For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do --this I keep on doing.
Guilt is a miserable game we play with ourselves. It's the price we pay for not taking an honest, compassionate, realistic, forgiving look at our own reality. It's a game of make-believe with bitter consequences.
Guilt is anger directed at ourselves. We get angry with ourselves for something we should have done or shouldn't have done. It accumulates over time. Our self-punishment becomes worse with each repeated occurrence. ("I should have known better!")
Fear steps in. We become afraid of situations in which we might fail to live up to our personal expectations. We're afraid of what we might do to ourselves if we fail again. We're afraid of our own anger.
We avoid new people, situations, activities. We settle into a predictable rut, and then feel guilty we aren't doing more for ourselves. Some people become immobilized with guilt, afraid of doing anything lest they disappoint themselves again.
This cycle of negative energy--from ourselves to ourselves--can have devastating effects. It poisons relationships, inhibits growth, stifles expansion. And it hurts. It can become self-hatred. It puts enormous stress on the mind, emotions, and body.
Over time, it can kill.
When lovely woman stoops to folly, And finds too late that men betray, What charm can soothe her melancholy? What art can wash her guilt away? The only art her guilt to cover, To hide her shame from every eye, To give repentance to her lover, And wring his bosom, is--to die..
Perhaps the most tragic part about guilt is that it is thoroughly unnecessary.
That's the bad news. Now, let's lighten up a bit and discuss the good news: after reading this chapter you'll never have to feel guilty again. You probably will, but you won't have to. Once you understand how guilt works, you don't have to let it do its dirty work on you.
We all have images, beliefs, and expectations about ourselves. They usually begin, "I am a good person, and good people . . . . " Most of these expectations are cultural and were "sold" to us when our sales resistance was particularly low--when we were children. We bought them. And we reconfirm the purchase every time we feel guilt.
To illustrate, let's take a fairly common example. We're on a diet. We want to lose some weight. Chocolate cake is not on our diet. We eat the cake. We feel guilty.
What images or beliefs about ourselves might have been violated by eating the cake?
"I am a good person, and good people take care of their body, keep commitments with themselves, have willpower, eat only things that are good for them, care about how they look, follow through on plans, meet goals, set a good example for others, and care about their loved ones." Something along those lines.
This is what good people do, but what did we do? When we describe our guilty actions to ourselves, we tend to exaggerate. Remember the fast-talking, bad-mouthing vulture? It has a field day. Squawk, squawk, squawk. Negative, negative, negative. Bad, bad, bad. Shame, shame, shame. It might sound something like this:
"I'm getting big as a house, and still I ate the fattening, empty-caloried piece of cake after having too much to eat at dinner anyway. I ignored all inner guidance to the contrary. I broke a solemn agreement with myself not to eat fattening foods. I have no willpower. I damaged my body by adding extra fat to it. I already look terrible, but now I'll look worse. I can't accomplish anything. I never do what I tell myself I'm going to do. I hurt my loved ones by setting a bad example of how to diet after I told them I was going to lose weight. If I don't care about myself, at least I could care about the people I love." And that's just round one.
The pristine image we have of ourselves is repeatedly violated by our despicable actions.
What to do? Well, the small print at the bottom of the "I am a good person . . . " contract reads, "And when I'm not, I'll feel guilty." Feeling guilty lets us prove we're still a good person.
The New England conscience doesn't stop you from doing what you shouldn't; it just keeps you from enjoying it.
After all, who feels bad about doing bad things, bad people or good people? Good people, of course. Bad people enjoy doing bad things. Bad people feel wonderful doing bad things.
To prove we're good, we punish ourselves with guilt. This allows us to maintain the image that we are all of those wonderful things. By feeling guilty, we're saying, "I did it this time, but I'll never ever do it again. See how much this hurts me? I don't want to hurt this bad again. So I promise, cross my heart and hope to die, I'll never ever do it again."
Guilt allows us to pretend something is true about ourselves that, based on results, isn't. It lets us maintain an inaccurate image about ourselves, an image that does not match our actions.
Am I saying we're not good people? Not at all. That part's true. The falsity begins with "...and good people . . . " Do good people always, only, and exclusively do those things? Of course not.
Do good people sometimes not take care of their bodies? Sure. Do good people sometimes break commitments with themselves? Yes. Do good people sometimes lack willpower? Absolutely. Do they always eat things that are good for them? Ha! Do they always care about how they look? Hardly. Do they always follow through with their plans, always meeting their goals? Nonsense. Do they always set a good example for others? Of course not. And do they always care about their loved ones? Afraid not.
The truth is, good people do do all those good things and sometimes they don't.
You are a good person. You do a lot of good things. And sometimes you don't. Does that alter the fact that you're good? Not at all. It merely confirms the fact that you're a human being.
I have, all my life long, been lying till noon; yet I tell all young men, and tell them with great sincerity, that nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good.
Guilt not only protects an erroneous gilt-edged image we have about ourselves; it also lets us do the thing we felt guilty about doing again. When we've "paid the price" for our "crime," we're free to do it again as long as we're willing to pay the price again. The price? More guilt. "How badly do I want the cake? Is it worth two hours of guilt? No. I'll take a smaller piece and only feel guilty for an hour."
We plea-bargain with ourselves before we even commit the crime.
So, guilt as it's popularly practiced in our culture (a) feels lousy, (b) has devastating effects on our mind, emotions, and body, (c) maintains an inaccurate image of what "good people" are and do, (d) allows us to believe one thing about ourselves while doing something completely contradictory, and (e) lets us continue doing things that may not be in our best interests.
Talk about your nonproductive activities. And what good is there in guilt? Guilt is anger at ourselves. Anger is the energy for change. Therefore, guilt can be used as the energy for personal change. We can use the energy to change the image of how we should be or change the action we feel guilty about.
There is also the twinge of guilt we feel before taking part in the contrary action. The twinge is a much quieter sensation. Easier on the mind, body, and emotions. The twinge of guilt is our friend. Just as the warning light in our car reminds us to get gas, this twinge tells us when we're about to trigger a more painful form of guilt.
When you're about to do something--or even contemplating something--and feel the twinge of guilt, stop. The twinge of guilt is telling you you're off balance. You are about to take an action that would violate an image you have about yourself.
At this point, rather than plea-bargain or blindly rush ahead, do one of two things--change the image or the action. You can change the image you have about yourself, bringing it up to present-day reality, or you can not take the action that violates your image.
MAE WEST: For a long time I was ashamed of the way I lived.
"Did you reform?"
MAE WEST: No; I'm not ashamed anymore.
If you do either one, you will not have the punitive, painful, lasting guilt.
Take chocolate cake, for example. You have lots of options for changing the image. You could change your belief to include occasional forays into cakedom, or you could decide your weight is fine as it is and call off the diet, or you could promise to take a long walk after dinner, or any other alteration of the image that currently says, "Chocolate cake is always forbidden." Changing the action is simple: don't eat the chocolate cake. (Once again: simple, but not necessarily easy.)
If you do one of those two things--change the image or the action--you will not feel guilty about eating the chocolate cake. If you don't change the image or the action, it's back to the old cycle of crime and punishment.
In addition to the obvious physical, emotional, and mental benefits of breaking the cycle of guilt, here are three others:
Freeing yourself from guilt is a gradual progression. Guilt, for most people, is an automatic response. When it goes off--and it will--please don't feel guilty about feeling guilty. And if you do feel guilty about feeling guilty, don't feel guilty about feeling guilty about feeling guilty. And if you do feel guilty about feeling guilty about . . . .
If error is corrected whenever it is recognized as such, the path of error is the path of truth.
Some people create a New Enlightened Image of themselves that says, "I am a good person and I no longer feel guilt." Please, change that image before you even create it. Probably the most accurate one you can have is, "I am a good person and I feel what I feel," because that's the way it seems to go. Sometimes it's guilt and sometimes it's glory.
If you're in a cycle of guilt, there are techniques to help you change your image or your actions. But first, let's talk about resentment.
Life teaches us to be less harsh with ourselves and with others.
Copyright © 1988-1996 Peter McWilliams & Prelude Press, Inc.
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