25 Famous Women on Guilt

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Guilt is a fact of life for many women — not just working moms, though much has been written about them, but any woman who feels torn between competing and equally important aspects of her life: religion, family, or the particularly insidious guilt over feeling like you let yourself down. Guilt often comes from obligations: When we’re required to do something we can’t do, or refuse to do, we feel bad about not meeting those expectations.

Below, famous women including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Mirren, and Yoko Ono reflect on grappling with it (or choosing not to).

Brené Brown

“I’m just going to say it: I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done — or failed to do — with our personal values. The discomfort that results often motivates real change, amends and self-reflection. … If you made a mistake that really hurt someone’s feelings, would you be willing to say, ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake’? If you’re experiencing guilt, the answer is yes: ‘I made a mistake.’ Shame, on the other hand, is ‘I’m sorry. I am a mistake.’ Shame doesn’t just sound different than guilt; it feels different. Once we understand this distinction, guilt can even make us feel more positively about ourselves, because it points to the gap between what we did and who we are — and, thankfully, we can change what we do.” —Oprah, June 2012

Shonda Rhimes

Her advice for busy moms: “Give yourself permission to fail. The guilt that we place on ourselves as parents is tremendous. I feel like we are supposed to be setting examples of strength, power, joy, and excitement for our children. And it’s been really lovely to embrace that mindset both in how I’m parenting and in how I’m working.” —Parents

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

On “how to bend the world into the shapes we want”: “Commission magazine articles that teach men HOW TO KEEP A WOMAN HAPPY. Because there are already too many articles that tell women how to keep a man happy. And in media interviews make sure fathers are asked how they balance family and work. In this age of ‘parenting as guilt,’ please spread the guilt equally. Make fathers feel as bad as mothers. Make fathers share in the glory of guilt.” —Wellesley Commencement Speech, 2015

Joan Rivers

“When I turn down work I feel guilty, I feel terrible, I don’t know where the next job is going to come from. I don’t want to be sitting here a year from now saying I should have worked that weekend. In this business every job is your last job.” —The Jewish Chronicle, October 2010

Dolly Parton

“I have a guilt complex about being the one that’s so successful when so many of them are so much more talented than me. And so many friends that I know in Nashville that have twice the talent that I’ve had, that I’ve seen them come and go through the years and never see their dream come true. … You don’t really know that individual’s life. … But I know I’ve just been blessed, and I’ve just been thankful.” —NPR, November 2012

Alicia Keys

“I’ve learned that while I’d be a fool not to stay open to the advice and experiences of the smart, amazing people in my life, I also need to listen to what I have to say. I’d rather believe in my own choice and see it all go wrong than do something I’m not fully convinced of and later feel guilty about it. So now when I’m faced with a decision, instead of asking, ‘What do you guys think?’ the first question I ask is, ‘Alicia, what do you think?’” —O, the Oprah Magazine, December 2012

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

“The working-mom thing is definitely tricky. Guilt is a bitch. It’s so useless as an emotion, for me anyway. It clouds things, I’m not saying people shouldn’t feel guilty, but for me, it makes certain decision-making more difficult. And I have felt guilty. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t made a lot of movies. Network television is a full-time job, but it’s manageable.” —Us Weekly, February 2010


“‘Hello’ is just about reconnecting with everyone else and myself. I couldn’t get over my guilt of leaving my kid to go and write a record and stuff like that. So [it’s] getting over that — getting on the other side of that. It was just, you know, it’s in general, just hello to everyone.” —Today, December 2015

Tavi Gevinson

“I never really had work hours before because Rookie was more my after-school passion than my job. I’m a lot more productive in an actual office. I love being around our other editors, and going there every day alleviates some of the guilt that I think many self-employed people feel when you know you could always be working from your laptop at home. I feel so relaxed there, while completely engaged and inspired.” —Elle, June 2015

Indra Nooyi

On “having it all”: “I’ll tell you a story that happened when my daughter went to Catholic school. Every Wednesday morning they had class coffee with the mothers. Class coffee for a working woman — how is it going to work? How am I going to take off 9 o’clock on Wednesday mornings? So I missed most class coffees. My daughter would come home and she would list off all the mothers that were there and say, ‘You were not there, mom.’ The first few times I would die with guilt. But I developed coping mechanisms. I called the school and I said, ‘give me a list of mothers that are not there.’ So when she came home in the evening she said, ‘You were not there, you were not there.’ And I said, ‘ah ha, Mrs. Redd wasn’t there, Mrs. So and So wasn’t there. So I’m not the only bad mother.’ You know, you have to cope, because you die with guilt. … When you have to have kids you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management your kids need you because they’re teenagers, they need you for the teenage years.” —Aspen Ideas Festival, July 2014

Mary Karr

“You feel a lot of guilt writing these books. It’s morally worrisome all the way through. Every day you face these questions: do you write about this person, how do you describe them, is that fair, is that right, did you really feel that way? You can really just get your knickers in a twist and not set down words.” —DuJour

Meghan Daum

“I don’t confess in my work, because to me that implies that you’re dumping all your guilt and sins on the page and asking the reader to forgive you. Confessions are not processed or analysed; they’re told in a moment of desperation, to a priest or to somebody interrogating you about a crime.” —The Guardian, November 2014

Amy Poehler

“There is an unspoken pact that women are supposed to follow. I am supposed to act like I constantly feel guilty about being away from my kids. (I don’t. I love my job.) Mothers who stay at home are supposed to pretend they are bored and wish they were doing more corporate things. (They don’t. They love their job.)” —Yes Please, October 2014

Arianna Huffington

“I don’t think it’s an ethical or moral dilemma, it’s more about the constant guilt that I deal with being a working mother, being somebody who is really torn on a regular basis about the amount of time my work takes, which I love, and the amount of time that I want to spend with my daughters. It gets easier because my oldest daughter is now in college, but my youngest daughter is still in high school. It’s really a constant juggling act and emotionally I sometimes think that they take the baby out and they put the guilt in. So it is something that every woman I know who has a career and a family is dealing with.” —Big Think, June 2009


“Never underestimate a man’s ability to make you feel guilty for his mistakes” —her Twitter, December 2012

Amy Adams

“I grew up as a Mormon. I’m very hard on myself anyway. Religious guilt carries over, too. You can’t really misbehave without feeling badly about it — at least I can’t. Even when I go out with friends and we go overboard at bars or clubs, I wake up the next morning feeling a bit conflicted about having had too much fun.” —The Sun, June 2013


On growing up Catholic: “It totally influences everything I do. I think I have serious latent Catholic guilt issues.” —The Independent, September 2012

Catherine Deneuve

“In New York, women feel guilty if they’re not working on some project. I have never felt guilty for spending an afternoon in my garden with friends having tea.” —Girls Guide to Paris

Mia Farrow

“’I don’t think you can be a Catholic without an accompanying measure of guilt.” —The Guardian, January 2006

Sue Monk Kidd

“Well, we have to learn not to feel guilty about letting our imagination browse around, and you know, in writing fiction particularly. But I think, in any kind of writing, we have to learn to allow ourselves to approach it in a contemplative way. Sometimes I might just sit in my chair before my computer in the middle of a scene, close my eyes and I might sit there for 20 minutes while I imagine or let my thoughts flow in different directions … I feel like if we let ourselves be — what I call ‘creative loitering’ — I think it helps us to find the real thing we are searching for in our mind. The mind, the creative mind — you could call it the soul — whatever we are engaging with is often deep inside of us. It is an interior place. And our job, I think, as writers is to tap it, as artists is to find portals into this place.” – Paste Magazine, April 2014

Helen Mirren

On winning an Oscar: “It’s an indescribable moment. Part of you is terrified they will call your name because the fear of making a fool of yourself is paramount. But then it’s this incredible pleasure, to sort of feel like you haven’t been found out — because as actors, we always think we’re going to be discovered as frauds. It’s joyous, it’s thrilling and there’s a little bit of guilt … It’s not a race. It’s very clear in a sprint or a marathon who’s best. But you can never say who is best at acting or painting or writing. You’re all just as good, not only as the people nominated, but a whole community of people who did amazing work and weren’t nominated.” —Variety, February 2015

Chelsea Handler

“I don’t have a lot of shame. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel bad about the way someone reacts to me or about something I read about myself online. But I don’t have a lot of guilt, no. I’ve always been this way. I’m missing a chip. I feel liberated and I want other people to feel liberated, and I’m really intent on being very truthful about who I am. I think comedy has to come from your authentic point of view. Like, I don’t think I have a great body. I always want to lose five pounds. But if I talked about how fat I was, that wouldn’t make sense.” —Elle, July 2016

Tina Fey

“When my daughter says, ‘I wish I had a baby sister,’ I am stricken with guilt and panic. When she says, ‘Mommy, I need Aqua Sand’ or ‘I only want to eat gum!’ or ‘Wipe my butt!,’ I am less affected.” —Bossypants, April 2011

Yoko Ono

On the lyrics, “Bless you for your greed” in her song “Revelations”: “We all suffer from feeling guilty because of various natural emotions that we have. It’s like feeling we can’t mention going to the bathroom. Each emotion I put in the song is considered a no-no, an emotion we’re supposed to hide or repress. I’m saying you have to confront it and love it — love all of you. So despite the sweet melody, it’s a very rebellious song.” —Rolling Stone, March 1996

Shailene Woodley

“Worry is a product of the future you can’t guarantee and guilt is a product of the past we can’t change, and all we have is moments. It doesn’t matter how long or how short those moments are, but what you do in those moments, and it’s how you’re aware of those moments that really count.” —Entertainment Tonight, June 2014

25 Famous Women on Guilt