Working in humanitarianism often leaves you feeling guilty. You’d have to be pretty stone-cold to work in the sector and never experience it. Guilt is a feeling of having committed a wrong or failed in an obligation, and in this line of work, there are a lot of obligations since when all is said and done, what you’re dealing with is people’s lives. For me, there are three elements of my life that contribute to my state of near constant guilt of never having done enough, both at work and more generally. Oh God, I can feel my guilt welling up inside me already. That mild blasphemy brings me to the first of my own three dimensions of guilt:
The Father: Being catholic.
Catholic Guilt is totally a thing. Perhaps religious guilt more generally is a thing – I’ve heard of Jewish Guilt – but Catholic guilt is the one I have. I was bought up in a Catholic family, went to a Catholic primary school and – oh, wait for it – an all girls, convent, Catholic secondary school. With the uniforms any everything. Get your minds out the gutters and say 4 Hail Marys in penance for those thoughts. Voila. You have just experienced Catholic guilt. It’s hard to put into words, but Catholic guilt makes you feel slightly sinful about everything enjoyable. Enjoyed a beautiful meal? Yes, but think of the starving children that haven’t eaten in days. Had a bit of fun with the new flaky aid boy in town? Every sperm is sacred, you heathen and should be saved for marriage. Loving your brand new 7-billion-mega-pixel-iPad with coffee maker extension pack? Jesus gave away all his possessions, including his life to save you. Damn it! Catholic guilt leads you to question whether every one of your actions plunges you deeper into sin, or inches you a little closer to an afterlife chillin’ behind those pearly gates. You would think that working in humanitarianism – saving lives and all that – is the equivalent of a business class ticket; avoid the queues and proceed directly to the gates. But in reality, it adds more potholes to the journey as you constantly question whether you actually did any good at all.
The Son: I am a woman.
‘Show me a woman who doesn’t feel any guilt and I will show you a man,’ wrote Erica Jong. The epidemic of female guilt has now apparently reached such a scale that this generation of women has been dubbed the ‘GAT’ generation; guilty all the time. Female guilt seems to be driven by feelings of inadequacy of living up to the impossible image of the ideal woman. We should be career-driven, but not too much that we’re bossy; we should be caring but not too much that we’re doormats; we should be slim and beautiful, but also stuff our faces because there’s nothing sexier than a woman who loves her food.
It’s hard to navigate the minefield that leads to the elixir of the perfect woman. There is a constant pressure to prove yourself, not just for women in humanitarianism but for men too, to show that what you do is effective, innovative, transparent, participatory and a whole host of other words from IRIN’s Humanitarian Buzzword Bingo. Now we have to be the perfect woman, and the perfect humanitarian. Women tend to have more empathetic emotions than men, which means we’re generally better at putting other people first, which should make us rockstar humanitarians. The problem is we also tend to internalise faults more than men, blaming ourselves for mistakes than external factors, and that means more guilt.
The Final Straw: I am a humanitarian.
Coupled with the first two, there is the added guilt that comes as part and parcel of the humanitarian job. When you first start in the job, you feel inspired, ready to take on the world and its problems, even solve some of them single-handedly. But as you stay longer in the field, you realise that your budget and your programmes don’t even scratch the surface of the grinding poverty, trauma and need the world and the people in it inflict on each other. You feel jaded, but you also feel guilty. It was your job to make a difference, but often, aid workers can’t see any impact of their work. Sometimes, humanitarians end up damaging themselves as they enter a spiral of guilt and shame for their perceived lack of achievement, resulting in burnout and sometimes compassion fatigue, an overriding sense of cynicism and feeling that all compassionate actions are doomed to fail. Such cases are clearly extreme, but unfortunately common. Conversations around the mental health of aid workers have increased over the last year or so, however, much more needs to be done to support humanitarians to process their guilty feelings in a healthy way that enables them to continue their work with a sense of clarity and proportion.
Personally, I like a sense of niggling guilt; it keeps me questioning the quality of my work and the decisions I take. It forces me to apologise to colleagues when stress gets the better of me and I snap. It reminds me to be patient and understanding with people who are angry, rude or challenging and whose situation I cannot understand fully, and hope that I will never have to. It makes me strive to be better at my job. And when it’s excessive, it’s also great for weight loss. But I also know when it is getting the better of me and I need to curb it before I lose myself. So, I’ll keep channeling that guilt productively, and when the wheels fall off, I’ll gorge myself on the pickled onion Monster Munch I packed for just such an occasion, because hey, there’s nothing sexier than a Catholic school girl who loves to eat.