How do you feel when you have missed an appointment, could not resist having a second helping of cake or failed at keeping a promise you made to yourself like, for example, going to a Yoga class? Guilty at having missed another opportunity to stick to your own resolve? Can we get away from the learned response of adding another failure to our history of missed opportunities? Because we cannot change the past, can we instead excuse ourselves for the missed appointment, acknowledge how good the cake tasted and decide not to miss the next Yoga class? There is nothing static about life and there is always a new opportunity to start afresh. This is being alive as opposed to remaining trapped in the past and guilt makes us prisoners of the past not allowing us to enjoy this moment.
The bondage that guilt creates has fear at its root. Fear together with aggression are our two basic survival responses and while aggression propels us into action, fear immobilizes us and keeps us trapped. As with other emotions, the key to deal with guilt is not to allow the re-active emotional brain to take over but to engage our thinking brain, right away, by responding with the appropriate tool or strategy.
For example, when we feel guilty about having offended or caused pain to others there is only one strategy: asking for forgiveness with a sincere heart. This action might be very painful but it is the only way to assuage guilt and make us feel whole and peaceful again. Then there is the guilt caused by a history of missed opportunities or failures, the pebbles in our shoe. In this case guilt is deeper and the offended subject is ourselves. We might not even be clear about what causes our guilt feelings but we become certainly immobilized by the fear that robs us of the potential to live life fully.
Guilt is cumulative and starts early in life when we displease our parents or teachers for so many reasons: our first lies at two years old, not doing well at school, not choosing the right friends, not being accomplished enough, intelligent enough, kind enough, etc… If we are not resilient enough we might interpret our failed attempts to please others as failures, of not being good enough and this can have the pernicious effect of shaping and distorting the way we perceive ourselves. As adolescents we have the pressure to fit in molds set up by peers, fashion, publicity, etc… Many young people live with the constant feeling of failing at being “perfect”. There is always something that needs to be corrected: the weight, the behaviour, the clothes, etc… Expectations are high, especially in appearance as the fashion industry is just that, an industry concerned about business and not with the well-being of people trying to fit into its criteria.
Guilt is insidious and does not disappear when we mature. Like a ghost, it can appear even in our dreams when we thought we had forgotten or resolved the nagging feeling of having missed on something, of having failed at being successful. Guilt is connected with disgust, of rejecting and not accepting ourselves, our body, our personality traits, etc… The majority of adult women report not being satisfied with their bodies resulting in a poor self-image and a diminished sense of their own worth.
So, does guilt have any redeeming quality? Amazingly, it does as if we did not feel guilty we would repeat the same mistakes and not learn the accepted codes of behaviour that allow us to move with ease in society, at work, in relationships, etc… So, from this point of view, guilt is a strong motivator to act in a socially accepted way. Is it possible then to draw the pertinent lessons from the consequences of our offending actions or the missed opportunities without getting caught in the destructive trap of guilt? By taking action right away either by reflecting on those lessons or by excusing ourselves, apologizing sincerely with the resolve of being more thoughtful next time we can move on and tear down the illusory veil of guilt that clouds, like a cataract, our potential of creativity. And even if our list of minor or major “faux-pas” is lengthy let us remember that our true nature, that which we intrinsically are, is stainless and peerless and therefore cannot be “better” or “worse” for it.