Do you know that guilt is not even a real emotion?
Real emotions have both a positive and negative aspect. Love, for example, is positive in all the ways we humans know. But it’s negative if you are given love that you don’t want (or from someone you don’t want it from).
Can you name “positives” about guilt? Some people believe that the positive of guilt is that it acts to help us keep ourselves under control, somewhat like a conscience. For a long time, I didn’t realize there is another emotion, remorse, that has this job. Guilt does not really serve as an effective conscience. What guilt does for us, actually, is to keep us frozen and focused on the past.
“I can’t do that, it might make me feel guilty.” “You do that, and you’ll feel guilty!” Based on past experience and pain, we use guilt to stop ourselves. And, by the way, another person does not “make me feel guilty.” You can choose not to feel guilty. In fact, you can become a person who does not do guilt.
Athletes know the best way to excel in their sport is to get into the “zone,” the “flow.” The same is true for dealing with emotions because emotions are energy. Energy is designed to move. Unable to move, it turns against us. Get in the flow by working with emotions.
Remorse, on the other hand, is an emotion that pushes us to notice a choice or action we’ve taken that isn’t right for us.
“I feel bad about that,” we say. Remorse leads us to “feel bad,” which is our cue to take a look at what we have done, forgive ourselves, and then make a new decision. Remorse puts us in the flow of our own energy, rather than making us sit out on the side.
Guilt focuses us on the past. It has only negative aspects. It keeps us from relating fully and intimately with others. It causes us to feel bad about ourselves, yet it doesn’t give us a pathway to stop feeling bad. Guilt causes us to freeze, as in “I’d better not, because I’ll feel too guilty.” Guilt is used to control ourselves and others. Guilt keeps us from learning, from moving forward, from making full positive changes.
So, what can be done about guilt?
In my nearly 50 years as a psychotherapist, I’ve observed that guilt can only be dropped. And, dropping guilt is extremely difficult! Have you ever been fully successful in dropping guilt? Or does it go away for a time, only to show itself further down your path? I’ve never known anyone who was able to fully and completely drop guilt!
Don’t despair. There is a way to work with guilt. (Read my forthcoming book on Emotional Mastery, Emotions in Motion, on my website.)
Guilt, you see, is a form of anger. It’s nearly impossible to work with guilt as guilt, yet totally possible to work with guilt as anger. Guilt is defined as “anger, turned against the self, that we believe we don’t have a right to have.” If someone bestows a beautiful and extravagant gift on you that you accept, then months later calls on you to do something you don’t really want to do, you will likely feel guilty even contemplating not complying with the request. Many of us have had experiences like this when our parent, or our partner’s parent, gives us a lovely gift, then insists we spend Thanksgiving with them. They were so nice to us, after all, how could we not be nice back to them? Result: Guilt!
The next time you feel guilty, ask yourself this question:
“What could I possibly be feeling angry about in this situation?” Usually, it involves a decision you’re cornered to make that causes you to lose, no matter what. You go to Thanksgiving with the in-laws, you lose out on spending the day with people you really want to see. You don’t go to Thanksgiving with the in-laws, you lose by putting yourself at risk of being judged or not receiving further presents from them. You may also lose by thinking of yourself as not grateful enough!
Once you identify the anger in the situation that’s bringing guilt to you, let yourself release the anger. Say aloud: “I’m angry that I am in this position of losing, no matter what I choose! I’m angry my in-laws set things up this way! I’m angry that any of this even matters to me!” Just acknowledging the anger will start to break up the guilt.
Next, make a choice. Base your choice on what feels the best for you.
You can imagine both possible choices. Imagine you go to Thanksgiving, what the day will be like, how you might feel while there, how you might feel afterward. Then, imagine you don’t go, and follow that to its end, as well. Now ask: “Which feels the best to me?” Select that one. Choose it; don’t look back. Support yourself in your decision.
When you recognize guilt as the sneaky controller it really is, identify the inherent anger every time you feel it, and process that anger out of you, you will start to no longer do guilt!
If you add to your life the recognition and processing of remorse outlined above, you’ll soon find yourself feeling great, staying balanced, and immune to people even hinting at you feeling guilty!
The next time you notice yourself feeling guilty, stop right away. Identify the anger in your situation. Process the anger. Make your choice. Move on. Start affirming to yourself “I no longer do guilt!” Whatever is repeated, the subconscious mind takes as truth and uses to create a belief. We live our lives on the basis of what we believe.
Ease yourself into a life that no longer freezes you in guilt, but rather flows where you want to go!
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Ilene Dillon, MSW, has dedicated her life to helping people resolve personal challenges once and for all, then design life to be what they want it to be. A Transformation Specialist, she has worked 50 years as a psychotherapist and 15 years as a coach. She is a global speaker, Amazon International Best-selling author (The Wellness Universe Guide to Complete Self-Care, Volumes 1 and 2), podcast guest, and plans to give her first TEDx speech (on Anger) later this year. Ilene is also the author of Emotions in Motion: Mastering Life’s Built-in Navigation System and End Manipulation: Stop Being Jerked Around by Toxic, Energy-draining People. With her little dog, Pi, Ilene lives and travels full-time throughout North America in her RV, writing, teaching, and speaking along the way.