Tell me… What role does guilt play in your life?
I need to make a confession. I only recently realized that guilt was one of my biggest Saboteurs. I knew I had trouble with guilt sometimes, but I didn’t realize that guilt was driving so much of my decision making until a recent session with an energy healer, Marie Danielle Boyer. I couldn’t believe it. After years of coaching, even more years of personal growth, I found myself asking, “How do I stop constant feelings of guilt?”
For me, guilt was cropping up most when it came to making decisions around people close to me. I grew up as the oldest child in my family. I was expected to set an example for my younger siblings and to think about other people before considering my own needs. It was ingrained in me that my choices impacted others and that I was responsible for what they did as a result. If a younger sibling misbehaved, it was my fault because I must have failed to set the right example. As a result, I felt a lot of anxiety around making decisions. I worried constantly that I wasn’t good enough and that I was letting my family down.
When I first began coaching, I would book client sessions at all times of the day. If a client was only available in the evenings, I felt it was my responsibility to put their needs first and create time for them, regardless of my own needs. I felt so guilty at the idea of not meeting their needs, that I completely neglected my own well-being. Sure enough, I burnt out. Hard. Even my physical health was struggling.
That burnout was one of my first red flags (truthfully, first one that I noticed) that guilt was playing a big role in my decision making. I realized I had to prioritize my health and well-being, get clear on my boundaries, and establish a solid schedule. One that included flexibility, but also effectively guarded the personal time I needed to care for myself and my life outside of work. After all, there was no way I could support my clients if I continued to cycle through burnout after burnout!
This realization helped me create balance in my life, but the guilt was still holding on.
For years, I had wanted to attend a particular leadership conference. Year after year, I put it off. Going would mean leaving my son in someone else’s care. That worried me endlessly. I cringed at the idea of someone else making his school lunches and them not being healthy enough. Ensuring he ate well felt like such a foundational part of my role as a parent. If he didn’t eat well, that would be my fault. He might feel sick or sluggish, and not be able to focus at school. That would be on me! And what about catching the bus on time? Or washing his school uniforms? It felt like there were a lot of balls in the air, and if any of them dropped, it would be my fault.
I wish I could say that I had a grand realization, but I think I just got tired of guilt running the show. I finally told myself that if I were away for a few days, things would be different for my son, but that would be ok. He would still be safe and loved, and if he missed the bus one day, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It might even help him develop his independence!
With that, I started to feel fueled by the retreat. I went, learned so much, met great people, and became a better coach as a result of the experience. Yes, my son did have popcorn for supper one day, but he enjoyed it and I got over it :) Little by little, I was learning to let go of guilt.
I’ve since learned of this awesome concept from the author, Nora Roberts, about how to handle the feeling of too many balls in the air. She says the key is to recognize that some of the balls are glass, and some are plastic. The plastic ones can fall and won’t break. You can pick them up later. The glass ones will shatter, so they need to be our priority. My son’s overall diet is a glass ball for me. But his diet for a few days is a plastic one. Not fun to drop, but there’s no guilt in letting it fall if it means keeping a glass ball – like my own health – from shattering.
The thing is, I often guide clients on how to deal with guilt and regret. On an intellectual level, I know how to identify it and work through it. But, on an energetic level, something was clouding my vision. By accepting support from my healer, I was able to broaden my understanding and start taking practical steps to overcome it. We all need help sometimes and that’s nothing to feel guilty about ;)
So… Can I now tell you how to stop feeling guilty? Yes… and no. We can’t control our feelings. We can’t simply turn off the “guilty tap” and stop the flow. Instead, we need to become curious about it, confront our guilt, learn from it, and take control of how we respond to it. With time and intention, the guilt will come up less frequently and have less power when it does.
Though you can never truly stop a feeling from ever happening, you can regulate its impact on your life.
False Guilt vs. Genuine Guilt
The French word for guilt is ‘culpabilite’, which directly translates to ‘culpability’. As I work in both French and English, I come across ‘culpabilite’ often. I like this word because it can really help identify genuine guilt vs. false guilt.
When we think of guilt as culpability, we can understand it as knowing and wanting to harm someone, and doing it anyway. We knew it would cause harm, we wanted to cause harm, we are culpable in the outcome. Often, the things we feel guilty about aren’t actually causing harm, and we certainly aren’t knowing and wanting to cause harm. That’s false guilt. It’s a real feeling – a very real emotional experience – but we aren’t actually guilty or culpable of anything.
When you do or say something to someone else (or yourself), you are responsible (not guilty) for your intentions. You are also responsible (not guilty) for how you respond when someone does or says something to you.
If you knowingly and willingly did something with the intention of causing hurt, then you would probably feel guilty and that would be genuine guilt. You knew it would cause harm, you had the intention to cause harm, and you willfully carried it out. If those three criteria aren’t fulfilled – knowing, wanting and intending – it’s false guilt.
Be aware of your intentions, mindful of your reactions, and take responsibility ONLY for what you are actually responsible for.
Let’s imagine you want to set a boundary with a family member. Imagine this person often brings up things from the past that are hurtful. You want to draw a boundary with them, but feelings of guilt keep coming up and stopping you.
In that situation, ask yourself, “In setting this boundary, is it my intention to cause harm?”
The answer is, most likely, no. Yes, a person’s feelings might be hurt, but that is their responsibility to regulate. You are only responsible for your intentions and how you show up.
Now, maybe it IS your intention to hurt the person. Maybe they’ve caused you hurt, and a part of you wants them to feel hurt as well. This is human! And it’s another reason to be aware of your intentions. What you feed is what grows. It’s normal to want to hurt someone who hurt you. But, acting on that will only grow those negative feelings and bring in more guilt. By being aware of your intentions and conscious of your response, you can make the choice to grow something better within yourself.
If you determine that your intention is not to hurt anyone, and you do your best to set the boundary in a respectful way, you are not guilty, culpable or responsible for the other person’s reaction.
Let’s try a simpler example (boundaries can be an especially complex minefield for guilt). Let’s say you want to start taking some time for yourself. Maybe you want to take a class, pick up a new hobby, spend an evening with friends, or even just have some solo time. You feel guilty because it’s taking time away from your family – possibly even spending money on yourself instead of your kids or something more “worthy”.
Once again, ask yourself, “Is it my intention to cause harm by taking care of myself?”
Is your family actually harmed by losing one hour of your time per week? Is your future actually at risk by diverting some funds to yourself? Is anyone actually suffering by you making yourself a priority?
Once again, the answer is no and it’s false guilt holding you back. A real feeling, but a false interpretation of the facts.
If we’ve done something to hurt another person, guilt comes up to tell us we need to make amends and reevaluate our choices in the future. It’s the “I made a mistake and I feel horrible” feeling. If we’re thinking about doing something to intentionally cause harm, guilt comes up as a warning to consider another path. That’s genuine guilt.
False guilt is when we start feeling guilty for things that aren’t actually harming anyone, that we aren’t responsible for, or that we have no control over.
False Guilt as a Saboteur
Your inner Saboteurs are those voices in your head that try to hold you in your comfort zone. They tend to crop up when you think about trying something new, doing something for yourself, or trying to shift your mindset.
Here is what the guilt Saboteurs might sound like:
- “If I think of myself first, I am selfish.”
- “If I say this, I might lose my job.”
- “I should have…”
- “I shouldn’t have”
- “I did this again…”
- “I did not do this again…”
- “It’s all my fault.”
- “I don’t have enough experience to pursue that goal/charge that amount/share that opinion.”
And guilt Saboteurs are not just voices in your mind. They can also show up as behaviours. Two extremely common ones are over-apologizing and over-justification. If you find yourself apologizing profusely for things in which you did not knowingly, willingly and intentionally cause harm… that’s a guilt Saboteur. If you often feel the need to justify or explain your choices… that’s guilt again.
It’s normal to feel hesitant or uncertain when trying to make changes in your life. But, if thoughts and behaviours like these are consistently holding you in status quo, you’ve got some restless Saboteurs that need to be checked. False guilt can be a big one.
How can we overcome the Saboteurs? To get them under control, I give them personalities. What is a saboteur personality? It’s visualizing your Saboteurs as individual beings. You might give them names and imagine what they look like. It’s really helpful in practicing to separate the Saboteur voices from your inner leader.
To identify your Saboteurs, try thinking about things you’ve been wanting to do or create, then ask yourself, “What is holding me back from taking steps towards that?” Often, it’s feelings that come up – fear, anxiety, worry, shame, anger, hurt or guilt.
These are your Saboteurs. If guilt is one of your biggest, you’re not alone.
What makes guilt a powerful Saboteur? As a Saboteur, guilt is a thief. By holding us back from what we want or what we believe is right, it robs us of our:
- Pursuit of purpose;
- Ability to be present;
- Peace of mind;
- And much more.
Not only that, guilt often brings friends along for the ride. A common one being a sense of shame. That’s powerful because shame leads to all kinds of harmful beliefs about your worth as a human being.
So… how to deal with guilt in a relationship, a business, a family, a community… ?
Like so many things in life, it comes down to taking ownership for what you can control, and learning to let go of the rest. Easier said than done, right? As a fellow guilt-recoverer, I know the struggle.
Here are 7 things that helped me get a handle on guilt and move forward:
7 Ways To Get Rid Of Guilt & Move On With Your Life
1. Separate the feeling from the facts.
Clients often ask for advice on how to stop feeling guilty. It was one of my first questions too when I realized the weight of guilt in my life. I’ve learned that a key step is to separate the feeling of guilt from the facts of the situation. Ask yourself, “What are the facts, as I know them?” Keep in mind that how another person might feel – even if you believe you know, 100%, how they will feel – is not a fact, for two reasons. First, you can never fully know another person’s inner experience. Secondly, what might happen is a prediction and not a fact. Understanding your mental models, how they create what you know to be true, and how other people’s mental models impact their truth, can help with this step.
Using the earlier example of wanting to set a boundary with a family member, the facts as you know them may simply be that this person has often brought up the topic before, you feel hurt when the topic is brought up, and you want to set a boundary. Those are the facts. You haven’t hurt anyone, you have no intention of hurting anyone, and you cannot predict the outcome.
2. Get clear on your responsibilities.
Continuing with the boundary setting example, what are you actually responsible for in that situation? You are responsible for your intention. They are responsible for their reaction. If the boundary is meant to protect you and your well-being, your intention is good, therefore you are not guilty. The other person might feel upset or hurt, but you are not responsible for that reaction or what they do with those feelings. That is their journey. Oftentimes, feelings of guilt come up when we put our own well-being first. We think (or someone tells us) we’re being selfish. But… What’s so bad about being selfish? There’s a great talk from Esther Hicks that explores this. Around the 2:25 mark she talks about selfishness and what people really mean when they accuse you of it. If this is something you struggle with, I strongly recommend checking it out. In any situation, you are responsible for your intention and how you show up. That means, you are responsible for what you say and do, how you respond to what others say and do, and what your intention is in what you say and do. That’s it.
3. Ask yourself, “Am I intending to…”*
Imagine the worst case scenario, then ask yourself if that is your intention. Often, it’s the worst case scenario that stirs up guilt. You feel guilty about creating some outcome that is entirely theoretical, and that you have no intention of creating. Ask yourself, “Am I intending to cause [worst case scenario]?” If your answer is no, then there’s nothing to feel guilty about. Ultimately, you have no control over the outcome of any decision. You can only control your intentions and how you bring them forward.*There’s an important distinction to make in a world of non-apologies from public figures who say or do offensive or hurtful things. They often use the excuse that it wasn’t their intention to cause offense. A politician making a racist or transphobic comment, a public figure promoting hateful ideals, or even someone who isn’t in the public eye, but is in a position of influence and behaves in an offensive way… they are either choosing ignorance or choosing hate and, therefore, choosing to cause harm, knowing full well the influence they have. This is different from an individual simply trying to advocate for themselves in their own life.
4. Shift out of ‘Victim’ or ‘Rescuer’ mode.
The Triangle of Disempowerment (also known as the Drama Triangle) is an incredibly common phenomenon that I have seen so many clients get caught up in. In the triangle, there are Victims, Rescuers and Persecutors. Each plays a role in keeping a story of disempowerment going. For Victims, the cards are stacked against them, they aren’t good enough, they’ll never be able to have what others have, and none of that is their fault. For Rescuers, others’ needs always come before their own and they just don’t have time for their own needs or interests. For Persecutors, the world is out to get them, so they might as well strike first. Both Victims and Rescuers can struggle with guilt as a Saboteur. Whereas a Rescuer may be driven by guilt to always put others first, a Victim may feel a weight of guilt at always having to be rescued, or not being able to help others. In both of these scenarios, guilt is sapping the person’s power over their own lives. If you identify with either the Victim or the Rescuer, there are tools here to help you better understand what’s going on, and start taking meaningful steps in a more empowering direction.
5. Let go of the outcome.
Letting go of outcomes goes hand-in-hand with getting clear on your intentions. This can be especially true when you feel guilt around someone else’s thoughts or feelings.
A great practice for this is non-attachment. Practicing non-attachment means detaching your sense of self-worth from things outside yourself. No matter what choice you make, what happens around you as a result is entirely out of your control. Why attach your self-worth to something you can’t control? Get yourself into the CEO seat of your life. You control your intentions, your choices, and how you show up. Let. The rest. Go.
Let’s say you need to fire someone. It’s normal and human to feel guilt in that situation. You can have that feeling AND not let it guide your decisions or self-worth. Chances are, this is not a spiteful firing. Maybe the company is having cuts, or the person is underperforming. You aren’t firing them with the intention of creating a negative outcome. In fact, you have no idea what the outcome will be. They may go on to find a much better job that’s more aligned with their values, personality and life goals. They may decide to further their education. For all you know, they may have been waiting for their severance package so that they could pursue something different! You are responsible for your intentions and how you show up. Not the outcome.
6. Reframe your mindset around self-care.
I’ve lost count of the number of clients I’ve worked with who have neglected their own self-care because of guilt. And I count myself among those numbers. Often, there’s a belief that what we want or need for ourselves is not as important as everything outside ourselves, or that we’ll get to our own needs at some point in future (which we never seem to arrive at).What’s inside you informs what’s outside you. Taking care of everything inside you absolutely will have a domino effect on everything around you. You are a valid and worthy priority. Self-care, which includes everything from relaxation, to health, to personal development, and beyond (your entire assessment wheel, essentially) is not selfish. It’s as important to being human as fuel is to getting a car moving.
7. Ask yourself, “How is guilt serving me?” This can be a difficult question to grapple with. Anytime we consistently struggle with a limiting emotion or belief, there’s always a flipside. Yes, it’s holding us back and we don’t like it, but we’re also getting something out of the deal. That’s why it has such a strong hold on us. Think about an area of your life where you feel guilt, then ask yourself, “How is the guilt serving me?” It may be providing you a sense of security, comfort or familiarity. Maybe it’s giving you an excuse to avoid something that scares you. Maybe it’s supporting a persona you feel you need to uphold. I read an article recently from Executive Coach Leslie Williams, where she talked about guilt “masquerading as virtue”, which can be especially common for women (but can also be experienced by anyone). If you grew up with the message that good girls don’t make a fuss, or taking care of yourself is selfish or high maintenance, guilt may be enabling your pursuit of that virtuous ideal. But, as Williams says, “The world needs your boldness.”
Guilt is an internal feeling, but it has a ripple effect that impacts all areas of your life, causing guilt to show up almost anywhere. Guilt isn’t a good feeling in the body. It’s so understandable that you’d try to avoid it. The problem is, any feeling you try to shove under the rug will only expand and trip you. When you choose, instead, to confront guilt, it begins to lessen. Its impact gets smaller and that makes room for other feelings to make themselves known. Feelings like pride, confidence, self-acceptance, compassion and courage.
It’s one of our greatest failings as a society that anyone is made to feel guilty for trying to take ownership of their own life. The only way we can correct that is by taking conscious steps towards shifting our own mindsets, changing the way we show up for ourselves, and changing the way we show up for others.
If you would like help dealing with guilt, I invite you to connect with me.