Even as a little child, I can remember feeling guilty. Guilty about not doing the “right” thing when I had already been told, or guilty for forgetting something. Sometimes I felt guilty when I noticed that I had more cool toys or fun holidays than some of the other kids, or I would start to blame myself if I forgot someone’s birthday or didn’t get the best marks in class. As I got older, this guilt followed me when I saw people who were not as accomplished as I was, or if I didn’t know what to give to someone as the perfect gift. I felt guilty for making mistakes in my job, even if I was learning something new. I would blame myself or others for the things in my life that I felt were the cause of my negative emotions. I would often find myself saying “I’m sorry” and “it’s not my fault” in the same sentence!
Have you ever told yourself that you should or shouldn’t have done something? Do you rehearse over and over, all the wrongs you might have done, or mistakes you possibly made? Do you feel almost as if you’re keeping score, checking off a list of all the times you did something “naughty” but with a tendency to forget all the times you did something nice? I used to blame myself all the time, for anything that didn’t go the way I had expected. Sometimes I would blame others too, because to me, that meant I didn’t have to judge myself. But then I would end up judging myself for blaming others, and feel guilty about that too.
Guilt can show up in different ways. Sometimes it can be the helpful kind of guilt that tells you that you’ve done something that goes against your personal values or beliefs, prompting you to do better next time. It’s fleeting and doesn’t weigh you down. Instead it’s more like a little alert from your conscience, letting you know that there’s something you might want to think twice about. For many people reading this though, they might be experiencing the type of guilt that can be more harmful than helpful. This guilt can often be accompanied by shame, and the meanings we assign to it might be that we are “less-than” or not good enough in some way. The problem with this is that it can lead towards a number of other negative and unhelpful emotions, contributing to stress and making the problem worse, instead of better.
But, doesn’t guilt stop me from doing “bad” things?
I used to be uncertain and even scared to get rid of the guilty feeling, because I thought that I would just become boring, lazy, less-than worthy, below everyone else. I would worry about “What if I get rid of the guilty feeling, and then I don’t want to do all the things that a good person would do? The guilt drives me to do better, to be better and keep improving myself, doesn’t it?”. I kept wondering “What will drive me to achieve if I don’t feel guilty about not achieving?” I thought that I would become complacent and not reach any of my goals if it weren’t for guilt. What I didn’t realise at the time, is that this guiltiness, shame and blame game I was playing, was really what was stopping me from moving forward and achieving my goals. It wasn’t just slowing me down, it was pulling me backwards and keeping me stuck. There is a way to achieve your goals, and it doesn’t require guilt at all. In fact, it’s more about learning to let go of negative emotions that hold you back.
Setting realistic expectations
Back then, it felt like I was in a never ending cycle of guilt and shame and trying to redeem myself, but never really feeling good enough. It was as if, no matter what I did, or how hard I tried, I believed deep down that I could never ever live up to the expectations that I felt. Whether they were expectations that I thought others had of me, or that I knew were my own ideals. People would tell me that I had high expectations. But I thought that anyone who was a “good” person, a “smart” person, a “winner”, would want to live by these expectations, and anyone who didn’t must be “bad” or “less-than” in some way. Do you ever notice yourself thinking that too? I was proud of my perfectionist standards, because having those high standards, allowed me to stay where I was.
You see, even though I didn’t like staying where I was, I was too afraid to take action to become the person I really wanted to be. By telling myself that I was trying, that I was setting goals and had these really high standards, I was actually giving myself an excuse to explain away why I was still stuck. It made me feel like I was moving forward, without actually moving. It made me feel like I was doing the work, but really all I was doing was living in my mind, imagining all the steps in front of me, and all the steps behind. Because dreaming about it was easier than actually doing it. I didn’t really know I was doing this to myself at the time. I didn’t see how much unnecessary pain I was creating for myself back then. I really believed that I was working so hard towards my goals. But the reality was, I was hiding behind my high standards, instead of taking action on something small. Taking action at a lower level or a lower standard than what I wanted to, but action nevertheless.
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If you tend towards perfectionistic or idealistic standards, you might also tend to pick goals that are not reachable within the timeframe you’ve given yourself, or with the resources that you currently have. What could happen then, is that you end up setting yourself up to fail. I used to do this with health. At the time, I was pretty sedentary and not used to exercise, but I’d get so excited and I knew that I had it in me to reach my goals, I just expected that I would be able to achieve them almost instantly. For example, I’d promise myself that I’d work out 30 minutes a day for 7 days a week, or that I would never eat sugar again and eat only at specific times of the day with specifically measured portions and calories. I would tell myself that I would cut out coffee forever or that I’d wake up 3 hours earlier than usual. Inevitably I would “cheat” or “fall off the wagon” or go back to my old habits and start the guilty, blame and shame game all over again.
The thing is, whilst these goals can be achieved in the long run, with effort, baby steps and consistency, they are not likely to be realistic goals for the short term if you’re starting from scratch. Are there any areas of your life that you might be doing this too? Maybe you’ve promised yourself you’ll never yell at your kids or your partner again, or that you’ll cook a new recipe every day or that you’ll do 5 hours of work or study after dinner every night. Sometimes the goals or expectations we have, are so unconscious that we’re not even aware they’re there, until you don’t meet them.
Then all of a sudden you’re aware that you did not reach your goal (which of course you didn’t, because it was not achievable to start with), and the guiltiness follows. You might even feel as if you’ve done something wrong by not meeting your own unrealistic expectations. The funny thing is, it’s all in our own imagination. Those expectations are arbitrary rules you’ve applied meanings to. Meanings that aren’t serving you. In fact, all they’re serving to do, is to create arbitrary reasons for why you might be feeling guilty. But that doesn’t do anyone any good now does it? So what can you do about it?
The feeling of obligation over choosing
Do you ever feel obligated to attend big family gatherings like during the holidays or “big” birthdays and even weddings? Even if you don’t really want to go, or if it’s a massive financial and time commitment that you don’t want to make, do you still end up going because you feel guilty about it? I used to tell myself things like “If I don’t go, they will be so disappointed. I can’t do that to them. I have to go. It’s up to me to make sure they’re happy”. I used to do that so often that I would end up reluctantly agreeing to be at certain events, and then grumbling the whole way through.
I would complain, or simply smile and stay quiet but not be present. My mind was elsewhere thinking about all the other things I could be doing instead. Sometimes I would even stress myself out thinking of the work that I knew would be piling up for me while I was away. Instead of being present with my friends and family, celebrating with them and enjoying their love and company, I was agitated, annoyed and stressed. I used to feel resentful and angry about it, thinking; “I’m only here for them.” or “I’m the one doing the right thing, they could at least acknowledge or appreciate it!” I had forgotten the reason they wanted me there in the first place. Have you ever let yourself feel guilted into doing something that you didn’t want to do? How has that been working out for you so far?
What I was missing, was that I could choose. Even though it didn’t always feel like it, I still had a choice. In the situation above, I could choose to say no, not this time. Or I could choose to show up for part of the celebrations and not all of it. And I could do it in a friendly way that might help my friends and family to understand. That way, when I did show up, I could be present, and fun and enjoy connecting with everyone, which is the point anyway, isn’t it? I could then feel happy with my decision and go home to focus 100% on all the other things I might want to be doing.
Taking responsibility gives you the power
Ultimately though, I can’t control anyone else’s mindset, and neither can you. All we can do is take care of our own mindset and take responsibility for our choices. Sometimes people might not understand why you decided to do or not do something, even if you explain to them. That’s OK. They don’t always have to understand. Sometimes it’s important to learn to take care of your own needs first, regardless of what other people think. Not only that, but by really choosing, and not feeling obligated, opens you up to being able to act from a place of generosity and love, instead of feeling resentful and irritated, shameful or guilty.
Your family can’t really force you to show up to Christmas dinner, your boss is not really forcing you to work at home after hours and your alarm clock can’t really force you to get up any earlier. Nobody can make you do something. You’re just choosing certain things because it’s more comfortable, or because you want to avoid the guilty feeling. You are in control of you. You get to choose. The best part about recognising this, is that you get to do more of the things you love, and less of the things you don’t. Plus everything you say yes to, you’ll be more able to be present, enjoy those moments, and give 100% of yourself.
That’s where I’m at now. I get to give of myself 100% at any moment, and really enjoy every second of it! That’s not to say that I’m a selfish person who walks around doing whatever I want all the time! It’s more that I feel OK to choose me. Sometimes what I want, is to also choose to be there for others or do things for those I care about. But I no longer feel forced, obligated or resentful. In fact, I take joy in those things so much more, because it’s a gift that I get to give, and I believe that others can feel the difference too. I didn’t get here overnight though. It took persistence and consistency of figuring out where the choices were that I might be missing, and then facing the uncomfortable feeling to choose what I really wanted. And that’s something anyone can do.