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Making Distinctions About Guilt; Instead of Suffering from It

Posted Aug 13 2009 8:02pm

Guilt is a complicated business because there are two sides to it. Of course, there is a good aspect to guilt. iStock_000005994502XSmall  Guilt is supposed to be a pinch to remind us to do the right thing even if we don’t feel like it. Guilt is like the penalty fee on an unpaid bill, it’s there for a reason. The problem is that too many basically good people suffer from excessive guilt.

Excessive guilt means you are an expert at torturing yourself. For example, take someone who spends a decade caring for her aging mother and has given up too many of her own choices in life. She meets somebody special and feels guilty, convincing herself she’s wrong to want her own happiness. She can easily spend the next decade torturing herself that she didn’t do enough (esp. if her mother adds to her guilt by refusing to welcome the new love interest). In this case, guilt is a boulder around your neck that can carry you down to the depths of despair. If she has a Catholic or Jewish background there may be no climbing out of the pit. If she also has anxiety or obsessiveness to add to the mix it’s another boulder tied to her ankles. Constant doubt and questioning your own integrity  goes along with anxiety. 

When guilt is reasonable, it is a pinch to remind you that obligation matters. When guilt is a giant unreasonable pile that won’t release its grip around your heart, that is something else all together… Swallowed resentments. What’s really happening is that you are pretending your own wants don’t matter. I used “she” in the above example because women are far more likely to swallow their wants. Begin to think of too much guilt as an opportunity to explore your own resentments. Staying with the above example of the woman and her mother, it’s easy to imagine: I’m resentful I never get my own vacation. I’m resentful not to have fun and laugh with someone else. I’m resentful my mother is rude and unwelcoming. I’m resentful my siblings don’t help out or offer me a break. I’m resentful my mom wants me all to herself and expects too much. It’s easy to see the wants under each of these resentments. Simply change the resentment into the want and be more honest with yourself. 

So many people who suffer from guilt are people who ignore themselves. They believe it’s just too hard to juggle mom’s needs and their own. They’ve decided it’s too selfish and then carry the burden of their silent wants. Everybody gets hungry for a life of their own. It’s nothing to apologize for. It’s about facing the complicated situation of taking care of both people instead of signing up to be the martyr. Martyrs are too good at pretending their own needs don’t matter which is self deception.

Ask an expert who abuses themselves with guilt what the opposite of guilt is, and they are likely to respond freedom. The reality is they need to set themselves free. That’s why there are only 10 commandments (and it doesn’t say honor your father and mother while erasing yourself). Explore the resentments/wants underneath the guilt and accept them for what they are: perfectly reasonable and worth saying out loud. Relationships are always more difficult when they are about both people. Excessive guilt means you are too busy building a prison for yourself. Do the work to set yourself free, nobody is going to do it for you. guilt1

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