Have you ever let anyone down? Of course you have.
Feeling guilty? Does it make you a bad person? Well, that depends…
How can you tell if you are a bad person? You might think it, but does that make it true? Other people might say it or call you names, but does that make it true?
If you’re feeling like a bad person, then chances are you are feeling guilty or ashamed about something. Millions of people around the world struggle with feeling guilty or ashamed every day. So its normal. The problem is that people are notoriously ‘bad’ at dealing with these feelings.
What is Guilt and Shame?
Guilt and shame are natural basic emotions. This means that it would be unusual if you didn’t experience it at least once every day.
In the body, they feel similar. You feel a weight in the pit of your stomach. Your body goes tense. You can become distant and get lost in your mind. Your attention is elsewhere. People might look at you and notice you seem pensive and withdrawn.
Guilt and shame also have some slight differences. Guilt is an emotion associated with having done something wrong. Shame is thought to be an emotion that arises when your mind tells you there is something wrong with you as a person. It arises in children when they are punished too harshly.
How do people normally deal with guilt?
Guilt is undoubtedly painful. You feel ‘bad’ right? And the thing we are all primed to do when we experience pain, is to fix it, push it away or get rid of it. This is called experiential avoidance. There is probably close to an infinite number of things people do to avoid feelings of guilt and shame. Here are a handful of some more obvious attempts:
- Try not to think about it
- Reassure yourself you aren’t bad
- Prove you are good through compulsive care giving and self-sacrifice
- React with aggression, blame other people and criticise
- Tell yourself you are worthless, bad and defective over and over again
Although this last one is more common I think with long-term problems of intense shame. This is often associated with histories of abuse.
Why it doesn’t work!
On the one hand, these responses make sense. They are intended to offer protection against the pain of guilt. The trouble is that they only work in the short-term. You might feel less guilty or ashamed for a bit, but then it rears its ugly horrible head again…and again…
I’ll give you a personal example. I struggled for a long time with feeling guilty about letting down a friend. When we were much younger we used to hangout a great deal. We got really close, but then they moved away and I stopped making an effort. I never went to see them nor phoned them. It was as if I forgot that they ever existed and I moved on.
Now, I hear you say that happens all the time. And, yes, I know it does. But my actions cost both of us. I got caught up with what was happening right in front of my nose and my friend felt abandoned and hurt. Maybe I did as well. But my friend lost faith and trust in me and our friendship. And so our friendship faded away.
I felt quite guilty about this for a long-time and I did all manner of things to try to fix it. I’d tell myself “people drift apart or “we probably weren’t that close anyway”. I’d go out and make new friends. And, from time to time, I’d look them up on Facebook. I even sent a friend request with a personal message, which was declined! “Oh, well”, I thought. “They’re not interested. They’re too upset with me and they’ve moved on.” At times, I felt angry and I blamed them. I’d think about how I’d done my bit. But all this stuff it didn’t work. It didn’t work to fix my guilt and my shame at feeling like a bad friend.
An opportune moment arose when I got a last minute invitation to a party of old friends. Fortune happened that they were there. At some point in the evening, we got talking. They were upset with me. They felt hurt and let down. I said I was sorry. The evening went Ok, but we never recovered our friendship. In fact, the chance rendez-vous only intensified my guilt and shame. For a while, I felt lost and I didn’t know what to do.
How I dealt with my own guilt
I got through it by applying what I’ve learned over the years about dealing with painful emotions. And that is what I want to share with you. I’ve outlined a step-by-step process that you can use to help you navigate the struggles with your own guilt and shame.
So here is what I did.
- I slowed it all down. I noticed that when I started thinking about it I got busier in my head. My heart got faster and I felt more tense. Then, I start trying to fix it with my thinking, but it would only overwhelm me. So, I slowed it down by being still and focusing on my breath. I tried to be an observer of what was happening in my head, in my body and all around me. SLOW IT DOWN.
- I wrote it down. At times, writing down what is in your head is a great way to express yourself. I found that by writing it down I was able to clarify my thoughts and describe my feelings. This helped me to interrupt the cycle and grounded me some more. WRITE IT DOWN.
- I opened up to the feelings of guilt and shame. By opening up, I mean let them be in your experience. I tried to describe the feelings and focus on my body. By holding an observer perspective I was able to connect with the feelings rather than just thinking about them. I also noticed that other feelings came up like anger. This was helpful, because it helped me to see not just my part in what happened, but also what my friend did. OPEN UP TO YOUR FEELINGS.
- I forgave myself. Forgiveness is an action. It is not a wish or an intent. To forgive someone (including yourself) you have to practice it. So, when I started to struggle with my guilt, I tried to keep it slow and show warmth and understanding. I spoke to myself more gently and with compassion. I didn’t let myself off the hook. Instead, I owned my feelings and I practiced responding to them with more kindness and sensitivity. This was challenging, but it was important and helpful. FORGIVE.
- I offered an apology. In truth, I gave a half-apology. It wasn’t perfect. If I could go back, I would say it again in a different way. I remember I did say sorry, but I also tried to justify my actions as well. But that undermines the quality of the apology. But I recognise that and I forgave myself. I learned from it. OFFER A SINCERE APOLOGY.
- I moved on. I decided and I committed to moving-on. The previous steps allowed me to do that more easily. This wasn’t an overnight success. I practiced it and revisited these steps a few times. You may need to do it more than that. But, ultimately, I had to move on for my own sake and those around me. Life is now and I needed to get busy living it. MOVE ON.
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