Say Goodbye to Guilt
by Lynn Larkin, MSW, ACSW
Recently I was asked to speak on the word "guilt." As a therapist who has worked with many people struggling with feelings of guilt and more significantly, coming from a family well versed in its many uses I feel this is an important subject for all of us to think about.
There are diverse opinions on guilt. On the one extreme is the view that we are all born guilty and, unless we follow a certain path, we will die guilty. On the other end of the spectrum is a belief that guilt is an unnecessary emotion and that one should just release it to the universe whenever it occurs without paying any attention to it.
As a therapist, I have seen people hang onto guilt over something that happened years ago, which causes them much unnecessary distress. I have also seen individuals who have done harmful things and not shown any remorse at all. As with most things in life, there is a way to balance these extremes and find a way of looking at guilt that is useful and productive.
The answer to bringing these extremes together lies in responsibility. I recently read that you can be responsible without being guilty! This led me to think of guilt as a little messenger to help us to be responsible. You might find it useful to come up with a visual image of this messenger (my image is a pesky little creature flying around my head, annoying me until I do what I need to do to get rid of it). This messenger comes to you to let you know you've done something that's not aligned with your values. Your job is to find out what the message is, respond to the message, and allow the messenger to leave. Lets take this a step at a time.
1) Listen to the message and hear what it is. Often, people are so focused on feeling guilty they are unable to really hear the message. Many times, when we notice what we have done wrong, we get so overwhelmed with feeling bad about ourselves that it makes it hard to really look at and identify our "not-so-nice" behavior. Really looking at these behaviors (what Jung referred to as our shadow) and compassionately accepting them as parts of ourselves is an essential aspect of both personal and spiritual growth.
Once again, this process must be done with compassion and not self-blame. Self-blame will only cause you to feel worse about yourself and make it harder to openly look at your behavior and could perpetuate the cycle of guilt. This first step to effectively deal with guilt is to notice when you are feeling guilty, then really look at what behavior is not in alliance with your values.
It is also important to note that many people feel guilt for things they are not responsible for (this includes things your spouse or child have done), so if this is the case proceed directly to step 3. Some people report others "making" them feel guilty. Others can try, but if you determine you do not have any responsibility, then it is important for you to tell the guilt messenger "goodbye."
2) Once the message has been identified, you need to respond to it. This is where the responsibility comes in, and this is the step I feel some well-meaning people skip when they recommend just releasing the guilt to the universe. Skipping this step also causes others to stay "stuck" with their guilt, because they hang onto the guilt to keep from looking at their behavior. These people seem to have the idea that if they feel guilty enough, that will absolve them of any responsibility.
Guilt can often be used as a way of denying responsibility: "I'm feeling really guilty, so you can't be upset with me." "I'm feeling really guilty, so you can't confront me on my behavior." This attitude is missing out on the benefits of guilt. Guilt is there to help us be responsible for our behavior, so we must make good use of the guilt by accepting responsibility rather than just wallowing in the feelings of guilt.
When I thought about being responsible, it reminded me of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program and their emphasis on making amends. Looking up the steps, I found that over half of them had to do with identifying and being responsible for these shadow parts. These steps involve making a searching and fearless (it takes lots of courage to look at the shadow) moral inventory, admitting our wrongs, and going through the process of making amends.
If you have been unable to give up your feelings of guilt, perhaps you have missed this step. If the guilt is because of something you are responsible for, then once you have responded to the message and accepted the responsibility, it is now time to move on to the final step.
3) Ultimately, we need to allow the messenger to leave. If you have really heard the message, done what you can to make amends or otherwise changed your behavior, learned what you needed to learn, now is the time to release this little messenger of guilt back to the universe. Many people have this messenger stay around for lunch, or dinner, or even have it move in with them. This is not being responsible. This is staying stuck in the past unnecessarily by carrying around emotions that have served their purpose, which often leads to depression and other emotional problems.
An example of this process of releasing guilt can be seen by looking at a session with a client of mine who was feeling very guilty about an interaction with his daughter. He had become depressed and despondent and could not focus on anything but his feelings of guilt. This, of course, made the relationship more strained and caused him to feel even more guilty.
During this session, he was able to identify his behavior, look at it with more compassion (realizing he made a mistake), and realize that what he really wanted was a closer relationship with his daughter. He could then focus on his behavior that had kept him from being close, and develop a plan to build a more honest and loving relationship. By the end of the session, he no longer had a need for the guilt and, not surprisingly, as the guilt left, so did the feeling of depression. The next week he reported feeling upbeat and energetic the remainder of the week (guilt also takes a lot of energy!).
For personal and spiritual growth, it is necessary to bring all our parts out of the shadow. Guilt can help us find and identify these parts we still need to work with if we use it to honestly look at ourselves. If we are stuck in guilt, it is hard to truly accept that there are parts of us that are selfish, dishonest, greedy, etc.
These are parts that we all have. Until we are able to compassionately see the shadow parts, we cannot truly open up to the positive, loving parts. Staying stuck in guilt blocks us from becoming our true selves. So listen to the message of guilt, take responsibility, and then say goodbye to guilt and move on to living the life that you were meant to live.
Lynn Larkin, MSW, ACSW is a psychotherapist in private practice. Her goal is to help her clients overcome their fears and limitations so they can live life more genuinely and realize their full potential. (See her ad in the resource directory.) For further information on individual sessions, workshops, and groups, Lynn can be reached at (206) 322-4188.