I rarely work with a client who isn’t feeling guilty about something and I routinely hear the voice of guilt coming from the mouths of friends, colleagues and family members.
So what are the origins of guilt? We’re certainly not born with it as we all enter the world powerless in need of the care of others, and have done nothing wrong. We’re simply innocent at this stage.
As we age and experience the world though, we gain insight about the underpinnings of guilt and how it works. We acquire understanding as to how guilt can be imposed upon us by parents – living or deceased, and others within our personal, social or occupational sphere. The mother lode of guilt is self-imposed – accentuated by the feeling of having done something wrong or eventually will – without corroborating evidence.
My paternal grandfather was often heard telling my first cousin Ronald “that he would never amount to anything.” Ronald lived right next door to our grandfather, so it was very easy for this to happen, and Ronald’s father was stern and serious himself, never intervening on Ronald’s behalf by confronting this issue. Ronald wasn’t very self-motivated, but it became evident to all of us that this constant rebuking had a marked detrimental effect on him. Ronald hasn’t worked in years, relies on public assistance and has become a recluse. He feels guilty about not having achieved any measurable success, not having pleased his grandfather and father (both deceased) and not having lived up to expectations.
More than any religious conviction about sin, the loss of salvation or allegiance to some self-defeating groupthink process, societal and self-imposed guilt can land us face down in the mud, eroding happiness and contentment and limiting the expression of our true talents.
So how do you shake yourself free of the ways that guilt can affect you? This is how:
- Seriously ask yourself: “What’s the positive intention for harboring this guilt? How is it serving me? Everything we do is linked to a positive intention, if not we either wouldn’t do it, or wouldn’t do it for very long. Many people I encounter feel guilty about their success and treat themselves accordingly. They don’t reward themselves with something they can afford and deserve; they don’t take a vacation because it would appear they’re “splurging” while others are in dire straits; they don’t believe they deserve their good fortune because they got lucky somehow. So they wind up depriving themselves out of fear of showing off or displaying wealth.
What to do? Welcome the concept of “earned success.” “I wasn’t just plain lucky, I worked hard for what I have and earned it through the talents I’ve developed and the risks I’ve taken.” Also, your success doesn’t mean someone else has to lose – there’s no tally sheet declaring life to be a zero-sum game.
- You have to ignore or jettison those who serve up guilt and have you in their crosshairs. You can always see certain family or friends less or not at all if need be. If you don’t make such strong choices, you’ll constantly be invalidated and eventually ground down to obsolescence.
- Never rely on others to validate you. If you do, you’ve ceded your power to affirm and validate you to someone else who may not want that responsibility or feel comfortable delivering on it. It’s your decision – and your decision only – as to how you perceive your worthiness and success, so it can’t be abdicated.
Don’t allow yourself to be wounded by guilt. That’s a fate you just don’t deserve.