There are several types of guilt. Much of what I’ve read, though, seems to focus on the kind that you have when you have actually done something wrong…hurt someone’s feelings, caused an accident, lied, etc. I have no problem with this kind of guilt. You can apologize for the offense, be more careful in the future, vow to change your behavior. In these cases, guilt serves its purpose…it acts as a warning to you to make amends and move forward.
The kind of guilt I struggle with much more is the kind that eats away at you for no real reason. The kind that others, yes, often your mother, throw at you to get you to do something. The kind that you feel just because you think you should do something and either can’t or just don’t want to. Why do we feel this kind of guilt and what can we do about it?
I know there are rarely concrete and definitive answers to questions like these. They feel more rhetorical, but, yet, I want to find some answers just the same. Guilt can eat away at you, lower your self-esteem, and erode your feelings of self-worth. People wracked with guilt can become obsessed with it and be very hard on themselves.
I’ve tried various strategies myself to try to alleviate these unhealthy feelings. One that I have used with increasing success is to look at the situation from the outside; to look at it as if it had happened to a friend and not to me. We can usually be much more objective with other people than we can be with ourselves. By taking a step back it can give us a new perspective. So, what would you tell your friend if they were feeling guilty in this same situation? This is exactly what you need to tell yourself.
I think it’s also important to show yourself some compassion. We are often so hard on ourselves and forget that we, too, need understanding. If we would offer this kindness to others, then we certainly owe it to ourselves as well. Can you just try, then, to let yourself off the hook for these feelings of guilt?
Sometimes I have feelings of guilt when I can’t do as much for my mom as I’d like, or if I say or do something that I feel shows my impatience or annoyance. First of all, I try to remind myself of all the things I do for my mom…and there is a lot. That’s important. It may not be possible to do everything. Second, it’s important to remember that none of us is perfect and all we can do is try to do the best we can. If I get impatient or annoyed at times, I try to remind myself that it’s ok. And then I just use these feelings of guilt to try to be more patient and less annoyed the next time….and then try to let it go.
I was asked if these strategies work for me. As with many things one tries to learn or behaviors one tries to change, it does take time and practice. I liken it to learning to meditate. I remember being told when first trying meditation to clear my mind of all conscious thoughts…ok, how on earth do you do that? My mind was always a jumble of all kinds of thoughts. But I was told not to worry about it. When thoughts came into my head (which they would), I was told to just push them away, and when they inevitably came back, push them away again…and again. Eventually, it becomes easier and easier. Same theory. It just takes practice.
In thinking more about feelings of guilt and how to deal with them, it appears to me that guilt and anger actually seem to have a lot in common…with both of them the key is to acknowledge the feelings and then let them go and move forward. Not an easy thing to do for sure, but as mentioned above, with practice it can become easier. Feelings of guilt and anger really do little more than cause us pain and suffering anyway…if only we can let them go then we can move toward forgiveness; both for others and, maybe even more importantly, for ourselves.