According to some, having been raised an Irish Catholic, I should practically have a PhD in guilt! Seriously though, seeing the effect that it has on people’s lives, I do ponder this feeling, and its consequences, from time to time.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how strongly it relates to shame. For most of us, this is something that we learn at a very early age. This means that it’s acquired during the phase of our lives (0 – approximately 6 years of age) when we accept things without question, and without the ability to judge their validity or helpfulness. As a result, shame is something that is very longstanding, deep rooted and can have a profound impact on our lives. It is also – as alluded to in my, slightly flippant, comment above – often embedded into our culture, helping to perpetuate and strengthen its hold on us.
So, is it healthy, and does it serve any useful purpose?
If I can address the second part of that question first, I believe that guilt is only useful in as much as it alerts us to discomfort. It shows that there is an issue that needs addressing.
When we experience discomfort in this way, it indicates that our thoughts are out of line with our Higher Self’s views on the subject. For example, if I do something that makes me feel guilty, my inner critic is telling me all those self-shaming thoughts, such as:
- You’re a bad person!
- You never get anything right!
- You’ve failed again!
- What a stupid mistake that was!
In contrast, our Higher Self never judges us, and certainly would never address us in less than loving terms.
So, our discomfort makes us aware that we’re out of alignment. We’re not being true to our Higher Self.
If we drill deeper, we’ll probably find it’s not just the shaming thoughts that are off balance, they’re most likely coming from our deeper awareness that we’re not living as our Best Self – we’ve allowed ourselves to be distracted by other things.
In today’s world we’re spoilt for choice on ‘distractions’:
- Social media
- ‘Will we / won’t we’ Brexit?
- And, whichever way it goes, what impact will this have on the economy?
- Has environmental damage gone beyond repair?
Then, of course, there’re also the ‘minutiae’ of our everyday lives:
- What to have for dinner
- Who will get together with whom on Love Island?
- What are people thinking of me / of what I said / of how I look?
All of these things can occupy our thoughts, meaning that we’re not fully present much of the time.
As a result, we often act, or make decisions, on a largely subconscious level. We can end up going through our days on autopilot, reacting rather than consciously responding to situations, allowing the nervous, anxious, fearful part of our mind to make our decisions for us. This can result in things like:
- Over eating
- Over spending
- Not stepping out of our comfort zone – eg trying something new
- Avoiding situations that we find challenging – eg meeting new people
- Self sabotage
When we notice that we’ve made decisions that were unwise, and maybe got us into trouble, we then feel guilty. This isn’t ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ – no feelings are, and it’s impossible to turn them off anyway – it’s what we do with this feeling that’s important.
Do we get ‘stuck’, listening to, and engaging with those shaming thoughts?
Or do we explore the feelings and learn from them, seeing what changes we can make to move closer into alignment with Who We Really Are, in order to live a life where we make conscious choices that serve us, and that feel authentic and honest, and where we can be responsible and accountable rather than feeling guilt and shame?
This can be challenging, and will require us to look deeply at conditioning that we’ve carried since childhood. Others have referred to this as ‘un-domestication’ or ‘rewilding’. It’s a visceral process and requires deconstruction and reconstruction, but you don’t have to do it alone, and the rewards feel amazing: self awareness, autonomy and freedom.
I think that this is the only value of guilt and therefore I don’t feel that it’s a place where we should spend any more time than absolutely necessary. In fact, to return to the question of ‘is it healthy?’, generally, beyond the initial recognition and finding the issues to be addressed, I would say that the answer to this is ‘No’.
On the contrary, guilt is often very restricting and deeply uncomfortable. It keeps us small and can be very stressful which, as we know, impacts on our wellbeing. That inner voice also isn’t content with just criticising our current choices. If we are prepared to listen, it has a nasty habit of dragging up every perceived failing and every ‘mistake’ we’ve ever made. It also projects its beliefs onto others, telling us that they, too, see us as not good / clever / skilled enough.
So, what can we do?
Start by taking a step back and observe the things that your mind is telling you, without engaging with them, knowing that they are merely the product of your conditioning and your natural negative bias. Don’t try to fight your mind, it’s just doing its job, and it’s not really open to persuasion anyway! Observe, without judging, and accept that this is what the mind does – not just yours, but everyone’s.
You can then make a conscious decision about whether to go along with what your mind says, or choose a different option. You don’t have to push yourself too far out of your comfort zone. Small steps and small challenges will help you to build your ‘consciousness muscles’ allowing you to stretch and grow.
As you become more self-aware you will be able to identify the things you really want in your life, the things that light you up and fill you with excitement and joy. These are your guide in creating the fulfilling life that you long for. These are where you discover your ‘purpose’. You aren’t here for the ‘should’s, ‘have to’s or ‘ought to’s. You’re here to Be Who You Really Are and to let that light shine out. You’re here to experience and grow and en-joy the journey.