Why do we feel vacation guilt?
It may sound odd to associate guilt with vacationing, a concept that’s supposed to be carefree and relaxing. Extended paid time off from work isn’t a reality for most Americans, so vacations are rare escapes from too busy routines. This dynamic sets up lofty expectations that can be difficult or even impossible to fulfill—if a vacation is a cherished, but infrequent, experience that falls short, it makes sense that one could feel guilty about not making the most of it.
“To imbue vacation time with the idea of perfection is really self-destructive in many ways because no vacation is going to be perfect,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. No matter how well planned, vacations are always filled with unexpected surprises—weather changes, delayed flights, unexpected conflicts with friends or family, or even a hotel or activity not being as you imagined. Expectations not aligning with reality can lead to disappointment, which is a major facet of guilt.
"To imbue vacation time with the idea of perfection is really self-destructive in many ways because no vacation is going to be perfect."—clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD
Associating a vacation with a specific outcome can also lead to vacation guilt if that doesn't happen. When most people travel they want to achieve one of four things: relaxation, connection (with friends, family, or new people), reflection, and adventure, according to Lorenzo Norris, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences. But the way in which this happens matters—let's say you booked a trip to an all-inclusive resort with the express goal of relaxing and recharging by the pool, but found yourself bored and restless instead. Even if you mostly had a relaxing time, you could come home disappointed if that wasn't your reality 100 percent of the time. Or, perhaps you dipped into your savings to pay for a vacation with friends and you came home not as impressed as you'd hope to.
“If you didn't achieve it or you didn't do it the way in which you thought or hoped, that can really get at that guilt or feeling of doing something wrong or letting others down,” says Dr. Norris. “You may get so task-oriented with the vacation that you’re not mindful of the experience.” Because everything wasn't as good as it could've been, or that you'd hoped it be, suddenly it wasn't valuable at all.
Guilt, which is also linked with depression, comes in when expectations and reality don't align and when someone blames themselves for something they could've done differently. Guilt typically comes along after something has happened and can't be changed, says Dr. Norris—this fact can make you feel even worse. "The issue of guilt is that it's usually a day late and a dollar short because whatever has occurred has already occurred, so when you get into that fix-it mode, you can get into a guilt spiral," he says.
Besides misaligned expectations, banking on a vacation to be the ultimate solve or escape for something you don't feel good about already—whether it's your mood or a situation at home, relationships with loved ones, or work—can contribute to vacation guilt, says Dr. Norris. This is another offshoot of setting unrealistic expectations. "You have to be honest and compassionate with yourself to know that, and to not expect the vacation to be this heroic rescue," he says.
How to combat vacation guilt
Set clear, realistic expectations for the vacation
The best way to avoid vacation guilt in the first place is to set clear, realistic expectations before you leave. Figure out exactly what you want out of the experience—within reason—and orient your itinerary and planning around achieving that. This way, you're in a better space to handle any challenges or deviations from plans that will inevitably occur.
"If you set very clear goals, you're very clear about your expectations and can move into the vacation with a healthy mindset where you're ready to manage the naturally imperfect nature of any vacation," says Dr. Manly. For example, if you go on a vacation and decide that your main goal is to spend time with your partner, hold that as your baseline—this way, even if there are some delays at an attraction, or a reservation you made fell through, you can still feel pleased that you accomplished something.
Feel your guilt, but heed its lesson and move forward
It's tempting to just brush guilt under the rug, but both Dr. Norris and Dr. Manly say guilt itself is an important emotion to consider. However, the trouble arises when you stew in it and ruminate. "When guilt is being helpful it tells us something is wrong, inappropriate, or ineffective, so when we look at it we learn the lesson, then we let it go," says Dr. Manly.
If you find vacation guilt creeping in back at home, both Dr. Norris and Dr. Manly say to allow yourself to feel your feelings for a time. Think about why you feel guilty, and then draw conclusions from those lessons. To actually do this, remember that guilt is a signal of something else. When you're feeling guilty, Dr. Norris says to "start considering the emotion as a signal and not a fact, and be a little more curious" by asking yourself: are there facts or evidence to back up how I feel? A quick reality check can help stop a guilt spiral. For example, if you came home disappointed that you didn't see a monument because it was too crowded, was that your fault? Likely not. "Guilt itself is just an emotion, and the question becomes what is it telling you? Examine the facts behind the feeling.
Use those lessons to make plans for the future, and try your best to let go of what's already happened. For example, maybe you planned a trip to an all-inclusive beach resort and found yourself bored just lying by the pool, or you jam packed your itinerary so full with activities that you didn’t fully enjoy any of them. Examine these feelings, then use them as takeaways for next time, advise Dr. Norris and Dr. Manly. Avoiding all or nothing thinking is important, too—remember that if you got even a little bit of what you wanted out of the trip, it was a success.
Practice gratitude and acknowledge the positives
Practicing gratitude is a healthful practice anyway, but applying it to your vacation guilt can help assuage it. Even if you really had a bad time, expressing gratitude for even going in the first place and acknowledging any positives from the trip may help to mitigate the feelings and add some perspective. Chances are something positive happened, so there's reason to be happy, thankful, or grateful about something—even something small, like just returning home safely is something to celebrate, says Dr. Norris. It’s all about your mindset.
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