Transforming Guilt

Guilt.  I hear about it all the time.  Guilt is like an obnoxious neighbor that you wish would just move away, but is there spying on you from the window next door, catching you at an uncomfortably vulnerable moment.

I’ve spent a lot of time with guilt. And a lot of time turning away from guilt.  Having grown up white, middle class with a stable family, there are countless ways my life has been substantially easier than many of my friends, neighbors, classmates, or the vast majority of people in the world, for that matter.  Early in my life, I felt guilty about my privilege.  But I was taught by more mature activist allies that guilt was to be avoided and overcome at all costs. Guilt makes you lazy and causes you to focus on alleviating the guilt rather than on taking responsible action.  That was how I was schooled. So whenever I felt guilt…that feeling was not allowed!!

So who takes guilt’s place?  I believe guilt has a cousin.  This cousin is much more clean cut and desirable looking than guilt, but no less toxic.  Guilt’s cousin is the voice that says, “You can handle this!”

Here’s what I see happen; whenever we turn towards ourselves and consider meeting our own needs, Guilt starts in with her tirade, “what do you mean you want more adventure, or to come home an hour later to go to the gym, or more recognition, or to go on a trip by yourself?! That’s so lame and self-centered! Your struggling sibling, the countless people living in poverty, your own vulnerable children, clearly have needs so much more important!”   

So then we feel awful.  We feel guilty for feeling guilty!  So we shove guilt away.

Then comes guilt’s distinguished cousin, the “I Can Handle it!” self.  Here’s what she says, “You know – you are a powerful person, you can take care of yourself without asking for support.  You can make that sacrifice for your kids, because you are going to rock it as a mom, and you know what, you can power through ANYTHING because you are STRONG!”

And that feels pretty ok.  Yeah, we say to ourselves, I am strong, and generous, and willing to sacrifice, and able to handle all kinds of crap because I am really capable and flexible and adaptable.

But the truth is, we all experience pain. And we all have needs. It is part of being human.  Our pain is sacred.  Our pain comes from whenever our true gifts aren’t recognized or valued.  And our needs are trying to point us to our untapped potential.    It seems impossible to live in this world without feeling pain or having  needs, even when we live with privilege.

And the truth is feeling pain allows us to see our precious gifts and recover them.  Meeting our needs allows us to tap into our creativity.  In order to take responsible action, we need then to feel our feelings and get our needs met.

Here’s how we get hooked. The “I Can Handle It” self is right, at least in the short term.  We do “handle it” and we keep going, and often no one can even tell we are deep  down struggling. Sometimes WE can’t even tell we are struggling. At least for a while. Until one more cousin comes to town. She’s from a faraway place, and speaks another language, but she’s probably the most powerful one of all.  She’s our body.  And she will rebel against the “I Can Handle It” self, sometimes with devastating consequences; a cold that doesn’t go away for a year, back pain, insomnia, short temper, and worse.

Here’s the typical guilt/action process broken down:

  • I feel some sort of pain or unmet need
  • I recognize my privilege
  • I feel guilty for feeling pain or having a need
  • I stop the guilt and I stop the pain with “I CAN HANDLE IT!”
  • I become a less authentic version of myself
  • My body rebels

Here’s what we could do instead:

  • I feel some sort of pain
  • I recognize my privilege
  • I might feel some guilt
  • Rather than be revolted by the guilt, I compassionately ask the guilt to step aside in order to honor my feelings
  • I feel my pain, I experience my needs
  • I become more authentic, and am able to act more compassionately and responsibily towards myself and others.

Would you like to have an alternative to “I CAN HANDLE IT!” Are you curious what might be possible for you if you allowed yourself to feel and have needs? Would you like to be able to compassionately ask guilt to step aside?  Come to a FREE EVENT on Friday May 20th, in which we will examine how to tap into a more authentic relationship with and expression of yourself.