The habit of guilt

When I was about eleven years old, my little brother, then six, slipped me a note to invite me to his room. Those days, as probably many big siblings can relate to, I wasn’t so excited about playing with the younger brother. I wanted to go to my room instead and lock myself up. His room was next to mine and as I approached my door, I changed my mind and decided to honor his invitation. I knocked on his door.

‘Come in,’ he called with a soft voice. As I opened the door I saw that he had carefully prepared a nest of cushions and pillows, where he had languishly draped himself and smiled at me. In front of the little cusion island he had placed the most valuable offerings he could think of at the time: water and cucumber. Sliced. ‘Have a seat,’ he whispered coyly, giving me his sweetest smile. I sank into the cushions and we played out our little tea ceremony. I had some cucumber, we made conversation, and my little brother was in bliss, having been such a wonderful host.

I know my brother doesn’t remember this incident at all. I do know that he was very happy at the time. I have remembered it. It is engrained in my mind. Why? Because for a long, long time I felt incredibly guilty.

What?

Yes, guilty. Guilty for ALMOST not following his invitation. I kept thinking of how he would have felt had I not gone. And I felt bad for even having considered not going.

You may think I’m crazy. And I agree with you. It is crazy to feel guilty about something that you almost did, but didn’t do. Yet, that’s what I felt. And I know I’m not the only one who has felt guilty about something that didn’t even happen. Guilty about thoughts, feelings and intentions we have never acted upon. Guilty about something that we remember, but the ‘victim’ does not. Because there has never been a victim.

We have felt guilty for something bad that happened to us. Because we did not prevent it. Because we did not fight (MeToo anyone?). Because we haven’t gotten over it yet. Because we ended up being suspicious or afraid.

It’s no surprise, really, that most of us are guilt-ridden. Guilt is the most powerful of mind controls. The majority of churches have built their empires on guilt for thousands of years (in complete opposition to what Jesus lived and taught). Our parents have used guilt to control our behavior and now guilt doesn’t need the church nor our parents anymore. It has learned to control us alone.

There is the argument that guilt has its place in teaching us social skills. A child needs to learn the process of feeling bad about hurting a friend, asking for forgiveness and making up. Point taken. I’d like to think of this as empathy and social responsibility, though. Empathy allows us to feel someone else’s pain and wish to take it away. Social responsibility makes us act to prevent pain, take it away when it’s there and compensate for any damages we may have caused.

In a fully aware, socially responsible and empathic society, it doesn’t matter where or how the pain is created. We will all be responsible for preventing and reducing it.

Guilt creates more pain. It creates pain in the one who feels guilty and it creates pain in the others around them. Want to test it?

Think about the most enjoyable relationship you have. Picture the person with who you feel most relaxed, happy and at ease. Are there any feelings of guilt involved in that relationship?

Now think of a relationship that drains you. That makes you feel uncomfortable, anxious, stressed. Are there any feelings of guilt involved (from either side)?

How much room does guilt take up in your mind? Even if you accept the premise that guilt is healthy to correct our actions, take stock:

Is there a ‘victim’?

Of course, there is always a victims in the sense that someone suffers. That one is you. But is there another person that suffered or is suffering from whatever you believe have done or are doing to them. Or do you feel guilty about feelings, thoughts and intentions you have not acted upon?

Does the ‘victim’ know they are a victim? Do they feel the same about the incident?

If they know and they may even hold this guilt up to you, go to the next question. Many times, though, the ‘crime’ exists only in our heads. If you aren’t sure, talk to your ‘victim’. Tell them what is going on in your mind and what you feel guilty about. You may be surprised to hear that they remember the same incident in a very different way or not at all.

My mother used to feel very guilty about all kinds of things she thought she had done (or not done) to me. Most of these things I don’t remember at all. Hence they could never bother me. They did something else, though, and that is why the next question is very important.

Is your guilt an attempt to escape being challenged?

Unless they are sociopaths nobody will kick someone who is already lying on the ground. Similarly, if someone sits in front of you, heads bent, wringing their hands, pleading guilty, you will not add to their misery by pointing out that they, indeed, have hurt you. What looks like a good thing, can make relationships very complicated and draining.

As I wrote above, my mother constantly felt bad about failures and mistakes I never remembered or felt anything about. At the same time, she was unable to accept any grievance that actually came from ME. So, instead of being able to point out where I hurt, getting her acknowledgement and together leaving the pain behind, I felt forced to consolate her for something that didn’t make any sense to me, while holding back what really troubled me. That did not made our relationship easier. Once she stopped, my tension ceased as well.

Do not be afraid to be challenged. Make sure you give the other one a chance to state their pain. Only then can you both move on. Only then can the anger pass without turning into resentment.

Ask for Forgiveness

Sometimes we do wrong. Knowingly or unknowingly. Intentionally or unintentionally. If you hurt someone, ask for forgiveness. It doesn’t matter how long ago this happened. It doesn’t even matter if they do forgive you. Asking for forgiveness is the most important step to letting go. It allows both the other and you to let go.

If the victim is you, ask yourself for forgiveness. Acknowledge that you have hurt yourself. Write yourself a letter of understanding, appreciation, and forgiveness. Make no difference between you and anyone else.

Make up

If you can, make up. Especially for the little things, it’s easy to make up. Be authentic. That is important. If you told your spouse that the new dress looks ridiculous, don’t try to make up by chattering how pretty, in fact, it is. That’s adding insult to injury. Avoid the whole topic of visual appearance for now. And remember to compliment them on a particularly nice look in about a week. If you are unsure how to make up, ask them! ‘How can I make up to you?’ Then do what they ask for. Even if it seems like a lot, do it (as long as it’s possible for you to do without causing other damage). It will show them your appreciation and your commitment to them.

Note for parents: Barked at your child? I’m assuming you have apoligized to them (see askfor forgiveness), so offer to play a game with them. Don’t give anything material, unless you have broken their toy. Give them your time, your affection and attention. There is no better way to make up.

 

Note for non-parents: read the parents section and apply to all others.

Finally: let go

You have gone through all the questions and stages? Then let go. If you still find it hard to let go, ask yourself: Would you forgive someone else for the same actions? If yes, why would you treat yourself differently? Who benefits from you continuing to punish yourself and how?

Imagine you are walking along a path lined with glass bottles. You may have broken some. Now, you turn around and keep looking at the broken bottles, feeling guilty. How many bottles will you break walking backwards like this?

Guilt forces you to turn you eyes backwards. Turn around and look at what is here now.

Thanks for this, but I still can’t let go.

Then that is ok, too. Don’t feel guilty about not letting go. If you want to get rid of it, ask for help. Talk about it. Shine the light on it. And accept that you feel what you feel. It is the first step to letting go.

Do you want to talk about what is on your mind? Drop me a line or comment below.

“Time passes unhindered. When we make mistakes, we cannot turn the clock back and try again. All we can do is use the present well.”

the Dalai Lama

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