I have a dear friend who happened to be born and raised into a healthy and well-off family. He knew growing up that he had advantages that many other kids his age didn’t have. He felt guilty about it and as an adult, continues to feel that guilt.
It’s a kind of survivor guilt, and can be the motivator under all kinds of actions: the neighbor who will routinely go out of her way to babysit; the volunteer who spends all his free time helping out at outreach programs – local or global. Doing things for others is a wonderful give-away, but not so much if it’s really to make us feel better. Besides, trying to soften guilt with charitable acts doesn’t work – it doesn’t take the guilt away, and it doesn’t make the recipients feel very good. As an Inuit elder once said to a well-wisher “I don’t want your guilt. I want your participation!”
Survivor guilt happens to us, not because we’ve done anything to feel guilty about, but because we feel a sense of unfairness: that we got a “break” when others didn’t.
Then there’s the kind of guilt where we have done something, either through omission or action, that ended up harming someone else. It might be something you said in a thoughtless moment, or something you didn’t say. Remember that news story where a woman was being beaten and passers-by did nothing to interfere, even to call the authorities? If I were one of those people, I might regret not doing anything, and carry with me a sense of guilt long after the event happened.
Guilt can motivate us and it can weigh us down. Either way, unless we deal with it, it saps our energy and prevents us from living fully and contributing to our society the best we can.
If you’re feeling guilty about something right now, here’s what you can do to effectively – and fairly – deal with it:
- Have a talk with yourself, as if you were a wise elder offering advice. What might that elder say? Was there any realistic way you could have done something different? Own it. Be realistic about it, as an elder would. If you did harm, then make amends in a way that fully ends your guilt trip.
- Grieve the loss, so that you can finally let the guilt go. There is always some loss involved. It might be the loss of a friend; a betrayal; an unhealed hurt of some kind. It might be ridicule from your father that propels you to bully someone else. Take the time you need to feel the pain, and then let it go. You might complete this period of grief with a give-away – a small ceremony where you give away a token of your loss.
- Expand your perspective, by seeing it through the eyes of your friends, or even of the one you hurt. How would a friend feel abut your focus on feeling guilty? How would it change your relationship if you didn’t feel guilty? I remember hearing a man talk about how he had killed a neighbor’s child in a car accident. He was a teenager at the time, and dealt with his guilt by becoming an addict and destroying his life. Then one day, the child’s father, having seen this, stopped him and let him know he forgave him, expressly saying that the best thing he could do for the child’s family would be to leave this behind and live the best life he could. Today, that man is owner of a multi-million dollar business, and an active contributor to his community – not through guilt, but through the resolution of guilt and the forgiveness of the family he hurt.
The only good thing about guilt is that it helps us take ownership for our actions, and then motivates us to change and grow, living the best life we can.
Pema Chödron – All in the same boat
Quote of the Week
Calvin : There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.
― Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
At times we need more – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us. I offer both one-on-one consultations and coaching packages. For more information, visit my website www.thejoyofliving.co/services-and-programs or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org . Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist and Life Coach. To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .