We all want positive changes in our lives, but often there is something blocking us. Some blocks are very personal, but there are others which are almost universal. One of these universal saboteurs I frequently come across in my therapy practice is the feeling of guilt.
Often, we treasure guilt as a guardian to our morality, believing if we let go of it, we will become unscrupulous and prone to all sorts of unethical behavior. But is it really so? More often than not, guilt actually jeopardizes not just our own happiness but of the people who we share our lives with. Below are a few examples.
George has been a lonely man for many years now, ever since his girlfriend cheated on him. But then he met the woman who feels like his soulmate. She returns his affections. But happiness does not last long, as George feels a growing sense of inadequacy trying to live up to such an amazing woman. Even though this is not the case, he feels she ultimately will want “someone better” than him, and gets nervous and fidgety in the relationship. Unable to commit, he says he needs to be free, and they break up.
Paula is a professional woman in her late 30s, who’s working in a company environment she detests. For years now she’s been daydreaming about starting her own business, which would allow her to make better use of her time, talents and aspirations. She has bought books about business startups, been to some networking events in her free time and started a website, but every time she spends more than a little time on planning the launch, she suddenly gets tired or somehow sucked back into her daily routine.
Eveline lives in the house she inherited from her parents, and which she treasures for its family memories. However, she has nasty issues with the neighbors, which make her life very uncomfortable. When she gets an offer to exchange the house for another one, she backs off nervously. Somehow it seems too good to be true.
What is it that keeps these people from reaching new levels of happiness? We might say that George is still hooked to past drama, Paula is fearful of losing her stable income, and Eveline is overly cautious. But beyond all that, on a level deeper still, there is a lurking feeling of not deserving it, of not being worthy of true happiness. In one word: it is guilt.
Guilt is a negative emotion that serves us no good. It is as toxic as anger, hatred or ignorance. Feeling guilty is a bad, usually deeply conditioned habit. But as with any other bad habit, we’ll have a hard time letting it go, until we think there is anything good about it.
Socially, we still think that guilt serves us in some way: after all, what would happen if we stopped installing guilt into our children? Wouldn’t we just all go on stealing, killing and engaging in all sorts of misconduct? Surely, without a sense of guilt, the moral construct of our civilization would collapse — or would it? The answer is: instead of relying on guilt to prevent ourselves from misconduct, we must cultivate the ability to learn from our mistakes.
Guilt, contrary to common assumption, prevents us from doing just that. With its painful unpleasantness, guilt often prevents us from looking right into what went wrong and what needs to be changed. The problem with guilt is that it turns against the Self, as opposed to the wrongful action. Guilt tells us that we are inadequate, unlovable, even not worthy of living. Guilt does not condemn the deed, but the person.
Guilt does not say that murder is wrong. It says the murderer is an inadequate, unlovable person, not worthy himself of living. However, some of history’s greatest saints started off as murderers. The great Tibetan poet and saint Milarepa murdered an entire party of people before he turned to Buddhism and allowed for the inner alchemy of transformation to take place within himself. Guilt ignores the fact that human nature is evolving. Like a lotus flower growing out of the mud, it emerges from the darkness.
Therefore, if guilt prevents us from growing, we need to face it, conquer it and let go. That, however, is easier said than done. How do we proceed in practice?
First, we need to ask: do we feel guilty because we have done (or are about to do) something wrong? Did we hurt or are we potentially going to hurt someone (including ourselves)?
In this case, we need to let go only of the negative feeling around guilt, but learn from our mistakes. If it’s in the past, we might want to ask ourselves if there is anything we can do to make it all right, or at least to apologize. If we are about to do something wrong, we can simply alter the course of our behavior.
It is important to feel compassion toward ourselves for being human and rejoice over a learned lesson. Making mistakes is a part of the learning process, and it can be counterproductive trying to avoid them. What we shall avoid is repeating the mistake. Once the lesson is learned, we can let go.
At other times, however, guilt seems to emerge out of nothing, like some shadow of our personality, trying to sabotage our progress. This is the darker face of guilt, much more subtle and harder to deal with. We haven’t even done anything wrong. The prospect of coming out of our comfort zone triggers a vague, existential sense of guilt. Certain ways of upbringing (for example, dogmatic religious beliefs) can make this sense of guilt particularly strong.
George felt he didn’t deserve a “perfect” girlfriend. Paula was afraid of leaving the rat race. Eveline was too shy to leave her hostile housing situation. They probably were not even aware that guilt was holding them back.
First we need to become aware of this feeling. If it has been with us our whole life, especially if we learned it from our family, we must do some introspection to realize it is there. It can be a huge help to talk to a therapist or to friends who grew up differently, simply to see the contrast. Only after that are we able to do the actual work, which is to finally understand that guilt serves no good purpose whatsoever, and let go of it like of any other harmful addiction.
George, for example, could see that guilt destroyed a potential relationship. Without guilt, he could have made not just himself, but someone else happy. Paula could learn that by escaping the rat race she sets a positive, much-needed example for others. As for Eveline, it’s not just she who has a bad relationship with her neighbors, but so do they with her. Therefore, the great maxim of every relationship applies:
If it doesn’t make you happy, it doesn’t make others happy, either.
It is time to let go…