An excerpt from the book, Awaken From Life: Lessons for Discovering Your Personal Truths, written by Randi G. Fine
Breaking Free from the Grips of Unhealthy Guilt
We are human beings and we are fallible. We exist not to achieve perfection but to learn, grow and evolve. When the point in time comes that we no longer make mistakes, we will no longer have a purpose for living.
In the course of a lifetime the number of mistakes made by each of us will be in the thousands. The majority of those mistakes will be so insignificant that we will move past them without a second thought.
No one can possibly know the right thing to do or say in every situation. As we progress through life we may have the benefit of hindsight to assist us, but there will always be times when we err in judgment, words, or action.
A significant amount of the mistakes we make as individuals will impact others. The degree of the impact will vary.
Those of us who are conscientious and compassionate will be sensitive to the feelings of others and remorseful for our words or actions. Saying we are sorry and making due amends are the appropriate actions to take. Once said and done it is time to move forward.
At this stage many of us get stuck. It comes down to forgiveness; some of us can forgive ourselves for our trespasses, some of us cannot.
Lacking the ability to forgive oneself is what kindles the flames of guilt.
It is normal to have feelings of guilt after doing something wrong, reacting inappropriately, or acting in ways that conflict with one’s moral compass. There are certainly times when guilt feelings are justified and healthy.
Healthy guilt comes from having done something wrong or having thought about doing something wrong with deliberate intention and rationality. In these situations it is one’s conscience that triggers him to take notice of his harmful, irresponsible, or malicious intent.
Healthy guilt acts as mechanism that prevents us from doing things we know are wrong. When we have already committed an injustice, healthy guilt makes us aware of our accountability.
We can eradicate our healthy guilt by making amends, and by not repeating the same guilt-producing behavior.
A problem arises when the intensity or duration of one’s guilt does not fit the intensity or duration of his offense. Guilt is unhealthy when one assumes more responsibility then is warranted.
Guilt is unhealthy when those who have done nothing wrong believe that they have and then mercilessly inflict self-punishment. Whether or not one should feel guilty is based on the intention behind his actions.
Sometimes we feel guilty about an occurrence with a negative outcome that we believe we could have prevented. We may carry the weight of that guilt whether or not our belief is realistically based. We may punish ourselves with “what if, should have, would have, and why didn’t I” type questions.
This type of guilt serves no other purpose than self-sabotage. It acts as a poison that kills the body, mind, and spirit. It prevents us from savoring the happiness of today by keeping us stuck in a past we can do nothing about.
A guilt complex is fed by one’s insecurities, expectations and need for acceptance. Overly conscientious people, perfectionists, pleasers, and those with unreasonably high standards tend to suffer from this syndrome the most.
To understand why you may have this tendency, you only need to examine your past. Unhealthy guilt is an acquired behavior. Most of us learn it through childhood conditioning.
Parents are responsible for teaching their children to behave in ways that conform to societal norms. That is accomplished through praise and discipline.
Though children require reprimanding and punishment, they should always know that they are unconditionally loved no matter how they behave. A problem arises when parental praise is associated with acceptance, love, and being labeled “good,” and discipline is associated with non-acceptance, withdrawal of love, and being labeled “bad.”
Some parents go as far as to say that they are disappointed in the child or that he is embarrassing them by his behavior. This is a deliberate tactic used to make the child feel guilty for what he has done. The parents have used guilt to motivate him to change his behavior. This sends the wrong message.
A child learns by trial and error. Why should he be made to feel guilty for minor infractions?
Being taught right from wrong is one thing; being made to feel guilty is another. Guilt sets the child up for a lifelong pattern of approval seeking. He will come to fear that if he does not measure up to the expectations of others, he will not be liked or loved. When others disapprove of what he says or does, he will feel guilty and ashamed.
The irony is that the same person suffering from a lifelong guilt complex will use guilt tactics as a way to get what he wants from others. That is the only method he has at his disposal. As a child he learned from his parents to manipulate others to get his needs met.
Parents who have an excessive need to please their child easily become victims of their child’s manipulations and guilt trips. Even parents who are most adept at laying guilt on their kids can fall prey to children who turn around and use the same tactics on them.
Children attempt to manipulate their parents with guilt by saying things such as, “Everybody else’s parents let them do it so why can’t I” or ”You don’t love me or you would buy it for me, I never get anything I want” and “You are so mean; I hate you!” They will scream, cry, and throw tantrums to get their way. Parents who feed into this behavior will only reinforce it.
These unhealthy behavior patterns become a vicious cycle that repeats with each generation.
Another major source of guilt usually learned in childhood and reinforced by parents, is rooted in certain religions. We are taught by many religions to follow a particular moral code. Straying from that code makes us a sinner. We are made to feel guilty and ashamed for our mistakes and must repent in order to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Understandably, religion is a top priority and source of stability in the lives of many. Religion is what connects many of us with God or a Higher Power. The majority of people rely on religion to guide them through life.
Regardless of what religion we follow we will all make mistakes. Life is about learning from mistakes; it is about growth and development. It is not about punishment and suffering. Religion should be comforting and fulfilling. It should not be a source of fear guilt and shame.
Guilt makes us feel miserable. It is a gnawing, unsettling feeling that pervades everything we do. Many people repress their guilt feelings so they can adequately function in life.
Whether or not one thinks about his guilt feelings every minute of every day, the results produced by it are toxic. It will inevitably result in anxiety, depression, and fatigue. No one can live a happy, satisfying life when these painful feelings are bottled up inside of him.
Some people hold on to guilt feelings believing that the amount of guilt they have represents their level of thoughtfulness and caring. That assumption could not be farther from the truth. Think about it this way; would you want someone you love and care about to suffer guilt feelings over something he may or may not have done to you? Guilt is self-punishment. Our friends and loved ones would never want us to inflict that kind of pain upon ourselves.
Often times we may feel guilty and obsess over something we said or did. We believe others hold it against us or judge us. In many cases other people did not even notice our words or actions, quickly forgot about them, or were not the least bit affected by them. Still we punish ourselves and may carry that baggage throughout our entire life, never knowing that the only person we ever hurt was ourselves.
When your actions come from a place of goodness and love but are received by another in a way you never intended, that is not your fault and you should not feel guilty.
If someone makes you feel guilty it is only because you have allowed him to. It is your decision whether you will accept or deny guilt feelings, forgive or not forgive yourself, and whether you will focus on the present or the past.
It is your life and you choose how to live it. Do you want to live by other’s expectations of you? Do you really need everyone else’s approval of what you do?
No living person can rightfully judge another because no one is perfect. You will make yourself crazy if you try to live by others’ standards. Furthermore, you cannot possibly control the way others think. Everyone has a different reality. No two people experience life the same way. Opinions are just opinions, they are not absolute truths.
Your life is your unique reality. Do not waste your time trying to please everyone else. Give yourself permission to say no to things you do not want to do and to be brave enough to make unpopular choices without feeling guilty.
Ask yourself why you may easily offer kindness and compassion to others but not to yourself. Would you ever dream of causing someone else to feel as bad as you are making yourself feel? The goal is to be as gentle with yourself as you are to others.
You must be your own best friend. That means overcoming the need to self-punish. Self-love and self-acceptance are specific choices you must make every day.
Since guilt has become a programmed, automatic response for you, you cannot change what you are doing until you become aware that you are doing it. In order to break the cycle of guilt you have, know what thoughts keep you stuck in the pattern. Then acknowledge and change the self-defeating, self-abusive, or distorted messages in your head.
If you tend to be too hard on yourself, ask yourself the following questions: “Must everything I do be done to perfection? What will happen if I do make a mistake? Will the result of my misjudgment or my mistake cause irreparable harm?”
If you find yourself asking these questions, most likely you are someone who takes responsibility for your actions. You are most likely someone who would never deliberately set out to hurt another.
Now ask yourself three more questions. “Are the demands I make of myself unreasonable? Do I have to be the perfect parent, spouse, or friend? Do I know anyone who is the perfect parent, spouse, or friend?”
Whenever you begin to feel guilty about something the first thing to ask yourself is, “Is there some kind of action I can take to correct what I am feeling guilty about?”
If you have truly wronged someone, accept what you have done, express your remorse, and then do your best to make amends. After you have said you are sorry, do not punish yourself with guilt. That is useless. Once you have made amends, make a pact with yourself to never do it again and then allow yourself to move on.
If you have acted out in anger and regret it, say you are sorry and then let it go. If you have made mistakes raising your children, tell them what you believe you did wrong and what you would do if you could do it over. Then be the best parent you know how to be from that point on.
You cannot go back and fix the past but you can use better judgment in the future. Guilt accomplishes nothing; it does not change anything. Actions do.
If guilt has long been part of your personal truths, it is time to replace it with a new truth—one that involves loving yourself.
It does not matter what others think of you as long as you know you are living a genuine, honest, and loving life. In all your endeavors that is what truly matters.
I am available to talk about any life issues that are concerning you. Private, confidential. http://clarity.fm/randi-g-fine
More Excerpts from Randi’s Books
Excerpts from Randi’s Memoir, Fine…ly
Excerpts from Randi’s Inspirational Life Fulfillment Book, Awaken From Life
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