This article first appeared on The Huffington Post
I was talking with a client a while ago, a very talented woman who makes insanely beautiful pieces of jewelry with frankincense. We spoke about why she loves doing what she does, and how she’ll go about turning her passion into a viable source of income. Her excitement was palpable throughout the session and I felt content knowing she’d a solid plan of action going forward.
As we were wrapping up, her energy shifted. With a deep sigh and almost a whisper, she said, as if to herself: “If only I could I get past this guilt”. Of course my ears propped up high! As we began exploring this, it turned out that her guilt of not being there for her parents had kept her from pursuing any dream for very long. She could not give herself freely to her work because the negativity drained her energy, nor could she commit to what she was doing because she felt compelled to fly home every few months when the guilt became too much to bear.
“Do you feel better when you do?” I asked her. The answer was evident by her expression of extreme pain. She was fighting a losing battle, drawn deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of self-criticism and despair.
I’ve found this to be true of so many women. We’re caught in mother’s guilt, daughter guilt, partner guilt. We’re guilty about our eating habits, about taking time out for ourselves, about having said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, being the wrong thing… Yes, this unaddressed guilt is destroying our relationship with our own selves and limiting the way we show up in life.
That’s because guilt is a self-conscious emotion that we experience when we believe we’ve violated moral rules, particularly when these violations have also caused harm to others. If, for example, you feel guilty about taking time out for yourself or following your dreams, you may well believe these actions to be wrong because they harm the wellbeing of your children, parents, partner…
And you’re certainly not alone. As women, we’re consumed with guilt partly because of our relational nature, and partly because we’re inundated by social messages to be perfectly self-sacrificial all the time. For some of us, these feelings are further amplified by childhood expectations to be the ‘good’ girl, or by experiences of trying to win approval by becoming one.
While guilt can be positive in that it helps us take action, we often suppress it or numb it because we’re being made to feel guilty about – well almost everything. And this unaddressed guilt and lack of intentional action is leading to feelings of shame and decreasing self-worth.
Guilt is literally closing us down and sucking the joy and purpose from our lives.
So this year, as you envision your dreams, make your plans and set your actions steps in place, take out some time to also reflect on – and let go of – the feelings of guilt that you’ve been trudging along. Because unless you do, you’ll feel like you’re driving with the brakes on.
Ask Yourself: What am I guilty about?
Get clear on the behaviors (or lack thereof) that trigger the guilt for you. Which relationships do you think these behaviors violate, including your relationship with yourself ? If you’re unclear on your guilt triggers, reflect on your self-talk when you feel guilty. When are you ‘shoulding’ on yourself? When are you critical of yourself? What do you say?
Ask Yourself: Where do these feelings come from?
Next, take some time to reflect on why these behaviors make you feel guilty. What’s your guilt trying to tell you? Is it reminding you of something you value? (in which case you need to do something about it) Or is it making you feel bad about yourself based on childhood or societal expectations to be a certain way?
Ask Yourself: How will I free myself?
Depending on the sources of your guilt, you have essentially two choices.
If your guilt is based on values you hold deep, you’ll need to first write yourself a self-forgiveness letter. Yes, exactly. Begin with “Dear (your name)”, and write down “I forgive you for the pain you caused my (mother, child, body…)
If your guilt is based on the fear of rejection and a need for approval, you’ll need to challenge the thoughts underlying your guilt. A good cognitive behavioral therapy technique is to check whether your thoughts are a)helpful, b)true or c)logical.
Ask Yourself: What will I do?
Finally, given that guilt has a pro-social action tendency, you’ll need to have a plan in place that will guide your actions.
If your guilt is a reminder of your values, think about how you’ll get to your values-based goals. Start with what you truly want to achieve, think of the steps that can help you do so, and then take one action towards them within the next 24 hours. That’s when your motivation is at its peak.
If your guilt is driven by fears, think of the one thing you’ll say or do when that guilt strikes. What is the mantra that can help you? Who can you reach out to for support?
Back to my client. Although she did rush back (begrudgingly) to her parents every few months, she was doing so from a place of fear and the need for approval. As such, it didn’t address the guilt at all and she continued to feel bad about herself. Once she realized that spending time with her parents was important to her, she decided to schedule mini breaks throughout the year that took her plans in consideration and that were short and satisfying for her soul.
So as you step into 2021, reflect on the guilt that you may be carrying. What will you do to address it effectively so you’re free of the emotional baggage you’ve been piling on for way too long?
Whatever it is, do it! I wish you the best for 2021 and beyond!