Recognising Guilt is Not The End of The Story But The Beginning

I speak to a lot of people about my work and there seems to be a fairly common misconception that working with me is about focusing on how guilty you feel. I get it – my topic is guilt, my book is about guilt and I use guilt in every sentence.

But my work is way more powerful than that. Yes, we talk about why you feel guilty. But – as quickly as possible – we dismiss that and you get to create a beautiful brand new guilt free page of your life. We talk about what life looks like without judgement, without focusing on other people’s needs first, without second guessing your decisions.

And it’s important to recognise that this is true about any work done on self improvement or self healing. We all approach it from different angles and lenses for sure, but the focus is always on trying to get you past the thing that is holding you back, and onto looking at like free of it.

I had a message recently from someone who said that they couldn’t imagine life without the constant guilt and regret of past mistakes – and that just breaks my heart. Those feelings are just that – feelings, emotions – that are there to remind us that what we are doing is either working or not. There will always be times when you feel guilt over things that have happened in the past – but you can’t change the past actions, only your actions in the future. You may have an experience that was so painful, and so impactful that you can’t see that pain ever going – but it can. It takes effort to use that pain not to punish yourself but to drive you towards a better version of yourself. In doing so, you honour the pain you caused others by vowing never to do that again.

None of that growth and personal development can happen unless you are prepared to go to the guilt first. But it isn’t scary to face, I promise. It is the key to your life changing for the better forever.

How Do You Deal With Advice And Feeling Guilty For Not Following It?

How do you use advice given by others, without triggering guilt?
That might sound easy – if you are asking for people’s advice on a problem you are having, it doesn’t seem logical to think that this will create any guilt – surely the two are mutually exclusive?

Not necessarily. When you ask for the opinion or advice of others, the relationship you have with them may start bringing in all sorts of expectations and assumptions about what you are going to do with that advice, and therefore may start triggering guilt trips.

Say that, for example, you have an issue with your partner, and you talk to your best friend, who has known you considerably longer than said other half. Depending on how you have phrased it (if you are having a general rant, chances are, you haven’t been kind about the perspective of your partner) their advice may range from sort it out to kick them out. Once you have had the empathy and compassion, and the time to rant and rage about everything, you calm down and realise that you were maybe a bit excessive with how bad the situation really was. Now you are in a conundrum – you feel guilty about painting your partner a certain way, knowing that it may not be strictly accurate. But you can also feel guilty that you have got some very wise advice from your friend who has always had your back and who may actually be around for longer than your partner. You want to keep both happy, but this can feel impossible – if you make up with your partner, it looks like you are ignoring the advice of your friend; and if you side with your friend, you may lose a partner who really didn’t do that much wrong. You can’t keep both happy – so what do you do?

The simple yet complex answer is to make it clear that your request for advice is based on your need to use it or not, depending on what you think the right thing to do is. What do I mean? Well, getting advice or wisdom from other people can sometimes help you process your situation and give you hidden insight, so there is a lot value in asking for it. however, many of us don’t set boundaries around that advice, by making it clear that, while you welcome their opinion, you are going to ultimately make up your own mind. This is really key to living guilt free, because you don’t want to get into that crazy situation where you feel obliged to act against your own values and judgement, just because you have solicited advice from someone who then expects you to listen to it.

By also focusing some time on understanding how you want to interact with those people – what do you want your role of daughter / son or friend to look like – you can more control over the obligations set up when advice is sought or given. Knowing that you appreciate their opinion but that ultimately, you are going to make the decision for yourself, can lead to deeper connections with people as well as a clearer mind when the decision has to be made.

Guilt and Why Boundaries Matter

When you let other people determine your choices, whether consciously or not, you are effectively giving away your power to them, as you are letting them decide what your right and wrong choices are. When you overstep those decisions, you feel guilty. The reason you may not argue or resist this is because to get them out of your head, you need to set up some boundaries that clearly mark areas of your life where you will not allow interference.

Boundaries make you very nervous as they suggest that you are putting a barrier in between you and other people. And the worry is that this barrier then somehow stops you having a close bond or relationship with them. But that just isn’t true. In fact, you can’t have close bonds with someone where there are no boundaries set in place – because how on earth do you know that you are close when you have no sense of where you start and finish?

Boundaries are just as comforting to others as to you – it tells them the lines within which they can play. Without them, we all become a bit lost, and we can more easily give in to our worst impulses. Think of children who are left to their own devices – they may start out following the rules, but their natural instinct is to push through that, to find out where the limits are to what behaviour can be acceptable. No limit means they just keep going.

Human beings are not designed to have no boundaries when it comes to our emotional security and well being. Look at a baby who is put down on a mat, and not able to feel anything protecting them; they flail their arms around and become very tense. They seem scared because they are scared – they feel that they will fall. You are used to having something around you at all times, from when you are in the womb and beyond.

Freedom might suggest that we don’t want to be restricted, but ultimately, even a skydiver makes sure they have a parachute!

In order to live guilt free, you have to know that the choices you are making are coming from you not others. To do that, you must know where your limits and boundaries are. And you must trust that by putting them in place, you are making life a lot easier for everyone else around you.

The Difference Between Abstinence and Punishment, and the risk of Dry January

Somewhere, someone on your social media feeds, at work, or in your family is doing a month long challenge such as Dry January, restricting their consumption or use of something in the name of charity, or just to prove they can. I love the idea that people want to take action to help others, and put themselves through a small amount of discomfort in order to justify raising money for people who live with hardship and discomfort every day. Whether it is alcohol, meat, or chocolate, they cut something out of their life that would otherwise be an integral part of it and their discomfort and sense of loss during that time feels appropriate and in some way cleansing.

But restricting anything in your life can be triggered by or can trigger guilt. When you are stopping yourself doing something, you have to be very careful as to the reasons, so that you have a clear intention. If you are giving up alcohol for January, the reason you are giving it up makes a difference to how difficult you will find it. If it is because you have concerns about the physical and mental harm associated with prolonged and heavy drinking patterns, then you may feel good at the end of each day that you are helping to heal yourself. But if you are doing it because you are known to love your weekend drinking sessions, and your family can’t believe that you can go without booze for a week let alone a month, your reason for doing it is not so clear or positive and you will likely find it harder, only sticking to it for fear of losing face.

This difference matters. If you are changing your behaviour, any time you do so as a response to your core values and beliefs about the world and who you are, you are taking positive steps to become the person that you want to be – the one you can face in the mirror. Your actions are not determined by appearances but by a deep seated conviction that your actions have consequences and you are no longer prepared to accept those consequences – you want to change. Not only will you find the month long abstinence cleansing and maybe life affirming, you are also far less likely to go backwards quickly.

However, changing your behaviour for reasons external to you – because your friends bet you couldn’t, because others found the idea so laughable that you would even try it, or because everyone in the office is doing it – doesn’t come with the same level of commitment. You are willing yourself to do it, but you don’t actually want to do it. This has a huge impact on your ability to stick with the challenge for the whole month, as well as making the days feel like ongoing punishment. And because it will feel like punishment, you are far more likely to go overboard when the challenge is over, over consuming or overdoing in a way that could be dangerous or irresponsible. Like the kid in the sweet shop, there is no thought of control, just consumption.

If you have felt guilty for a while about something that you are eating, drinking or doing, then such challenges are a great way to help you use the guilt of giving up to compel you to stick with it long enough for it to become a habit. But if that central and (critically) core personal guilt is not there, then it is not going to create a positive change to your life, and you are more likely to be one of those counting down for the month to end so you can make up for lost time.

Guilt and Passive Aggressive Behaviour – If You Say So

Making you feel guilty doesn’t always happen (in fact, hardly ever) as angry tirades of abuse. Its effect is achieved mostly in those small offhand comments, designed to make you question your view of your actions, to make you doubt yourself.

Think of the times when others have been able to adapt your behaviour and the subtlety used. It’s not “Don’t do that!”, but “if you want to do that, then go ahead”. It’s in telling you that they don’t agree with you but they are going to take a grandstand seat to watch you do it. It’s in the lack of congratulations for your achievements but a reminder that they did it before, did it better or don’t see the point of doing it at all.

The subtlety is what makes it so dangerous – you are questioning yourself and feeling guilty and foolish and they have achieved all of that with a smile on their face. The definition of passive aggressive behaviour includes the “avoidance of direct confrontation” and it is this that can make it so difficult to spot and so difficult to counter. There is nothing for you to defend yourself against, as the words used, on the face of it, appear harmless. Once you realise how bad they have made you feel, the only thing you can do is fantastise about what you could or should have said back to them.

So what can you do against the relentless attack on who you are, on your self confidence and self worth that does not appear until it has done its damage

My advice – take what they say at face value. If it is wrapped up in complimentary language, accept the compliment. If they dare you to go ahead without their permission – do it. Don’t respond by questioning yourself but instead don’t question them and hold them to what they say. Passive aggressive works because it threatens without being threatening, due to the assumptions that are loaded into the words used. But, when you take that venom out of the words, you take the energy out of the attack.

This also turns the power back to you. In effect you are saying to them, if you want to attack me, then you need to say it loud and clear, and make it obvious, because I’m going to deliberately not respond when you try to do it subtly. It might sound strange to be inviting an outright attack but they are a lot easier to defend yourself against than charming language hiding hostility.

Does There Have To Be A Word For Everything?

The English language has a particular quirk to it, in that – in comparison with other languages – it tends to have far more nuance and subtlety to it. There is not just one word for things like ‘good’, but dozens. Each one gives a slightly different flavour to the sentences, and it makes us highly competitive in Scrabble.

But this onslaught of vocabulary comes at a price. It makes it far more difficult for others to learn how to speak it. English as a Foreign Language is a class studied the world over, and many other regions just don’t understand why we need so many different words to say the same thing. The contrast is seen when you try to translate between English to another – especially something such as Chinese which is a character set that encompasses whole notions, not individual syllables.

The reasons behind having a million different ways to say the same thing are numerous, but a significant one is the fear that we will be misunderstood. If you think about it, getting the wrong word in the wrong context can start arguments, or be considered offensive, so it is understandable that we will be a little bit sensitive to use the right word to describe what we mean. Of course, the fact that this relies on the other person knowing the words you are using means that sometimes, trying to be clearer causes more confusion. My mum used to say she needed a dictionary to talk with me sometimes, as I loved playing with words and learning new ones. So in my quest to be more precise with what I was saying, I ended up causing more misunderstanding.

Why am I talking about language when this blog is about guilt? Because our need to refine our language significantly impacts our ability to communicate how we feel. Guilt is particularly affected by this as it is not considered a ‘nice’ emotion to feel or inspire in others, so we use other words to describe how we feel. This makes it easier for us to skirt around awkward follow up questions, When people I am talking to know my subject matter, they tend to spend a long time trying to convince me that they do not feel guilty (even if i haven’t actually ever asked them whether they do or not). But they don’t like the word ‘guilt’, so, as they would naturally be inclined to drop the ‘G’ bomb, there is a pause, a look up to the sky and eventually they use a different word to explain how they feel. We both know the word that they should have used was ‘guilt’ but they couldn’t leave it with that.

In recent years there have been huge advances in talking about mental health and words such as depression or anxiety are now used without as much of the stigma associated with it. And that is wonderful but I do feel we need to do the same with our emotional health, and that starts with calling out the emotions we are feeling without scrambling around for a softer word. I can talk to 10 different people and to me they are struggling with guilt but they will all reference some other emotion. And if I mention that they might feel guilty, I get accused of putting words in their mouths.

Am I? I’m well aware that the more you focus on something, the more you see it and as someone who studies guilt, I’m more pre-disposed to see it. It is the lens that I think makes the most sense not just from how people are feeling but also by how it changes their behaviour. Often, the description of how they feel aligns closely with guilt, but the negative connotations of guilt mean they will slide past that, grabbing any other word instead – then argue that it is more accurate.

Guilt as an emotion is difficult to deal with – by design. It is meant to compel you to take action and as such, can make life feel very uncomfortable. We can feel quite defensive and sensitive when it is brought up – and it is sometimes used as an attack on people when you want to shut them down “Stop trying to make me feel guilty!” But we need to talk about it more, use the word more, so that it loses that power to upset and disrupt us, and lets us stay clear in what we actually want to say.