Guilt. Is there anyone alive who hasn’t felt their stomach churn and their face burn with it? Of course, sometimes guilt is well-deserved. Bringing work issues home and then snarling at a loving spouse, yelling at the kids, and kicking the puppy should make a person feel guilty.
All too often, though, we feel guilty when we shouldn’t. A former coworker told me that for years after his schizophrenic adult son committed suicide, his brain played a continuous loop of scenes from the last years of his son’s life. He would, he told me, slow the scenes down and examine every scene, every bit of conversation, each piece of body language, as if he could somehow find out where he went wrong and what he should have done differently so that his son would still be alive. Even though the son was not living in the family home — was in fact living in a medical facility under 24-hour watch at the time of his suicide — my coworker still felt responsible. And racked with guilt.
A friend recently shared that when she and her husband both lost their jobs within a few months of each other five years ago, causing them to eventually file for bankruptcy and lose their home, she would lie awake at night cataloguing all of the “frivolous” spending she had done that had prevented them from having enough savings to weather the 18 months of unemployment followed by the years of jobs paying significantly less than they had earned before. She spent many sleepless nights tallying up how much she spent on monthly manicures and visits to the beauty shop ever 8 weeks, for example. One particularly difficult night, she mentally relived the family’s week-long trip to Walt Disney World eight years before the bankruptcy, tabulating every single thing they purchased, right down to a $5 refillable drink mug for each of the 4 family members. “I know it sounds silly,” she told me with a wry smile, “but I couldn’t turn off the guilt machine.”
I’ve been there myself. Not in regard to my husband’s illness and passing; I honestly never felt guilty about that. No, for me, the guilty feelings have come more recently. I have a home I love and that I wouldn’t be in if my husband was still alive. Because of my current job — which I only needed and sought because my husband passed away — I’ve gone on several trips that I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve tried new things and had experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I’m currently laying the groundwork to move to a part of the country where I’ve always wanted to live, something that would be impossible if my husband was still alive. Sometimes, smack in the middle of a great moment — strolling along 5th Avenue in New York, for example — I am struck by the thought that I shouldn’t be having such a great time, that I’m only having this great time because my husband passed away.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I have any reason to feel guilty. So how can a person deal with feelings of guilt in a healthy manner? I’ve read quite a bit on the subject, talked to others who have walked this path, and, of course, have personal experience to draw on, and here’s what I’ve found.
1. It’s important to remember that guilt is a feeling and that feelings involve choice. While we cannot change life’s circumstances, we can change our view of them and our reaction to them. It is often helpful to spend some time contemplating the types of situations in which you are more prone to feeling guilty. If there is a pattern — for example, guilt feelings burgeon on holidays — prepare for those events ahead of time by using one or more of the strategies that follow.
2. Examine your thoughts in light of the truth. For example, it may be true that if you hadn’t lost your job your children would still be attending private school and living in that nice big house on Martin Drive. But it’s also true that *you* did not cause the economic downturn, *you* did not sell the company to a huge conglomerate, and *you* did not purchase and then move the company to a foreign country. It’s also true that you took a vacation, *but* there was absolutely nothing wrong with taking a vacation that was well within your means; you had no way of predicting the future and knowing that years later you would lose your job. Do not allow lies such as “It’s all my fault. If we hadn’t spent $3000 on a trip to WDW we wouldn’t have lost the house” to take root. That $3000 might have kept you in your home a few more months, nothing more.
3. Replace guilt-inducing mistruths with healthy truths. Instead of “If only I hadn’t asked him to go to the grocery store and pick up some milk, he wouldn’t have been in the accident and wouldn’t be in a coma”, remind yourself that your significant other was in a car that was struck by a drunk driver who ran a red light. That drunk driver is responsible. Period.
4. Call upon your faith system. For me, that involves prayer and memorizing Scriptures (or writing them in a section in my planner) that comfort me and bring peace.
5. Call upon a trusted friend or group of friends. Sharing that you feel guilty may be difficult for you, and that’s understandable. However, it may be very helpful to have another person’s perspective and to have a go-to person who can help you adjust your thought processes when necessary.
6. Experiment to find other techniques that work for you. For me, journalling is very cathartic. For you, it might be meditation or exercise or something entirely different.
7. Turn the situation around, putting a loved one in your shoes. For example, imagine your daughter sharing with you that she feels guilty that her husband cheated on her and then divorced her. What would you say to her? Now, say that to yourself.
8. Consult a professional. Of course, “professional” could mean different things — grief counselor, pastor/priest/rabbi/other religious leader, therapist, etc.
Have I completely eradicated guilt from my own life? Not entirely. But I have found that by utilizing some of these techniques, I’m much better at identifying it, replacing guilt-producing thoughts with truth, and choosing healthier emotional responses.
Do you have any suggestions to add? If so, please share them either through a comment (below) or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.