Guilt is a pile of crap. For something so negative, I’ve become really rather expert at welcoming it into my life at the expense of other more joyous emotions. Why does guilt manage to camp out in my head like an unwelcome relative; nagging incessantly about what I should or shouldn’t have done; should or shouldn’t have said? How on earth did I get to this point where, despite trying to keep the world and his dog happy, I still feel guilty for gazillion different reasons?
What is guilt anyway? It’s a small word that packs a mighty punch; an intangible feeling that can’t even be called an emotion. It’s evil. It smells like a big fat eggy fart that you don’t want to be near but still manages to attack your senses and leave you feeling nauseous.
I get conscience. Having a conscience means we treat each other with respect and our community is, by and large, a really rather lovely place to be. But at what point does conscience morph into guilt?
There’s obvious guilt, which I understand. Those occasions when you have made a really stupid mistake and ended up hurting someone’s feelings; misread a situation and caused upset or blurted something out and instantly regretted it. Hands up. I’m as guilty as the next person and have had my fair share of ruminating, regretting and apologising to do. The reality is I will still bumble through life making stupid errors that I regret and accept the sporadic guilt-fests that will ensue.
But there’s this other, more persistent, type of guilt I am so tired of. It’s that guilt that eats away at you. The totally self-generated guilt; where you haven’t done anything particularly wrong but feel like you’re letting the side down. This is the guilt that’s exhausting because it never seems to go away, no matter how hard you try to juggle everything and keep the world around you happy.
Talking with friends, I’m evidently not alone. The 24-7 guilt list we beat ourselves up with is endless…
- Not being there enough for our kids;
- Not being there enough for our parents;
- Not spending enough time with friends;
- Being healthy when someone close is ill;
- Saying no at home;
- Saying no at work;
- Spending money we don’t have;
- Daring to take time out for yourself;
- Not have a clean and tidy house;
- Drinking too much;
- Eating too much of the wrong things;
- Eating too little of the good things;
- The laundry mountain;
- Not doing enough exercise;
- And so on…
One definition of guilt is it is a way we have of recognising that we have not lived up to our own values and standards. The challenge comes when we set the bar so high on our standards that we never cut ourselves any slack. For me, this is the crux of it. I set the bar stupidly high; so high that no matter how hard I try I still feel guilty about something.
So, it’s time to recalibrate. For my sanity. It’s time to take the bar down a few notches and to acknowledge that if I do what I can, when I can, to the best of my ability then that is good enough. It will never be perfect but that’s ok. It’s human.
Here’s my five-step plan to kick guilt’s butt.
- Think about the thing I’m feeling guilty about.
- Ask myself if what I did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say etc. was appropriate or acceptable in the circumstances.
- If it was then it’s time to let it go. If I’m festering about it and can’t let it go, it’s time to get out and walk, call a friend or do something active to divert my attention. Bottom line, do anything except think about the situation.
- If it wasn’t appropriate, is there something I can do to rectify the situation. Say sorry? Get in touch? Visit? Go home? Finish what needs finishing? When I have done all I can to try and remedy what is making me feel guilty then it’s time to close the door and move on.
- And finally, take stock, learn and move on.