Guilt is one of the most uncomfortable feelings I’ve ever come across. It assumes, in most cases, that you caused someone else’s pain. For someone who is highly sensitive like myself, guilt is excruciating, anathema to all I want to be in this world.
For most of my life, I operated from a couple of assumptions concerning guilt: (1) I believed guilt meant I had done something wrong, and (2) I assumed in order to fix whatever I felt guilty about, I had to inhabit the guilt and experience it fully.
Neither of those assumptions are true, so let’s take them in turn:
Feeling guilty does not automatically mean you have done something wrong or are responsible for the guilt. For example, if my boyfriend withdraws, I often assume I did something to cause it. Maybe I snapped, maybe I was irritated, maybe I asked too much, maybe I talked too much. I feel a sense of guilt and responsibility for his reaction. When I stand back, I realize he is very introverted and often withdraws. This may mean he is feeling uncomfortable, tired, or needs time alone. Often, it has nothing to do with me, and when I take responsibility for the guilt and act on it, I exacerbate an issue that wasn’t even there to begin with.
It’s all about perception. As someone who is highly sensitive and attuned to others’ body language and emotions, I tend to pick up instantly when someone else is even the slightest bit “off”. What I often fail to do is correctly label what that something is and who is responsible. If my dog jumps at a sudden noise, I feel guilt for raising her to be so afraid. If she looks at me when I’m leaving from one of my visits, I feel guilty because she must be achingly sad without me there. I feel I’m abusing her. Perhaps you do this, too, where you take responsibility for even the slightest of someone else’s real or perceived pain. I say perceived, because often I don’t correctly perceive the cause of the pain (and assume it is myself) or I incorrectly perceive there is pain when there is none (as when I keep asking my boyfriend what’s wrong when nothing is or I assume my dog is feeling inner turmoil when she is doing just fine).
But here is the bigger revelation and what’s helping me address guilt in an entirely new light:
Guilt is a signpost, not a solution or lifestyle. I always thought you could fix whatever you felt guilty about while operating from a place of guilt. I thought that was the purpose of guilt–to help us feel fully ashamed and inhabit the other person’s pain so we could atone for our wrongdoing. And yet, as I’m starting to realize, that is not guilt’s function. Guilt is here as a signpost along the path—something to cause us to pause and look at what’s needed. Beyond that, guilt is very unhelpful. If we pause, see what’s needed, and then continue from a state of guilt, we perpetuate the very thing we felt guilty about in the first place.
Suppose, for example, you saw your daughter shy away when you snapped after a frustrating day at work. Guilt sets in, and you apologize and explain to her why you snapped and that it had nothing to do with her. You ask forgiveness. That’s healthy, because you’re pausing to see what’s needed and then addressing it. However, if you continue to let the guilt weigh you down, you will feel beaten before you even begin. You will become hyper-vigilant to make sure you never snap at your daughter again, you will take on any real or perceived pain she feels (perhaps you will even feel you are abusing her), and your self-judgement will eventually spill over onto her—leaving aside the havoc it does to you!
And what about perceived guilt? Guilt where there may not actually have been a wrongdoing or where the wrongdoing doesn’t cut as deep in reality as it feels? When I take on guilt for the fact my dog barks a lot, I find myself not only rejecting and bullying myself but rejecting her. I feel guilty for how she was raised and assume she is not living a full life and that I must sit in the guilt until I can somehow atone for it and give her the life she deserves. And, yes, the guilt does point to an area where she could use extra training. But operating from that place causes both of us more pain than perhaps the lack of training did in the first place. We all make mistakes, we all try our best, and my dog isn’t nearly as traumatized or tormented as I paint her. I was projecting onto her, using her as a mirror for my guilt.
When I realized guilt is just a signpost, not a state you are meant to stay in (even if you had done something wrong), I shifted my perspective. I decided to spend time with my dog just enjoying her the way she is, rather than constantly trying to train and control her to fix the mirror of my own guilt. I also allowed myself to let go of the guilt and run through the grass with her, give her kisses, and just allow us to delight in each other’s essences.
And that goes so much further toward the change we desire. Sitting in guilt might feel like rightful atonement, but it only serves to hurt us and the ones we love. If we can shift to seeing guilt as a signpost and operate from a place of love and fullness in response to that guilt, we can properly wield the emotion so it can guide us toward healing and growth.
How do we do this? How do we shift out of the immense guilt? Honestly, it may take some role-playing at first. Role-playing is a technique I sometimes employ where I pretend to have qualities I don’t just yet. It’s a test, as it were. A “suppose I was like this . . . then what would happen”? So you can pretend you are free of guilt and see where that leads you. Pretend you have let go. I say pretend because really letting go may include some deeper work, like journaling or dialoging. I’m not convinced just pretending can make the shift stick, but it can be useful to test a different way of doing things so you can better compare the results and use that in your daily turning inward to foster the changes you want. Notice how that shifts your demeanor and the actions you take. How does it shift your thoughts? Your approach? How do you feel?
Challenge!: The next time guilt crops up, see if you can view it as a signpost. Take note; observe what, if anything, needs adjusting; and then approach that change from a place of fullness and compassion, even if it means employing some role-playing, journaling, or another inward practice. Best of luck!