(as seen in Women’s Health & Fitness Magazine)

Picture this scenario… It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining and the birds are singing. You’re walking down the street, minding your own business, when suddenly you’re hit with it – a strong sense of foreboding, an irrepressible impression of “uh oh”, a lump of apprehension that’s stuck deep in the pit of your stomach… That undeniable feeling of guilt. Perhaps you forgot to phone your Mother back on the weekend, to help her sort out the renovations on her property; maybe you were in such a hurry to get to work this morning that you avoided helping that little old lady cross the road, and you watched helplessly as she fell to the ground; or you said the wrong thing when your best friend asked if she looked fat in that dress, because you were afraid that the truth really would hurt. And now all you want to do is crawl down into a little hole like a hermit and stay there for about a week until everything blows over.

Ah yes. Guilt. It makes us do such funny things. But what is it really? And how can we get over it?

Guilt is the emotion we possess when we have done, thought or said something that conflicts with our own ideal of our perfect self and how we “should” behave. It’s a state that we get stuck in when our behaviour or actions go against our beliefs and values. In our own perfect world, we would have done things differently, so we beat ourselves up about what could have been. And other people can help us along with these negative thoughts too! They may reinforce our irrational thinking by constantly bringing up the fact that we did or didn’t do something, blaming us for our actions, accusing us of things, or even feigning hardship or unhappiness in order to project their own negative feelings on to us. Your Mum may feel like she’s not organized enough to sort out the renovation contractors by herself; the little old lady may feel like she’s far too old and weak to do anything by herself; and your best friend may be stuck in a diet roundabout, constantly stressing about the cellulite on her thighs. But that’s their problem, not yours. You can’t be responsible for their feelings of low self worth, even if they do try to bring you down in order to make themselves feel better.
And often, rather than actually being about us, it’s a response to our perception of how we have made someone else feel. In the case of the forgotten phone call to our Mother, we may feel bad because she’s always there for us when we need her, and so we have a moral sense of obligation or duty to please her. And the little old lady certainly never falls over when we help her across the road, so we’ve taken on board this sense of duty to make sure she’s okay, somehow making her a priority over ourselves and our own needs! And our own life is going along so nicely right now, that we manage to take on our best friend’s life dramas, and that puts us in a really bad position when it comes to telling her the truth about certain things. However, we may be feeling guilty for no reason, actually injecting our own fears into the situation. We can drive ourselves nuts with all the “what if’s” that race through our heads!
Look at it this way. If you let guilt take control of your life, you are simply indulging in a concern over a past situation in order to avoid taking action now! You are stuck in your own roundabout of highs and lows, and as long as you keep going round and round, you don’t have to actually confront your problems. You can stay stuck. You can continue to be overly sensitive, you can keep playing the victim, and you can wallow in your useless negative emotions to the point where you stop yourself from getting the situation sorted out.

Okay. We all know what it is and what it does to us. So, how can we overcome this thing called guilt?

Firstly, let’s look at the actual problem that’s causing you to feel guilty. Ask yourself:

  • Am I really responsible for this problem?
  • If not, then who is?
  • If someone else is 100% responsible for this problem, hand it over! Get it off your plate and go and enjoy the rest of your day. But, if you think you may need to work on this a bit further, ask yourself:
  • In what way have I made this problem even worse for myself?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how much guilt do I really feel about this problem? (Be honest with yourself – don’t just use guilt as an excuse).
  • Is the guilt actually stopping me from getting on with fixing the problem? (My bet is a resounding “yes”).
  • What is the problem really? What does the actual problem look like?
  • Can this problem be solved by taking affirmative action rather than dwelling on the negatives? Can I look at this objectively?
  • Does this problem involve another person, and would that person be willing to put aside their own emotions in order to fix this problem?
  • Is it really my problem after all, or am I taking on board someone else’s issues?

The main thing is to accept that an event or thought sparked this onslaught of guilt, and that positive actions can wipe the slate clean. Do what you have to do in order to clear your guilt. Talk to the other person involved or, if there isn’t one, tell yourself that you deserve to resolve this issue, and make a plan of attack. Let it all go, and find something much more worthwhile to focus your attention on. But, whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about that!

Samantha McDonald

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