Do you find that you have those little pangs of guilt every now and again, like when you forget somebody’s name? Somebody introduces themselves, you have a conversation with them and then at the end of the night, you totally forget their name. They say goodbye and say your name and your left floundering and feeling terrible.
Do you say to yourself that you are terrible at remembering names? What about when you’ve forgotten a birthday or an anniversary, how bad is that? It’s even worse when your partner or friends make a big deal leading up to it and you still totally forget. Some people feel guilty, some people blame their job / their memory / someone or something else.
Those are what I call everyday guilts, they’re not huge. The thing is though, they stack up. The little things can add up to a lot.
What is guilt? Where is it coming from?
There is an important distinction to be made at this point. There is a growing conversation about the difference between guilt and shame. So, is what you’re feeling guilt or shame?
Guilt is when you regret an action, a behaviour, like forgetting someone’s name. Shame is when you feel like you are a bad person because you are forgetful. Do you notice the difference? Guilt is a behaviour you can learn from; shame is a feeling of not being good enough. Right now we are talking about guilt (I’ll get to shame another time in one of my next articles).
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Guilt has a location in the past. It’s something you feel about a situation that happened in a past moment, like forgetting someone’s name. What happens is you’re remembering a situation that occurred in a past moment. You don’t feel guilty about something that’s happening in a present moment, something happening right now. In order to feel guilty about something, it must have already occurred and now it exists in the past. So when you’re feeling guilty about a past event, often times you’re thinking about something that could have been different.
How important is using the right language?
The words we use are important. They can be empowering, or really disempowering. You might have heard people say to “Choose your words wisely”. The way I interpret that saying is when they use the word ‘choose’, it doesn’t mean to think more about the words you use, but to be educated in which words have more power. Which words are more effective in getting a result in what you say to yourself and others?
Dis-empowering words, ones that lead us to feel guilty about things include; should, shouldn’t, regret, my fault. These trap the feeling of guilt in time, they increase the guilt.
When we feel guilty how often do you use these words? “I could’ve done this differently” or “I shouldn’t have done that”. Should is a very important word when you’re talking about guilt.
When you try to get everything right, you try to be the best at your job, have the best health, be the best father and husband. What if working so many hours to get that promotion means that you miss out on the things that are happening with your family or may limit the time you can spend in the gym? When you feel guilt, is it because the picture of the life that you are trying to create is one that is perfect?
It can be hard to balance. It can be hard not to feel guilty for missing out on some of your kids experiences because you are working hard at your job or maybe you watch your kids graduate but you missed out on the major project presentation at work that you should’ve been a part of. Perfection plays a pretty significant part of this comparison. Guilt is created because of the comparison. So, what is in your control? Making (or not making) the comparison is in your control.
Guilt! What is it good for?
What is the use of guilt? How is it useful? It’s useful because it can help us learn. Guilt can teach us the difference between where we are and where we want to be. It’s useful when you use it as motivation to change a behaviour. It’s not useful when you hang on to it for too long.
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When I was a kid, I think I was 13 years old, my family and I were on a holiday at the snow. My brother, mum, dad and I were all there. We were building a snowman, like the ones in the movies. We used a carrot for the nose, liquorice for the mouth, sticks as hands and we had these lifesaver lollies for the eyes. While mum, dad and my brother were collecting snow and twigs for hair and arms, I stayed back to protect the growing snowman. While I was sitting there I ate the lifesavers, they were my favourite lollies. I started with one and then another one and I couldn’t stop. When my family returned there were no lollies left. I got in trouble and I felt terrible. Now the snowman didn’t have eyes and I had eaten all the life savers so there weren’t any to share. I’d been selfish in that moment, only thinking about myself, not about my brother, my parents. I should have known better. I should have shared with my family rather than taking everything for myself. I felt guilty for my behaviour. Because I felt so guilty, I worked out a way I could learn from it. It gave me a chance to think about what I’d done so that I would make a different choice in the future.
How I let go of the guilt
The first step is taking responsibility. I have a saying “Nothing is my fault but everything is my responsibility”. When I ate the lollies, I had a choice to take responsibility in that moment for eating the lollies, to say “Yes I did eat them”. What I didn’t do was hide it. I didn’t blame my parents for leaving me alone with the lollies, I didn’t blame hunger and I didn’t come up with a stupid excuse. I accepted that I had a choice and I chose poorly. By accepting that I had a choice I am taking responsibility.
What happens when you accept responsibility is you step into a space of being ready to learn and grow. The only time that guilt is not worthwhile is if you didn’t take the opportunity to learn from it.
Ask a better question
You can ask yourself some empowering, learning questions in moments of guilt. I have a few that I use all the time to get me to a different place, to a place of learning.
The first question I ask is:
What would I do different next time?
In the case of the snowman, what I would do next time is not eat the lollies. I would enjoy and appreciate the time with my family. I would love to share with my brother, mum and dad. It’s not often that you get a chance to build a snowman with your family.
I know I was just a kid in that story; I’m just using this story as an example. An adult may come up with a lot more answers to this question relevant to their situation. Taking that time to ask the question is the most important thing.
The other thing I ask myself is “What is the seed of equivalent benefit?”
This message comes from Napoleon Hill’s iconic book ‘Think and Grow Rich’. In it he states that “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit”. In other words, what is the benefit can I find that has come out of this situation?
What people are saying about Emotion Academy:
"After many years of training, courses, and counselling in various forms I thought I had certain aspects of my life sorted. Yet completing Emotion Academy showed me that I had been running away from my emotions and not facing them. After Emotion Academy, now I have the tools to engage with myself and win the internal battles once and for all - Neil Welsh, Victoria
Have you ever felt disappointed by a situation in the moment, only to discover over time that it ended up being a good thing? Perhaps not straightaway, perhaps even years later?
When a tree falls in a forest, some people would mourn the loss of the tree. It’s not providing shade anymore, it’s not living anymore, if it had fruit or flowers these will have been lost, it has no worth. However, when you ask yourself “What is the seed of equal or greater benefit”?
One benefit could be that the branches can be used by small animals to build shelters for their families, the seeds from the tree fall to the ground, are germinated and start growing a number of new trees to replace the fallen tree, the tree trunk can provide a nest for insects that break down the composition of the wood. Wood can be used for firewood giving us warmth. If we kept thinking about it we could come up with even more benefits.
This question can add value to any situation. In the case of the snowman story, the benefit could be that I now get to use that experience to help other people to understand what the benefit of guilt is! I can use that experience to tell a story about how I have felt guilty or I have done something that maybe I shouldn’t have done, but I learned from it.
Melisa Grigg - Head Coach & Trainer
Melisa was stuck in sadness for 15 years, hated her job, was overweight and her relationship had just ended. Melisa inspires people with her story and now teaches how she sorted her life out. She worked out how to be happy and how to lose over 30kg of body weight. In simple steps she teaches how you can stop procrastinating, find confidence, stop being so sad and finally start to find true meaning and purpose in your life.
What could be the benefit if you forget your friend’s birthday? You’re working late to finish an important project on your friend’s birthday, and you totally forgot it. The benefit, which you might not see in the moment, might be that six months later, because of the extra time you worked on that project, you get a raise or a promotion. This won’t make up for missing an important birthday but it could mean the opportunity in the future to take your friend out to dinner.
If you’ve forgotten an anniversary what could the seed of equivalent benefit be? Maybe that you’ll make double sure next year to remember and make it twice as amazing. It might help you to appreciate how truly amazing your partner really is, that even though you forgot their anniversary they still love you and you found a way to celebrate it that made it even more special. That experience could increase your appreciation for your partner and for the life that you have together.
So, to get over the guilt and to move beyond it remember to ask yourself “What will I do different next time?” “How can I learn from this” “What’s the seed of equivalent benefit?” “What am I grateful for?”
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