition from your family. You can explain how the tradition got started and learn how they came up with their traditions. Or, use your monetary success to buy something special, like tickets to a nearby show or mementos from a recent trip, that everyone will enjoy.


Comparing your success to your family’s lack thereof can be difficult, but as you embark on the holiday weekend, I hope these five reframes can help you release the guilt and refocus on the love you all share.


If you’re struggling with debilitating guilt, anger, anxiety related to your success or family dynamics, we can help. Start by contacting us to set up a free consultation.


To your emotional health,

Dr. Dabney


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