What is guilt? Is it healthy? Does it serve any useful purpose?

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.

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what is self-compassion?

I was recently having a discussion with a small group of friends and the term ‘self-compassion’ came up.  One member of the group was unfamiliar with this word which made me wonder how many others are in the same situation?  It’s a fairly self-explanatory concept, and one that’s very common in my field of work, but perhaps it’s incorrect for me to assume that it’s part of everyone’s vocabulary.  And if you haven’t come across it in any specific sense, is it something that you would consciously apply in your life?  I therefore thought that I would post something to make self-compassion more explicit and also maybe to say what my thoughts are on what it is, and what it is not.

To start with, I thought I’d look at some definitions.  Compassion itself can be defined as:

“a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them”

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/compassion

Synonyms: pity, sympathy, feeling, fellow feeling, empathy, understanding, concern, solicitude, sensitivity, warmth, gentleness, tenderness, consideration, kindness

According to vocabulary.com Compassion “is a word for a very positive emotion that has to do with being thoughtful and decent… When you feel compassion for someone, you really want to help out.” https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/compassion

The literal meaning of compassion is “to suffer together”. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition  Its qualities are “patience and wisdom; kindness and perseverance; warmth and resolve.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion

Self-compassion then, is when we show these feelings towards ourselves.  If we’re experiencing feelings of inadequacy, failure or suffering of any kind, instead of being critical of ourselves – a very common response – we can choose to be warm, understanding, sensitive, gentle, considerate and kind.

So why, you might ask, would we want to do this, and isn’t it a form of selfishness and self-indulgence?  If I’ve done something wrong / foolish, don’t I deserve to feel guilty / stupid?

Well, firstly I would say that if any – even small – part of you resonated with that last sentence, I would like to gently invite you to notice your self-talk.  Using labels like ‘wrong’, ‘foolish’ and ‘stupid’, I believe, is unhelpful.  They put us into a state of shame which is deeply uncomfortable and only adds to our emotional suffering at a time when we’re already feeling pretty lousy.

I also think that there is very little to be gained from feeling guilty, other than to notice the emotion and to learn from it, by which I mean to observe the discomfort and to explore what triggered it and what wisdom that holds for you about who you really are and the choices that you make, so that you can make choices that are more authentic for you in the future.  Beyond that, I feel that guilt serves only to make us feel bad, and how can we be our best selves from that place?

Image from Jennifer Petty Psychotherapist

I would also like to reassure you that self-compassion is not selfish, or self-indulgent.  It’s an important part of self-care.  I’ve written about this before https://equenergy.wordpress.com/2017/07/08/positive-thinking-is-it-always-a-good-thing-part-24/ so suffice it to say that I believe it’s necessary to take care of ourselves, and to practice self-compassion first, before we can truly offer this to others.

In fact, if we don’t do this, we can end up experiencing burnout and ‘compassion fatigue’.  This is basically when we’ve exhausted our inner resources, leaving ourselves ‘running on empty’.  This is not sustainable and can result in becoming ill and unable to function fully for a time, until we can rest and recharge.  If we’ve allowed ourselves to reach a very low point, this recovery could even take years…  so much better to learn how to look after ourselves now. 

Also, a phrase that really hit me a few years ago when I was pushing myself too hard and not taking time to replenish my resources, was:

How then do you recognise if you’re experiencing compassion fatigue?  According to goodtherapy.org the main symptoms include:

  • Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalization
  • Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of self-contempt
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Poor job satisfaction

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/compassion-fatigue

You can help to avoid this by:

  • Developing greater self-awareness, eg through journaling, mindfulness or meditation
  • Practising self-care and self-compassion
  • Setting – and holding – good emotional boundaries
  • Spending time outdoors, in nature with fresh air and natural light
  • Cultivating healthy relationships with people who boost your mood

If you would like to explore self-compassion further, please get in touch.  I offer bespoke wellbeing packages which address this, and I also run workshops helping you to develop self-awareness and learn strategies for self-support. 

(My website is currently ‘under construction’ but hopefully will be back up and running by next week)