Simple steps to illuminate your pain & move forward without guilt
What if we could set down the guilt that we carry and simply never pick it up again? Imagine that lightness of being.
According to a study by Princeton University the heaviness of a guilty conscious is more than a metaphor. Our perceived body weight increases with the level of guilt we embody. Muscle tension, pain and sleep disruption, add to that sense of weight.
The perception of our own immorality rears its ugly head throughout our lives; sometimes in simple forms (I’m on a diet and ate a cookie), other times more ambiguously (I feel anxious when I visit my hometown).
Acknowledge or not, this deep-seated emotion dictates how we treat ourselves, our loved ones and strangers who cross our paths.
Let guilt serve its purpose, then let it go. Here’s how.
Talk it out
Illuminate nameless and shapeless sources of pain by putting them into words — aloud or on paper. When defined, our experiences and memories go from overwhelming to manageable. They no longer exist as vague exaggerations in the lonely corners of our minds.
Stick to the facts. Determine what happened and why. Where did your actions come from? What were you feeling at the time? What do you wish you’d done differently? Note the day, the time, the length. Take your account and make it practical, factual, clear. You are a person subject to the laws of cause and effect.
Examine your situation as subjectively as possible. Discuss it with a trusted friend. By taking the pain you feel and shining a light on it through words you lighten your load. Sharing that experience could turn it from an island into a bridge. Letting it out into the world frees you from the pretense, distortion and internalization that lets guilt flourish unchecked.
Learn from your guilt
Despite what that destructive inner voice might be saying, the purpose of guilt isn’t to make you suffer or to bring you sleepless nights and tortured days. What sense would that make? Guilt, the flip side of the empathy coin, contributes to our social skills and kindness.
When we veer from what we deem moral, guilt arrives to steer us back on course. Identify an experience that fuels feelings of guilt within you. What did you learn from that experience? How did it change you? How would you like it to change you? Remember that who you are is shaped by these defining moments, good and bad. There is value in them.
There, now your guilt has served its purpose: you’ve reflected, learned and paved the way for growth. Everything else that it brings you is unnecessary and probably destructive. If you feel the guilt arise again, go back to the value it brought you, then let it go.
Focus on the good
Sure, you’ve made some mistakes, but for the sake of you and your community, don’t get it twisted — you are an imperfect human being with so much to offer. Escape the self criticism for a second and relish the good to which you have contributed.
What about last Saturday when you didn’t lose your temper despite your father-in-law’s harsh words? Or this morning when you uprighted your neighbors trashcan? Or the first Monday of each month when you babysit your sister’s children?
Reflect on your good deeds, no matter how small. If so inclined, add a new one to the list. Donate or volunteer this weekend. Doing good and feeling guilty don’t coexist well. Fill your mental space and your spare time with positive actions instead of replaying your negative thoughts.
Sit with yourself — every day, every few days, whenever you can. Guilt can take many forms: the anger of shame as a defense mechanism; self loathing; fear of connection.
It could be why you haven’t been home in two years, why you are avoiding an old friend or why you feel unmotivated.
The holidays — which tend to bring up emotions of inadequacy or force us to face complex family relationships — are ideal opportunities to sit in silent reflection. Notice the emotions that come up.
Bring different people and memories into focus within your mind’s eye. Notice what feelings arise. Stay soft and calm. Expect nothing from this sitting.
Later on, when these memories or feelings pop up at the dinner table or other social setting, you’ll be familiar with them and may find that you can recreate this feeling of calm. Avoid reacting to guilt, shame and pain by familiarizing yourself with it instead.
You are deserving.
Whether riddled with guilt or haunted by bad experiences you deserve the good that is in your life. Find it and appreciate it. Don’t sabotage yourself and the positive people and experiences in your path.
If you had a good friend who had gone through the same experience as you, made the same mistakes and was carrying the same guilt, what you tell him or her? Apply this compassion to yourself. You too deserve the gift of forgiveness.