01 Jul ARE YOU GUILTY?
“Guilt is never a rational thing; It distorts all the faculties of the human mind, it perverts them, it leaves a man no longer in the free use of his reason, it puts him into confusion.”
-Edmund Burke, British Statesman and philosopher
Almost two decades ago my brother and I made an iron clad pact that, regardless of what life throws our way, the two of us, sans spouses, would abandon our hectic lives and go camping for a few days every year. We have kept our agreement.
This spring, we were sitting around the campfire on our first night taking in a picture perfect sunset with an idyllic view of a crystal calm lake, the sound of frogs and crickets highlighting our experience when, suddenly and without warning, a wave of guilt swept over me, guilt that I wasn’t sharing this extraordinary moment with my wife. I expressed my feelings to my brother who, without missing a beat, said, “Yes, I know. I feel the same way.” We stared at each other and burst into laughter.
Now, I ask you, where did that feeling come from? We are devoted to our spouses who support our yearly excursion one-hundred percent. They acknowledge how very important it is to us and how rare it is for two brothers to be as close as we are. And, both our wives had their time filled and both were healthy and happy. So, why did we feel guilty? Was it because we felt “too happy?” If so, how messed up is that? Obviously, our minds were conjuring up the guilt. We were doing it to ourselves.
This experience led me to a fascinating exploration of guilt and the realization that the feeling of guilt isn’t necessarily negative – IF – we learn from it. Just because you feel guilt doesn’t necessarily mean that you have something to feel guilty about. After all, guilt is an appendage of fear and fear lurks around every corner. The more I think about it, the more I believe guilt is actually a belief or judgment that we interpret as a feeling. In our case, the guilt experience was just some jumbled up, manipulative, primitive brain, possibly childhood learned – junk. That’s why you have to be constantly on the alert when it comes to guilt. If you mishandle guilt, you can cause yourself a great deal of mental and possibly physical anguish.
Guilt is a program the brain runs that tries to connect behaviors, outcomes or even elements – and almost always – when none exists. Think about survivor guilt when a survivor obsesses about possible things that, if done differently, would have stopped a tragedy from happening. “If only I would have done this…or that…or thought this …or that…he (or she) wouldn’t have died.” As painful as all this is, it is still self-generated “faulty thinking.” It’s neither helpful nor healthy.
Guilt is extremely complicated. There is an endless variety of things to feel guilty about and we can always find something if we look hard enough. There are things we feel guilty about that we do and things we feel guilty about that we don’t do. We can feel guilty about taking a vacation, running up a credit card bill, eating that fattening dessert, being a working mom or having a fight with your father thirty years ago. We can feel guilty about getting angry at someone, not spending enough time with our children, not giving enough, being ill, and on and on and on the list goes.
The bottom line is that it is quite easy to feel guilty if we allow it – and allow it we often do. It’s also hard to just stop feeling guilty if we are attached to having guilt. For example, some people use guilt as a “badge” of shame. You do something wrong or make a mistake and now you deserve to be punished. So, how do you punish yourself? You feel guilty. The harder you are on yourself, the more you suffer and the better person you feel you will be. Faulty thinking alert! The real danger of choosing guilt (You really do choose it) is that you can become addicted to a cycle of doing something dumb, experiencing guilt, suffering, feeling better and then – repeating the cycle. Here’s a newsflash: Guilt does not prove you are sorry and it certainly does not necessarily make you a better person.
“Guilt is the source of sorrows, the avenging fiend that follows us behind with whips and strings.”
– Nicholas Rowe, 18th Century dramatist, writer and poet
So what can you do about guilt? You can shift your thinking. You can view guilt as both useful and appropriate. The truth is that guilt can help you become a better person and lead a more loving life. You want to use guilt to become wiser, grow emotionally and avoid repeating a particular act or situation in the future. Yet that doesn’t mean that at the moment of experience, guilt is less painful.
If you want to handle your guilt, you must make the choice to be pro-active and simply refuse to be a victim of your guilt. Here are some tips to help you.
Curiosity diminishes the role of guilt in our lives. When you experience guilt, ask yourself: “What are the beliefs and values upon which my self-judgment is based and am I willing to challenge them? Are my guilt feelings helpful and healthy?” If the answer is “no,” choose to let them go. For example, if you feel guilty about putting a parent in a nursing home because she can get a better quality of life than you are able or willing to give – guilt is not a helpful emotion.
Ask yourself: “What is the guilt teaching me and how can I apply it to creating a more peaceful life?” The goal here is to remember that we learn from mistakes, failures and mess-ups. Do a reality check.
BE COMPASSIONATE WITH – YOU.
Imagine yourself sitting in a chair and pretend that the “you” in the chair is a close friend. Review the situation that caused your guilt ‘as if’ you were watching the scene play out with the other “you” on a giant movie screen. Do you think your friend should feel guilty and, if so, for how long? If you are being harder on yourself than on a friend – STOP IT
After a significantly embarrassing, humiliating, frightening or painful experience happens, debrief yourself. Go over in detail what really happened, what others actually said and how you responded. It isn’t fun to relive a negative experience but if you see the truth of what happened, you get real – and when you get real, you often smash apart fear, forgive yourself and others and let go of the guilt.
Guilt can rear its ugly head when we want to move out of a self-limiting comfort zone but guilt can also be the energy for personal change. Think about it. When you tow the line, you feel good. When you overstep your bounds you may believe you will get punished or should be punished. But what if the line you tow hurts your creativity and takes away your freedom? Guilt can make you feel controlled, manipulated and angry – at yourself or others. Use your anger to create the energy to make a positive change. In a sense you can use guilt as a guide for growth.
Here’s a final thought about guilt. When you feel guilty because you think you could have done better or been a better person or been more loving, consider that you did the best you could, given what you knew at the time. Now, you know better. Let guilt be your teacher. Keep in mind what Seneca, the Roman philosopher, statesman and playwright (3 B.C-65A.D) wrote, “Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.”