Do you feel guilty?
That is a recurring theme for many. Maybe you feel guilty for expressing compassion to others. Maybe you feel guilty for not expressing enough compassion. Maybe you feel guilty for feeling guilty. Or maybe it’s not guilt at all.
Maybe it’s shame.
That is such a heavy burden to bear. Don’t you get tired of carrying this around with you? Doesn’t it weigh on your heart? On your interactions with others? Wouldn’t you like to let this go?
Guilt and shame are weighty because they can be broken down into two pieces that shackle a person – responsibility and judgment.
I look over at my husband. The light of his cellphone gives him a blue cast. He’s chewing his lip, his brow furrowed.
“What’s going on?”
“What are you thinking about?”
“I feel bad about [insert situation here].”
“Why? You can’t do anything about [insert situation here].”
My husband thinks constantly. His internal life is rich and complex. He spends hours researching something just so he can examine every angle of a problem. I like to call his thought process “fractal thinking.” It’s beautiful, deep, and for the rest of us, dizzying.
While fractal thinking lets my husband do a lot of amazing stuff, it also makes him prone to a sense of responsibility. He can see all the possible angles to a problem. He can see all the things that could go wrong and right in any situation, depending on what other things happen.
He thinks he’s responsible for the situation of other people because he understands it – because he can anticipate and determine the best choices, he feels responsible for the wrong ones. Since he’s played it out in his mind, when he watches it in real life, it becomes exponentially more painful.
We were at a church member’s house for dinner. I was between ten and twelve, at the oldest thirteen. I don’t remember the exact situation, or the trajectory of the conversation that night.
What I do remember is my prepubescence – my precocious character – that made me seem so much older than I actually was. It frequently resulted in sweeping condemnations of people, bolstered by adults telling me, “Wow! You’re so wise!” and others calling me on the telephone for relationship, educational, or spiritual advice despite a passing acquaintance or decades in age difference.
“I can’t believe anyone smokes cigarettes!” I declare, my chest puffed, my nose in the air. When the table quiets, I glance around, awaiting affirmation of my correct understanding. After all, I understand how unhealthy the habit is! I watched my grandparents waste away from emphysema induced by decades of smoking!
“Alexis!” my mother hisses as my father grimaces at our host across the table.
“Sorry,” Dad says sheepishly.
“It’s okay,” replies our host, “I hear it from kids.”
Slowly I take in the host’s expression. I look over at my parents.
“He smokes,” my mother muttered.
“Sorry,” I mutter into my lap, as my skin turns a brilliant pink.
I am careful to say completely mundane things the rest of the evening. My parents may have said something to me on the ride home, but whatever they said was nothing compared to the voice in my head.
On The Other Side
These days I won’t say I’ve completely given up feeling responsibility or passing judgment over others’ situations, but I’m close. It took serious energy and effort to change. There are four key things that helped me do this:
I recognize I am responsible for myself and only myself. This means my thoughts, feelings, and actions are mine. Likewise, this means no one else controls these things, nor can I control anything outside of them.
Everyone has a reason for the things they think, feel, say, and do. Their reasons grow from their experiences, skills, and knowledge. Ultimately, they are doing the best they can in their particular journey.
When I notice myself reacting to something in a way I don’t want, I take a step back and forgive myself. I recognize I am still learning and improving, and through practicing forgiveness of myself, I am better able to forgive other people.
When I notice someone else reacting in a way I don’t want, I take a step back and remember, “This is not a reflection of me – but of them.” I forgive them for being broken in some way, for experiencing struggle that leads them to lash out in hurtful ways. Then I adjust my actions to show them I recognize their struggle, and that it is possible to experience relief.
Because I recognize and practice the above, I have removed 99.99% of all feelings of guilt or shame from my life. I don’t hold on to things the way I used to, nor do I beat myself up about things. I don’t hold onto things from others either. At some point, I decided I wanted to feel good and there was no reason to feel guilt or shame over these things in my life.
The past is the past. There is no changing it, so instead, it is better to accept it happened, forgive the self and others, learn, and move on.
We can put down this burden of guilt and shame – we don’t have to carry this around with us and it starts by making the choice to set it down and walk away.
The fastest and easiest way to do this is to remember where control is (in the self), that everyone does the best they can, and to practice forgiveness of the self and others.
This week, when you start to feel shame or guilt, take a step back. Breathe. Ask yourself, where is this coming from? Why am I reacting this way? When you have answered these questions, practice forgiveness.
For an added boost, focus on something nearby that you enjoy (a flower, drawing, laughter, etc). You’ll feel so much lighter.
If you need a little help, remember this: I forgive you. Whatever it is that weighs on you, I forgive you. It’s okay to let it go. I know you were doing the best you could at the time, and I love you just as you are. Really.
Thanks for being here. Let me know how this process goes for you – and if it resonates, share this with someone who needs it. The more love we share, the better the world becomes.
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