Handling Guilt Gracefully
The Feeling Called Guilt
Guilt is something you did (or didn’t) that you shouldn’t (or should) have done. A past event. Or perhaps something that is still being done – a present perfect event. The question is: Who decides wether it is wrong? Society? Culture? Parents? Anything that you should/ shouldn’t have done, implicitly means that it has consequences coming from outside you – friends, family, boss, teacher, society, etc.
Who sets these rules? What is it that you desire(d) which cannot (couldn’t) happen as there were rules?
Guilt is different from shame. Guilt is the internal awareness of your error, whilst shame is when someone else knows about it. (very likely people feeling bad about their guilt, could really be worried about the potential shame if someone finds out about their act)
Now guilt has several flavours.
- The spot-event guilt where you did something, like scratching a friend’s car or lying to your spouse about what you did with your friends, etc. Its an internal alarm bell that warns about a rule being broken as perceived and set by you.
- Free-floating guilt where the event turns into an identity. A general feeling of bad-ness as if the whole life has been strapped with the guilt. In my opinion, religious scriptures are often the unintended culprit behind this sort of guilt. What does religion say about people who have committed that act? And there you go…a lifetime of guilt.
- Universe-related guilt where you feel bad about issues that touch you, like child labor, unrepaired roads where someone died and you did nothing…existential guilt associated with the world around you, where you didn’t do what you should have done.
And each flavour needs a slightly different approach. But the first step is to acknowledge that the guilt happened because of an act. And the act happened because of a choice. We make 100s of choices every day and can’t be right all the time. That choice was selected (over others) because there was a desire – an internal ‘want’ that needed fulfilment. Perhaps it was ignored for a while? Now, I suspect that desire was already prevalent in your life at one point and then got suppressed by changed set of behavioural, cultural or social rules? Eating chocolates was always fun…but now the society says I am fat and fat people are not appreciated. The new rules say, “don’t eat chocolate”.
Over time, the rules we are expected to follow, change. And that means certain desires and pleasures get accidentally suppressed. They didn’t get the chance to discover alternate channels of fulfilment.
Therefore, guilt is about following your heart (unconscious) which the conscious mind cannot accept, as it needs to follow rules. Following the heart means getting that pleasure, perhaps a feeling of self-worth that you ‘deserve’ that pleasure. On the other hand following the rules offer security, peace, harmony, responsibility, etc. So…now its one set of values pitted against another set. Following rules v/s following the heart. Remember, rules can only be broken when the heart (desire) overrides the mind. But once the desire is satisfied, the rules scream foul. (Ask a smoker who promised his family that he will quit)
And within this problem lies the solution. Most guilt equations are: I want(ed) to do X but I shouldn’t do(have done) it because the rules say… OR, I didn’t do X but I should have done it because the rules say…
In Value language, I want to fulfill a value A that I desire, but my other values B, C, D get violated. Ofcourse you can do Visual Squash or Parts Integration or the ‘Christmas Tree’ process I explained in the Masters wherein we chain a whole set of interconnected values together. Since both conflicting values are equally strong, finding a stronger value that overrules both might work better. E.g Smoking = freedom = act for self, Quitting = Responsibility = act for others. Ask yourself: what is it that I get, when I get all the freedom? What is it that I get when I meet all my responsibilities? Self-Worth (say).
These methods are great. But is there a simpler solution? Yes there is. The culprit is the word but. It implies either A or B, C, D can happen. What if we were to replace it with AND? I want A and also keep B, C, D happy Eg: Can I do something that I love for myself AND also meet my responsibilities? Or, while meeting my responsibilities how do I also do what I enjoy?
Next, once the mindset is set to fulfil all the so-called-conflicting values in a balanced way, the energies can be focused on alternate behaviours in all contexts, that fulfil them all. Don’t be surprised if it opens up a whole new life style in multiple contexts of life. Because balancing automatically inspires a chain-reaction in multiple contexts, isn’t it?
So now the values seem to be in the process of being satiated. But do you believe you can establish that new lifestyle? Beliefs are most under represented in the change equation. Lifestyle changes would need courage, dedication, commitment and even discipline – which can only happen when you believe you can !! Perhaps you can simply start with the simpler changes and let the rest build up with time. That’s right. Just go with the flow…and if the values-balancing is not tuned properly yet, acknowledge and accept that the old desires will spark the old behaviour. No need to feel guilty…you are only fulfilling a suppressed value that has yet not found an alternate behaviour. Keep experimenting instead of suppressing it. That won’t work and will leave you feel frustrated and angry !!
Sounds simple? Well not so easy! The problem is (a) identifying ALL the values that the (un)desired behaviour gets the person. You miss one and it wont work. (b) identifying alternate behaviours that fully satisfies the new rule: going after value A and also keeping B, C and D happy. Finding such a behaviour is crucial to the success formula. Smoking, for example, would perhaps satisfy several values. Can you equally satisfyingly meet all of them through alternate behaviours?
So what else can we do that will support the guilt-freedom process? Well…guilt is almost always about someone – a person. Not something or some event. Its about, are you being fair in your rules associated with someone? Ofcourse you will read scores of experts mentioning that the simplest way is to confess your deed and get on with life. I feel, that is simply fooling yourself that it is solved. Worse, it can cause permanent trust deficit in your relationship. The core issue…that suppressed desire…is till looming large, waiting for its next opportunity for fulfilment !! Therefore, wallowing in guilt usually has no impact on future behaviour other than feeling bad, which helps no one.
Therefore, I would like you to re-examine that event and identify the precise harm, you feel, you caused that person. Perhaps it was a simple mistake, you misunderstood the situation or didn’t estimate the consequence. How can you use this guilt to improve your relationship with this person? Utilise the guilt in a positive manner. In other words: “What personal resource would make it possible for me to manifest both these values, even in those situations in which I previously felt I had to choose between them?”
Note that, in this approach we are de-coupling the behavior from the intent. So there is an inherent risk that a repetitive act may still continue but the guilt may be reduced or eliminated since the values are integrated together.
NOTE: All examples as well as scenarios in this article, are one of many possible responses in real life situations and simply meant for illustrating the concept.
About the author;
Amit Pathak is a Licensed NLP Master Practitioner, Licensed NLP Trainer, Certified Hypnotherapist, professional therapist and international trainer who regularly conducts workshops on NLP and related therapy in India and abroad. Having worked with world renowned authorities in this field, for over a decade, he thoroughly enjoys learning and evolving new techniques and concepts aimed at assisting people in improving their lives.
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