Guilt manifests itself in our lives in ways we can’t see ourselves. I didn’t even know I had a problem until a friend asked me “were you raised Catholic?” and I didn’t know what she was talking about until she said, “you are driven by guilt!”
That stopped me in my tracks – my jaw dropped! As hard as it was, I had to admit she was right. I felt guilty about everything. I felt guilty because I was never good enough, was never able to offer enough, and could never ‘do’ enough.
There’s a quote that rings so true for me that I want to share with you, “guilt is an emotion that people experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm”. It is by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D and she goes on to talk about the five causes of guilt:
Guilt Cause #1: Guilt for something you did.
Guilt Cause #2: Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to.
Guilt Cause #3: Guilt for something you think you did.
Guilt Cause #4: Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone.
Guilt Cause #5: Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else.
Driving home from my friend’s house that day I felt it in every cell of my body “I am so done with guilt!”
From that day on, whenever that feeling of guilt crept back in (which was often), I stopped and looked at the emotion from all sides. It’s almost like holding a ball in your hand that has ‘guilty’ written all over it. But instead of letting the guilt poison you (and suffer the side-effects, which I’ll get to in a moment) looking at the emotion allows you to disconnect from the guilt and see it for what it is.
I want to share a few tips for overcoming guilt that have helped me tremendously over the years.
#1: Every time you feel guilty, stop and view it from all sides. Imagine guilt as that ball, hold it in your hand and look at it. Awareness is the first step.
#2: Ask yourself, “Have I caused harm?” And, “Is guilt the appropriate emotion here?”
#3: Explore what’s driving your feeling of guilt. Do you feel obligated? Are you concerned that someone will like you less, if you say ‘no’?
#4: Let it go. You can’t go backwards. But you can go forward a bit wiser, by learning from your experience. If you have done something (which does happen) that sparks guilt, learn from it. Fess up. Apologize. Talk about it. Move on.
We’re human. We mess up sometimes. But this doesn’t make us a ‘bad’ person.
Admitting to guilt is hard, so I will ‘fess up’. When I was younger, I would pulverize myself with guilt if I ‘caused harm’ to someone else. Now I know, the reason I was beating myself up, was I thought if I felt bad enough, I could make the other person feel sorry for me. Ugh.
#5: All the other guilt – let it go, because guilt is the fuel behind over-pleasing and anxiety.