Anxiety is a diverse condition – it doesn’t care who you are, what you do, and how you do it. It will come after you and drag you down, and it can feel that there is nothing that you can do about it. Many of the clients I work with come initially because they have reached that point where their anxiety is out of control and they feel permanently guilty – even guilty for existing. They begin to feel that they are taking up too much space and that there is something wrong with them, feeling permanently guilty, but in fact, the anxiety is usually a mechanism their brains are using to tell them that something in their life is not only against what is best for them, but is so far away from who they really are that the brain just can’t make the two things reconcile.
Who we are and what is important to us can get hidden behind everyone else’s opinion of who we should be and what we should want. Trouble is, the more you listen to them, the harder it is to check that it is the right thing for you. The stress, overwhelm and anxiety brought on are alarm bells going off, that the balance has gone too far off centre, and you need to find yourself again.
You may recognise this as anxiety, low confidence, low self worth, feeling guilty, feeling overwhelmed – and you would be right in every single one. Guilt is a big red flag that something is wrong in your life, and my goal is to get rid of that guilt before the brain goes into protection mode and anxiety kicks in.
The #MeToomovement and the more recent #WhyDidntIReport is an important illustration of what happens when you refuse to feel guilty any more.
First up, I want to differentiate between guilt and shame. For many victims, the shame of suffering abuse of any kind never fully goes away as it creates a mark on your self identity (Brene Brown makes the distinction between “I did something wrong” and “I am wrong”). But holding onto the guilt of ‘letting it happen’, or refusing to report it can be overcome with the right level of support. It also takes a self awareness, that you were not responsible for what happened, and that from the moment it started your choices were the best you had at the time. When I read the accounts now being shared, I think there is a resolve and a resilience behind each statement that they will no longer own that guilt and they release it back to the abuser, which is where it belongs.
It’s so frustrating to look in the mirror and see someone who has been created by others – who looks like you but is racked with indecision and anxiety that they are not enough, that they are not right or perfect, and that they will not be accepted by others.
Then you wake up one day, and realise that you no longer recognise this person, and the anxiety turns to determination, and you decide there and then to be you, whatever that looks like. You can’t love yourself if you didn’t have some hand in what you are like, and yet it is scarily easy to lose yourself in others’ expectations.
When you look in the mirror – do you recognise the person looking back at you? If not, are you ready to say goodbye to them and hello to the real you, the one that is MORE than ready to be given centre stage?
You instinctively know how to calm a frightened child or animal down, by getting down to its level, by moving slowly and gently, and talking calmly and quietly. You have to recognise that when you live with guilt, that guilt may very well present itself the same as a frightened child, as you can feel unsure or uncertain how to proceed. Think of yourself as that child, that needs reassurance that everything will be okay, and to be encouraged to trust your own ability to figure things out.
If you have lived with guilt for a while, the change won’t necessarily come overnight, but it will come quicker if you are kinder to yourself in the process.
“Help me accept that which I cannot change”
This is part of the serenity prayer that is fairly commonly shared on social media – this idea that we have to accept those things in our lives that we have no control over and so cannot let ourselves stress over it. Whilst I agree with the sentiment of this statement, I hear it all too often from people who assure me that they don’t feel guilt: they will tell me how there is no point feeling guilty because it’s out of my control, so what’s the point of worrying? I would love that we can stop an emotion just because it doesn’t make rational sense, but unfortunately that is not how this works! Just because something is outside of your control doesn’t mean you can switch off the emotions such as guilt (what bigger guilt trip is there that there is nothing we can do?)
I prefer this rewrite – “help me understand how to change my response to that which I can’t control” – because that keeps the ball in your court. There are some things that are going to happen and that you cannot change no matter how much you want to and that you have to accept. But you ALWAYS control your response to them and that is how you show up and become your best self.
As a new parent, you will no doubt want to get advice and guidance from your support network of friends, family, as well as medical experts and professionals. This is normal as you want the absolute best for your child. However, much of the guidance that you get will disagree and yet you will be told by everyone that their way is the ‘right’ way. To be able to parent without guilt, you must listen to all of the advice but then take time to work out what is best for you and your child, taking into account what is important to you. There is a treasure trove of tips and recommendations from others, but don’t let these give their opinions of what is best greater importance.
There are so many examples of situations where you will get conflicting advice – co-sleeping or not, breast or bottle feeding, when to wean, when developmental stages occur – the list is endless. If you listen to others too much, you no longer trust your ability to make decisions for yourself and the guilt of not doing the right thing grows.
But you DO know the right thing to do. Listen to your instincts, listen to your child, and know that whatever choice you make, it is done with love and pure intentions.
Every single person you interact with is a role you play. Every single one. Let that sink in for a minute – if asked about the roles you play, you may have chosen a handful – mother/father, son/daughter, husband/wife, girlfriend/boyfriend, friend, lover, grandchild. That’s normal because these may be the most important roles we play out in our lifetimes – but they are not the only ones. As you walk into a store, you become a customer. As you sit down in the dentist’s chair, you become a patient. As you wait in the playground you are either a member or a non-member of the PTA.
Each interaction you have with others creates a role that you must play. If it’s not a role that you are aware of or used to, you can get really reactive to how the other participants are acting, and with this you start losing control and can feel guilty about not getting your actions ‘correct’.
Think about your day, and how many people you have interacted with in any form (even by reading this blog!) How many of those roles were you really conscious and aware of, so you controlled them? And how many, upon reflection, did you feel anxious or guilty that you may have slipped up or was going to?
When you show your authentic self and start to live guilt free, you may trigger some negative emotions in others. These have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them. As we hear truth, we cannot help but hold a mirror up to our own version of life that we are living and if it isn’t what we know we need or want, then it is easier to try to hurt the other person than accept that hurt within.
If you know what you are doing is right for you and the life you want to lead, then carry on with what you are doing and leave others to deal with the negative emotions they have created.
Not all guilt is blatant – some of it comes as doubt, criticism, pointed questions saying “are you sure you should be doing that?”, leaving your mind to fill in the guilty blanks.
While I’m not an advocate of doing something to prove yourself to others (you are the only person who needs to know what you are capable of) sometimes, it is good to remind yourself of those who have questioned you that can give you a kick and a fire in your belly that you are worth more, you can do more, and you can be more.
A lot of guilt stems from making a decision that is best for you, but you know others will have a different opinion. Whether it is the choice to breastfeed, taking a new job, starting a new workout regime (or not), moving to a new town or simply your choice of outfit that day, other people will always have an opinion, but they shouldn’t force that opinion on you. Know your own mind, know the decision you make and why you made it, and then allow them to get used to the idea