Using Guilt to Help you Grow

Podcast 028 - Guilt

Today I'm going to talk about how you can use guilt to help you grow – rather than letting it rip you apart at the seams.

Guilt is truly one of those emotions that is a total waste of energy if you allow it to run the show. When guilt is in the driver's seat of your life it can rob you of your personal vibrancy, cause you to lose respect in the eyes of others and has the added danger of becoming a manipulation tool that can damage all of your relationships.

On the other hand, if feelings are signals meant to guide us in life, then guilt could be a fantastic personal development guide. It is a feeling that naturally causes us to reflect on what we have done, sometimes over and over and over.

So let's start by talking for a few minutes about how guilt can be a problem.

I already mentioned how this emotion can rob you of your personal vibrancy and I doubt I need to say more, except perhaps to provide a visual of a person sitting in a rowboat in the middle of a body of water and using their bailing can to scoop water up from the lake into their boat. In other words, your energy and imagination is being used to sink your own boat when you let guilt run the show– not a good plan.

Assuming that visual clearly shows you what I mean, let's move on to losing the respect of others. In truth a person who feels guilty a lot is dealing with low self-worth (consciously or even subconsciously) and that already makes it harder for people to see the real you. It can make you stay silent when words need to be spoken, it can create a passive-aggressive stance that makes people distrust you and it can cause you to whine – a lot. It's hard to respect someone who gives off weak vibes (unless of course they are ill) and it makes it easy for others to use you as a floor mat.

Finally, guilt is a manipulation tool that has made its way into too many people's parenting pack. These people will use it to make others (not just their kids) feel bad and to try and get them to do their bidding by pushing their guilt buttons. It can be blatantly obvious, "If you love me you'd do this for me." Or it can be a little more subtle, "I hate staying by myself – please stay."Or "I was sure you'd drop in last night since you didn't have to work…I sat by the window watching."

The good news is this tool doesn't work on everyone… in fact it's only effective if the person it is being used on has been trained in shouldering the guilt. The person has to believe they did something wrong, that their behaviour was uncalled for and that nothing they can do will fix it to take on the feeling of guilt.

Manipulation via guilt is much more common than one would think and can cause all kinds of future relationship issues, because what you learned as a child you are quite likely to use as an adult…and often not even recognize it as a problem.

So if any of these problems sounds familiar, you might want to start focusing your attention on making changes now. Often this will require outside help because it's really hard to see your own stuff. One thing you can do on your own is to start thinking about how adults in your life have used guilt with you (especially when you were young) and if you felt guilty often, look at your true intention when you are talking to your kids, partner or others that are close to you. Sometimes awareness is enough to start making changes, but guilt is a particularly tricky one – so be very patient with yourself and perhaps ask others (like your friend or partner) to use a code word when they see manipulation happening.

Now let's shift gears and talk about how guilt can sneak up on you and drain your power without you really recognizing what's happening.

In my book Break Free of Parenting Pressures, I share a story about a time when my kids were quite young (about 4 & 2) and my oldest son was playing with a super bouncy ball. I'm sure I asked him to stop bouncing it in my office (which was a main living space in the house – not a room off by itself), but it might have been more a suggestion than a clear request.

He either didn't hear me, or he chose not to listen and on his next throw the ball caught an awkward bounce on the tile in the entrance way, zipped up and hit a hanging light (sent it swinging) and then zoomed towards me – like a bullet. It never hit me, but it sure made me mad and I started to yell.

When I paused for breath, still quite angry, the front doorbell rang. The front door was where the swinging light hung, so whoever was on the other side would have heard my angry outburst from beginning to end. I felt my face burning a deep shameful red and I actually thought about pretending I wasn't home!

It was the delivery man from a nearby town, dropping off a piece of furniture I had bought the week before. He was flustered too especially as he took in both of my kids, one crying because his mommy had just reamed him out and the other just looking shocked (I like to think that was because I didn't do a lot of yelling).

After he left I apologized to my kids, hugged them and cried a little. That done they went off to play and I sat down at my desk and tried to work, but I couldn't.

Instead I sat there head bowed in shame. You see – I was a parent educator, and my job, was to help parents do their best work. At that point in my career I really thought I was supposed to have parenting all figured out so even my missteps would be only half-way awkward and not come from me totally losing it…in front of a witness yet!

The guilt was huge and I just couldn't shake it off. I kept reliving the scene over and over, wondering at my own loss of self control and my audacity at calling myself a parent educator. I felt raw, exposed, like a total failure.

Later confessing my shameful story to a friend, she sighed deeply on the other end of the phone. "At what point are you going to stop beating yourself up? You made a mistake," she said. "You're a great mom and a great parent educator. Your kids accepted your apology, why can't you?"

Good question! I like to tell people, you can't send someone on a guilt trip unless their bags are already packed. I guess my bags were packed and ready to go.  And that's one of the most important things we need to understand about guilt…it's not a reflection of anything real, it is based on a fantasy or story we are creating in our mind.

Unfortunately, because guilt is a common starting point for a pattern of self-destruction, which means it has a groove it likes to follow that starts you spinning downward through a variety of uncomfortable emotions, while opening the door to the internal critic and self-condemnation, it is much harder to just let go than one might think.

An illustration of what a pattern of self-destruction can look like…

I made a mistake – overreacted, yelled, made my child cry, scared the other child and done it all in front of a witness - this created a huge surge of Guilt. Picture a ball at the top of a track that once you let go it has no choice but to follow the trail. The top of the track in this case is guilt.

My pattern (or track) took me to extreme embarrassment first and a strong desire to hide. Immediately after that my brain froze so I couldn't think straight or say anything intelligent. This created a tightness in my chest and belly which makes it hard to breathe and my internal critic took advantage of the space, "you call yourself a parent educator?" "who are you to speak on self-control – you obviously don't have any!". In this space my brain could do nothing but keep replaying the story over and over until eventually the ball fell into a pit of self-loathing.

This pattern is quite quick to get into, but once you are there, it's very difficult to get out. Because it awakens so many sensations it feels like a huge weight has plopped onto your shoulders and you might never feel normal again.

Obviously, not every guilt experience is this extreme. In fact without the pattern of self-destruction, it might not have amounted to much at all. I might have apologized to my kids, poured myself a cup of tea and moved on. Unfortunately, in some cases the patterns are more like a slow spin that start out without huge intensity and then because of your thoughts and internal critic, intensify through the day.

So what can you do?

First, if your internal critic has piped up and started spouting words of condemnation, or reminding you of other things you've done wrong before…you'll want to start with quieting it. I've talked about how you can do this before and will be doing a podcast with more ideas on this in a week or two, but for now, suffice it to say, you need to put a stop to any extra dissing the internal critic is doing.

This is very hard to do in the heat of the moment when everything feels so raw. So, practicing this in times of calm will definitely help you when tragedy strikes.

Remember, the words the critic is saying don't have to be true for you to believe them!

Then, you can put on your detectives hat. Remember the detective is on neutral ground – she remains objective when looking at a situation and asks her questions from that place. In my case, I might ask myself where this guilt is coming from and then use that information to determine what action could arise as a result.

For example, when I felt guilty for verbally attacking my son, I might ask myself the following:

  • Am I feeling guilty because I spoke harshly and hurt my son’s feelings? Am I okay with the boundary I set (don't bounce your ball in your house), but upset because I yelled?
  • Is the guilt because I do usually let him bounce the ball in the house and it's just because he caught a bad bounce and the ball scared me that I reacted so badly?
  • Could my guilt be so intense because I just gave a talk on using self-control and I feel like a total hypocrite by losing mine (and with a witness no less!)?

Figuring out what the answer is helps to guide me on where to go next. In every case, my son deserved a genuine apology, but what I said in my apology would change depending on the reason.

If I spoke harshly and hurt feelings, my action might be to apologize to my son, give him a hug (if he wants one) and perhaps explain why I behaved the way I did. I don’t do this as an attempt to excuse my behaviour or to change my mind about bouncing the ball in my office, but more to provide a learning opportunity for both of us. "I'm sorry I lost my temper and yelled at you. I better practice my self-control a little more. I'll try harder in the future and maybe you could try a little harder to listen when mommy asks you to stop doing something."

If my guilt came from recognizing that I had overreacted out of fear (from the ball zipping past me) which is often funneled into anger to save face – then my apology might sound like this. "I'm sorry I lost my temper and yelled at you. The ball scared me when it zipped across my desk and I got angry because I don't like being scared. I'm sorry I overreacted like that."

Finally, if I decide my guilt is caused by me behaving like a hypocrite I might apologize to my son (perhaps using the first apology) and then zero in on getting a true picture of what was going on for me. Some questions I might ask myself:

  • Are my expectations realistic (i.e. that I'll never make a mistake just because I teach that skill)?  I am human right?
  • What would I say to a parent who shared a similar mistake? I'd say, "Awesome job for recognizing your loss of control – that's not easy to do. If you're not happy with the way that went what would you like to do differently next time?
  • Is there a teaching point from this I can learn for future presentations?  This is something I have used many times to help shift me from having a pity-party to thinking objectively and this did in fact provide a great story to share which I'm still doing J

In sum, rather than feeding the guilt by beating myself up over how badly I behaved… I can use this feeling to guide me towards an action that will help me repair damage and grow from the experience. By doing this I feel I am using the guilt as the signal it was intended to be rather than heading on the guilt trip my bags were already packed to take me on.

I recognize there are times when it will feel like whatever you did wrong is just too big a thing to fix, but that's not the point here. The point is your guilt is not serving you or the situation you are dealing with. Even though you might have 'messed up bad' I guarantee you are still making it worse with the stories in your mind, the assumptions you are making about the other person's response, and your refusal to cut yourself any slack.

Becoming aware of when you are doing this and how much of your vibrant energy it is zapping can be a starting point for making changes that will allow you to begin setting things straight and, even if what you have done is not really 'fixable' (i.e. the other person refuses to forgive you, the relationship breaks us, etc) it still allows you to start moving out of your shadow and into your power.

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