If there is one emotion that sums up modern living, it’s guilt. We are an increasingly guilt ridden society. For some people guilt is lurking behind almost every choice they make. Working full time and therefore not spending as much time with the kids: guilt! Spending time with the kids so not bringing money in and contributing to household finances: guilt! Going to the friend’s party that doesn’t really appeal rather than going to that yoga class your body craves: guilt! Ditching that good friend’s party in order to grab a bit of downtime: guilt! On and on, and on it goes. A seemingly endless and un-winnable cycle of guilt drains energy and joy out of our day.
Here are some important things to know about guilt:
Guilt has a purpose. It’s a handy prompt to examine your choices. Could you have made a different or better choice? What can you learn for next time? Okay – good information – adjust your future choices accordingly. Happy with the choice when you actually reflect on it? Again – good to know. No need to feel guilty if it’s still the best choice you could have made at the time. So drop the guilt – it is serving no purpose.
We are actually LUCKY to feel guilt. Guilt means we have choices! We could have chosen what was behind Door X and we chose Door Y instead. Guilt means we had a choice and we chose. That’s good news! We have almost infinite choice over how we live and what we choose to put in our lives. There are societies in the world where women cannot work or be educated. They don’t have a choice to be a working mother, and therefore experience the guilt that choice inevitably seems to entail. Guilt is actually a spotlight illuminating how lucky we are to have so much choice! Guilt means we had a choice and we made it.
Guilt is a revealer of a hidden “should”. Shoulds are bad news. Including a whole heap of “shoulds” in our internal dialogue is a sure fire way to emotionally beat ourselves up. Shoulds are a way of punishing ourselves for making a choice we have consciously made. That’s bad. Feeling guilt is a cue to examine the hidden “should” behind it and see if it’s valid. “I should have gone to the party” – Really? “I shouldn’t have said no to that” Really? Take a look – is that should really true? Is it helping you or holding you back? If it’s not true – drop it and drop the guilt.
Guilt is a prompt to take responsibility. When people don’t take responsibility guilt develops into deep shame which they will do almost anything to avoid feeling. Guilt says something about your choices; shame says something about who you are. Guilt says “I wish I hadn’t lied about that, I am going to apologise and fix this”. Shame says “I’m a liar. I need to distance myself completely from this situation in order to not feel bad about myself. I will avoid responsibility completely in order to not feel shame”. There is a whole heap of juicy stuff to discuss on the difference between guilt and shame which I will save for another day. For now just get clear that guilt is there as a helpful prompt for you to examine your responsibilities. If you haven’t avoided your responsibilities – no need to feel guilty. Again, drop the guilt.
We need to collectively get better at dropping guilt once it’s served its purpose. If guilt rears its head – use it and then let it go. Use it to see if there is anything you can learn from the choice you have made. Use it to examine the “should” that is implicitly attached to it. Make changes where needed, then drop it. Make the choice you are making – to work or not work, or to bake from scratch or order takeout, or to work late or to run, whatever it is – make that choice consciously and own it. Fully own it. Drop the should. Drop the guilt. Fully own and embrace wholeheartedly doing the thing you have chosen, and feel grateful to have so much choice in your life.
Dragging guilt around after every choice we make is pointless and debilitating. It robs the enjoyment out of whatever we have chosen because we feel guilty that we “should” be doing something different! That’s crazy making! Learn. Adjust if appropriate. Choose it. Own it. Enjoy it. Let it go.