Guilt is a toxic emotion that when it has taken over, can not only keep us from enjoying life, but also destroy everything in it. It can make us unable to function at work, unable to love our partner and our children, and unable to be present for our friends. It can suck us into a dark hole that is hard to get out of and keep us in a senseless, vicious cycle that at times may feel all-consuming.
Guilt is not good. As someone who was raised very Catholic in the Dominican Republic (until my pre-teens, I went to a school run by nuns!), I have been quite familiar with the pitfalls of guilt. And though I love my history, culture, experiences, and religion, I know that there is a better way to live than to live with guilt. In one of my segments for Al Dia con Leticia Mendoza, I spoke about guilt and some ways that we can manage it. As always the segment is in Spanish. If you happen to know both languages, the video is worth a look!
Sometimes guilt can give us information about an action or incident that has transgressed. It may tell us that we have behaved in a way that is contrary to our values. It may alert us of actions we must take to rectify the occurred, whether by apologizing or taking other such actions. Reflecting on our lives, behaviors and outcomes is a positive exercise and one that can be very rewarding when done routinely. Allowing guilt to take over and become toxic is not.
So how and why does guilt become toxic? There are many reasons, but here are two that I’ve identified in my own mission to eradicate guilt from my life. If you see a bit of yourself in these, in a moment I’ll share what to do so you can manage feelings of guilt in your life.
- Guilt can take over when we are not clear of our values, life purpose, and ultimately who we are. In such an instance, guilt can be used by others to manipulate us and tell us how we should feel and what we should do and think. Have you ever experienced someone trying to “make you feel bad” about something? Or in other words, attempting to shame you? When you know who you are, what you stand for, and why you make the decisions that you do, no one is capable of manipulating you. Until then, you are at the mercy of others and their opinions. You do not want to live in this way.
- Guilt also takes over when our fear is in the driver seat of our lives. Have you ever made amends to someone (e.g. apologized, replaced a broken object, etc.) but still can’t seem to get over it? You have learned your lesson, you have taken the appropriate actions to make sure it never happens again, but you are still haunted? Fear wants you to flog yourself until you “pay” for your mistake, yet this “payment” is never complete, because fear and guilt are never satisfied. Ever.
I read and study many philosophies, teachers, and paths, as I find it to be incredibly enriching to learn from the many perspectives that have led others to live a more fulfilled life. A text I have learned a lot from is “A Course in Miracles”, which says the following about guilt: “Guilt is always disruptive. Anything that engenders fear is divisive… (Fear) believes that by punishing itself it will mitigate the punishment of God. Yet even in this (fear / our Destructive Self) is arrogant. It attributes to God a punishing intent, and then takes this intent as its own prerogative”. When I read this I was stunned by its message. Our Destructive Self believes it can “guess” what God wants, and that it can and should administer this punishment. Unbelievable.
Yes, there are times we make mistakes. Yet for the most part, we feel guilty because our Destructive Self has let fear take over. And most importantly, because guilt may have been previously used in our lives by religion and other establishments to control and manipulate us, we feel guilty because we are used to feeling guilty. It is a familiar, automatic subconscious reaction caused by years of conditioning.
What can YOU do TODAY:
- Strengthen your self-esteem. Read books, listen to podcasts, attend talks, and participate in workshops. Do everything and anything you need to do in order to become someone with higher self-esteem. Until this happens, you will be at the mercy of others. I have a course called “Crea La Vida Que Quieres” which I give twice a year and that will help strengthen your self-esteem. If you are interested in participating, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will tell you the next time it happens. A verse that has always helped me has been the following: “As your desire, so is your will. As your will, so is your deed. As your deed, so is your destiny.” When I am confident that my desire is good, and that it comes from love and not fear, I am confident in my ultimate destiny and do not let guilt take over. When I am confident on the desire behind my action, it is also less likely for others to use these as a way to shame or manipulate me.
2. Make amends if necessary and if need be. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and do everything that you can to make amends. It may not be enough to apologize, but you may have to take financial and behavioral actions in order to make amends.
3. Forgive yourself if you indeed made a mistake. Until you do, your fear and guilt will take over your life. How do you forgive yourself? You make amends for the mistake and most importantly, understand and believe that mistakes are something that all human beings do at some point in their lives. Your confidence will come when you (1) realize that you are as human as others and (2) make amends to the best of your capacity.
I hope this article is of service to you.
Do you know someone who struggles with guilt? Share this article with them, or share it with your friends and family so they can also start creating the life they want to live. As always, leave a comment or question below, I would love to hear from you.