Dog: I peed on the armoire and now the guilt is too much to bear.
Cat: What's that?
Dog: An armoire?
Cat: No. 'Guilt'.
I didn't plan to write about guilt. What would I know about it? I've done some nasty things and wronged people in my life, but never experienced guilt, let alone a strong feeling of guilt. Maybe because I'm a planned and relatively self-aware person, I'm not used to the luxury of leaping first and thinking later. I know exactly what and why I'm doing and am reasonably aware of the consequences. If later on in life I realise I was wrong, I quickly accept it and correct my behaviour for the future. Why waste time on guilt?
That said, I suddenly felt an urge to write down my quick thoughts on guilt and shame - and I won't differentiate between them for now. I'd safely assume that someone experiencing an overwhelming feeling - guilt or shame - probably doesn't care much which one is which. All they want to do is get rid of the overwhelming feeling. And I know too well what it feels like to be overwhelmed with a strong negative feeling that destroys you from within.
I'm not talking about feeling guilty when we call sick into work and go to the movies, although I'd question why we would put ourselves in such a situation in the first place. Either call in sick and don't feel guilty about it, or don't pretend you're sick so you don't have to feel guilty. Never mind.
I'm talking about an overwhelmingly strong feeling of guilt when we suddenly realise - the key word here is 'suddenly' - we realise that we wronged someone or did something that didn't align with our personal set of values, or didn't align with the 'accepted norm'. Perhaps we were too selfish and self-absorbed, we lost control, we got too emotional. Perhaps this is exactly what makes our guilt heavier now - we feel deep shame and regret. Worse, we feel silly.
And all these are very valid feelings. The trouble is these strong negative feelings tend to suck us into a negative spiral which is really hard to get out of.
So, what to do when you're going down the dark tunnel of an overwhelming feeling of guilt and it looks like there's no way out?
Don't listen to your rational mind too much - strong feelings can't be rationalised
Calm down your emotions - do what works best for you, anything from sports to meditation
Don't resist the feeling - the quicker you acknowledge the feeling, the easier the experience
Don't associate with your feeling - it's painful, but it's life's feedback, that's all
Focus on yourself - it's YOUR experience which requires YOU to correct YOUR behaviour
Don't try to opt out - the feeling won't go away until you learn your lesson
Take things in perspective - life happens to all people and your situation can't be the worst
Listen to your heart - you will learn your lesson only if you calm down and remove the noise
And now more about these steps.
Life happens for a reason
Life may seem random and unfair, especially when it hits us with negative interactions and situations we couldn't cope with, and now feel guilty about. But if we accept that life is an experimenting field for us to evolve into something more and/or better than our current version, it becomes more clear why such situations happen.
It's just an experience
We create these negative interactions through our own immature actions and behaviours. So that we can see which behaviours bring positive results and which bring negative results. How do we know which one is which? Through our own emotions showing us when things go wrong. How else would we know? You can't explain to a child what it feels like to fall and get bruised, until they actually get bruised and become more careful next time.
Rationalising makes things worse
Have you ever tried to use logic to calm down a crying child? Exactly. Our rational mind operates on facts - processed from our own experience, or borrowed from other people's experiences. However, we can't rationally process the past situation, because we likely encountered a challenge, something or someone new that we simply couldn't cope with. Otherwise we wouldn't be in this position now.
For example, we encountered a person with behaviour patterns that didn't quite fit in our old view of the universe. Therefore our mind couldn't and still can't process that behaviour and why we reacted the way we did. Our mind will go in circles trying to process why we behaved the way we did, why the other person behaved that way, the 'what ifs' and the 'buts' and so on. We get stuck and don't see a way out.
Guilt is one of those emotions that feeds on itself. With every bite it gets a little heavier. - Robert E. Dunn
Strong personality = strong feelings
The stronger and the more solution-focused we are, the more we resist the feeling of guilt. We used to think that we could fix anything, we always coped, we always found a way. Acknowledging that we aren't that strong, smart and perfect is a hard blow.
This means that when we're finally forced to acknowledge our mistakes, the feeling is twice as painful, simply because we've been suppressing it for too long. It's not life that is hard on us, it's our own resistance to learn creates the tension.
Perfection doesn't exist
The feeling of guilt is overwhelming not because we suddenly became empathetic and considerate, but because our perfect image of ourselves was suddenly shattered to pieces. I think we should all realise that no one is perfect and the whole point of living is to go through experiences to become wiser, more resilient, more balanced in how we relate to other people and life. We can't grow and change our lives for the better if we refuse to accept that we aren't perfect.
There's no point thinking 'how on earth I could do that horrible thing'. At that time, in that situation, at that development stage of our life, our actions and behaviours were the only possible actions we were capable of - if not physically than mentally or morally. We made a choice to act the way we did; and we can now despise ourselves for that choice as much as we like, but at that time we didn't know it was the wrong choice. Now we know, so we can fix our behaviour or bring our personal values up to a better standard or whatever else we need to do.
No one is a victim
Well, maybe the people affected in that situation didn't deserve to be exposed to your outrageous behaviour. Or maybe they did. Maybe the other person had to learn their own lesson and receive their own life experience from that situation. Regardless if it was their bad karma (and I don't believe in bad karma to start with, but many people do), or they were an innocent victim, it was still an experience for them. There was a reason why other people had to go through that situation and behaved the way they did. They aren't perfect either and they have a lesson to learn.
But their life lessons and experiences are theirs, not yours. It's hard enough to comprehend our own lessons, let alone other people's life lessons.
We question ourselves if the guilt goes away if the person we wronged forgives us. The reality is that we need to forgive ourselves. Let's be honest: we feel guilt because we don't like our own image that life is mirroring back to us: we violated our own set of values and we feel ashamed of ourselves.
It's not the other person we worry about. If we worried about the other person at the time, we wouldn't be hurting them, right? Besides, the other person may be happily living their life blissfully unaware that you're having guilt cramps. What can they do? Tell us we're a good person? What's point if we know that we're a bad person anyway.
If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me? - Maya Angelou
You're not alone
It may be tempting to think that you're the only person in this universe going through a strong negative feeling, but planet earth is full of immature people who are trying to become a better version of themselves through pain and errors.
I know this sounds annoying, but it sometimes helps to know that there are others going through similar experiences. I've never used support groups and therapists, but they're there for a reason, and sometimes all we need is to have a listening ear and someone who can relate to our experience.
Time to speak up
In difficult times, including in times of emotional turmoil, many people turn to god and prayers or whatever else they believe in. There's that common belief that god will hear our prayers and relieve us of our turmoil. When we 'don't hear back' and feel that our prayers are left unanswered, we start feeling abandoned, isolated, unheard, alone and sad. We wonder - why is no one listening? It's hard.
Consider this as part of your emotional experience. Maybe in the past you made someone feel unheard, alone, abandoned and sad. You'll never learn to be compassionate if you don't go through similar feelings yourself. Maybe that's your lesson - learning compassion, so next time you make a decision you'll take your past feelings into consideration. Maybe that will make you a better leader, or a better parent or whatever else.
Of course, if we prayed and were immediately relieved of the pain - what would we learn? We'd simply revert to our old harmful behaviours. All we've learnt is that we can sin, then pray and then sin again - and all will be forgiven. Where's the maturing component in all this?
I'm not saying we shouldn't pray. I'm saying don't pray for immediate relief. I'd rather pray for clarity of mind or strength to cope with the pain. Relief will come through acknowledging mistakes, correcting behaviours and letting go of the guilt once it has served its purpose.
Learning the lesson
The challenge here is that it's always a personal lesson. Another person, going through a similar situation, may be going through a totally different lesson. We can't simply copy and paste another person's experience into our life, and get done with it.
Heightened emotions don't help in this situation, either. Our rational mind goes in circles and gets stuck because it doesn't yet have the facts it can operate on. We haven't provided it with the facts because we haven't processed our lesson. What do we do then?
It's time calm down our thoughts and emotions and start listening to our intuition. Some people have intuitive insights, some people use meditation, some people pray to achieve the calmness of mind and emotions. If nothing else, calmness brings some peace of mind and at least temporary relief from mental and emotional pain.
If prayer is you talking to God, then intuition is God talking to you. - Wayne W. Dyer
There's a catch though. The skill of calming our minds and emotions takes long time, sometimes years. The more skilled we are, the easier we can live through emotional turmoil. We can even get to the point where we don't really need to 'meditate', we can instantly switch to an outsider position and stay unaffected by our emotions and thoughts - just watching them flow past.
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