Every now and then we feel a strong tug within our bones letting us know an emotion is about to overwhelm us that will be hard to manage. Intuitively we know what we think, how we feel, and what we’d like to do, but more often than not, something stops us altogether in a swift and heavy urgency…guilt.
Guilt starts at an early age. As an older sister (when I wasn’t being competitive) I would often hold back during a game or let my younger brother win. Not out of any pure reason other than I’d feel guilty if I always won and he never stood a chance. The thing was that letting him win didn’t give him a reward as great as I thought it would. Over time, I felt less excited to play this game with my brother, knowing I’d want to let him win, knowing I’d have to try less hard, play less enthusiastically, and if I won, I’d have to win with, well, guilt.
Guilt resonates within us, tugs at us, makes us question our motives, and debilitates our decision-making abilities when we’re under high emotion or stressful situations.
How many times have you wanted to say something or do something only to be halted by your own sense of guilt?
This isn’t always a bad thing. Guilt can actually help you be a better leader as it requires a level of empathy and compassion towards someone else. But many of us get so wrapped up in how our actions effect others, that we forget to consider ourselves.
When is guilt necessary and when is guilt problematic?
If you’re in a rush at a coffee shop, turn around hastily and spill coffee all over another person, you’re probably going to have an an overwhelming feeling of guilt. You might instantly feel guilty for being so frantic about getting somewhere else, you might apologize, or even offer to buy them another coffee. Feelings like this are normal and make us pause in awareness of our surroundings and how we’re interacting with them.
That kind of guilt isn’t problematic. Ending a romantic relationship and feeling a sense of guilt is also normal.
Guilt becomes an issue when it becomes the first thing we consider, leaving it as the priority and our own sense of self and unique needs as an afterthought.
More often than not I hear people say things like,
- I just really need this to happen but I feel awful
- I want to move forward with my life but I don’t want to hurt them
- I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t ________ but it will involve ________
- Having that kind of conversation with them won’t be fun so I’m not sure I can do it
- It’s just easier if I suck it up and do it myself, I don’t want to cause drama
- But what if they feel bad?
- I just want to make sure that no one else ever feels upset
- I just think about how what I do will make other people feel
- I don’t ever want to offend anyone
These are the statements of a devoted person, someone who is empathetic, considerate, and acknowledges the thoughts and feelings of others. I solute you, kind person! But what happens to this person over time is even more soul-crushing.
Because the more we think of others BEFORE ourselves, the less likely we’re able to truly give to others when they need it most.
The more we lead with guilt as our compass, the less likely we are to hear our inner voice saying, “I really need this no matter what right now.”
Acknowledging guilt is not the issue. It’s when we let guilt override our consideration of other thoughts that we become blindsided to our own needs.
- I can’t think like that, they need me right now
- But that’s just selfish, never mind
- If anyone else heard me say this, they’d think I was a bad person
- I can’t believe I’m even thinking about this, forget it
What’s happening in these statements is that guilt is disqualifying even the remote thought or acceptance that maybe, there might be a little validity to other thoughts we are having.
We feel guilty when we realize we want or need something when someone else appears to need something more.
During my Dad’s Life Celebration in my early 20s, I was overcome with laughter at something funny someone else said. I remember immediately trying to cover up my laugh. How could I laugh at a time like this? Would people think I was being rude? My Father had just passed away and we were all mourning. But then I realized, all of those thoughts were guilt slowly oozing over my ability to see what I really needed. In that moment, I really needed to laugh, for the first time in a long time after going through something so tough.
I also noticed that other people held back when it came to sharing stories of their Dad or even if they had a poor relationship with them. As if the guilt of having a Dad that was still alive made them feel like their own pain wasn’t valid.
How many times have you felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and not questioned it?
Most of the time guilt is a combination of: this is a bad feeling + I should stop whatever it is I’m doing/thinking.
It also usually results in, “I should probably not share this with anyone else because I feel guilty and others might think I’m a bad person.”
Guilt can isolate us and prevent us from connecting with others.
Going against guilt makes us feel like we’re wrong, inconsiderate, and sometimes completely rude.
But what happens if you don’t observe guilt and instead, let it make all of the decisions for you?
- You lose sight of your own wants + needs regardless of the timing of others
- You stop speaking up when you need to most
- You question whether your own needs are valid compared to others pain
- You prevent yourself from sharing or reaching out to others
In the movie, The Beach, Leonardo DiCaprio ventures off to a secret island paradise. Things take a turn throughout the course of the movie and at one point a man is attacked by a shark. His injury is severe and the entire operation of the camp comes to a halt to take care of him. The man is difficult and in an extreme amount of pain, his injuries and cries of pain begin to effect the morale of the entire village. People are falling behind on their duties and the resentment builds.
It isn’t long until someone makes the decision to take the man away from the camp and they leave him in a tent to die.
As extreme as this Hollywood scenario is, most people find themselves at least understanding why the village did what they did. But what if the entire village hadn’t stopped and instead, shifts of people took care of him? What if a plan was put into place to help facilitate the needs of the village and the care that this man needed?
Dropping everything for guilt draws attention away from our own needs. It also makes us aware of the needs of others and is at the core, a good quality to acknowledge. But if guilt stops us from observing our own thoughts surrounding a person or a situation, it inhibits our own ability to figure out what’s best for ourselves and how to move forward without letting our entire mental village rebel with resentment.