The Burden of Guilt
“Take a walk through the garden of forgiveness and pick a flower of forgiveness for everything you have ever done. When you get to that time that is now, make a full and total forgiveness of your entire life and smile at the bouquet in your hands because it truly is beautiful” ― Stephen Richards
In a recent article, we wrote about the power of forgiveness in a situation where you have been hurt by the actions of another.
What about when the perpetrator is you?
When others become hurt or upset as a result of our actions, we often feel great remorse – especially if that outcome is not what we intended. Often, we are so caught up in our own unconscious need to preserve all that we have worked for and so that we feel safe that we are not even aware of any adverse effect of our actions on those around us. When this happens, the fact that we have caused offence can come as a shock to us. On other occasions we are well aware that what we are doing is causing harm, but we make the conscious decision that the actions are necessary and go ahead anyway. This behaviour is usually accompanied by a good deal of compensatory chat such as
“I’m not being awful but…”
“I don’t mean to be rude but….”
“I’m sorry but…..”
Here, our words are not aligned with our intentions, but they arise because we feel that we must say something to excuse or account for the behaviour that we know will cause damage but that we are going through with anyway. These are contaminated messages. You can read more about these and how to deal with them in the following two articles:
What about when we are acting in a way that we know will cause harm and we do not feel in the slightest bit sorry? Well, this is an article about forgiving the Self and so that would be a whole other topic.
Remorse is defined as a deep regret or guilt for a wrong committed.
When we feel remorse, we are projecting ourselves into the pain of another person just as we do when we engage in empathy. We are wise if we do this as a conscious choice rather than as an automatic default. This is because, when we project, we experience a similar dose of stress hormones as the person whose distress, we have caused. We cannot understand exactly how they are feeling because we do not share their unique genetic blueprint or set of childhood and life experiences. We can only imagine how we would feel if we were in their position. Read more about this here:
As we outlined in our previous article on forgiveness, it may be useful to the injured party that we show remorse. It is not, however useful to us to remain stuck in a persistent state of guilt where we continuously revisit the incident and re-experience those unpleasant emotions and the stress chemicals that accompany them. This is harmful to our wellbeing and not productive in resolving the issue for anyone.
Once we have taken responsibility for our actions and expressed remorse, we can ask the recipient of our behaviour whether there is anything further that they need to reduce their distress. We can then decide whether we can meet those needs, at the same time, understanding that the fact that someone has been hurt as a result of our actions is actually their stuff. We may know that what we did was not acceptable but the fact that it served to trigger another person into unhappiness may point them towards some inner work that they can do to bolster their own resilience and protect their wellbeing in future.
It is most definitely not our place to point this out to them.
Once we are sure that we have done all that we can do to minimise the damage caused, we can then examine the situation in terms of harvesting the lessons.
What caused to behave in this way was almost certainly brought about by fear. This might be a fear of losing something such as a relationship, our reputation, status or possessions. Here Ego may have stepped in to safeguard those things that are important to us. This is not a bad thing – rather it is a mechanism for preserving what keeps up safe. Without it we look like prey.
Read more about Ego here:
Whatever led to us behaving the way that we did, there is valuable information to be gleaned about the Self. We might be able to recognise what triggered us and why. For example, we were embarrassed because we were shown to be vulnerable or to have failed at something. We might have been irritated by the behaviour of another because it reflected something that we deeply dislike about the Self which we had expertly hidden. Read more about this here:
The more that we learn about the Self from adverse situations, the more impervious we are to stressors the outside world.
Once we have done the necessary work we must let go.
Holding on to remorse and guilt is destructive and damaging to the psyche. It distorts the thoughts and causes us to create stories or narratives about the Self that are not true. For example
I am a bad person
I am not worthy of friendship
These are thoughts which will become beliefs, and which will drive negative behavioural cycles and create negative consequences for us. In fact, they will become self-fulfilling.
The next time that feel that you have hurt somebody, press pause:
· Sit with the emotion
Gently and compassionately sit with the emotion that has been generated within you. This will be a body experience. Where in your body do you feel it? Let it be heard.
· Take responsibility
Accept responsibility for your part in the situation. Let go of the need to defend your position. Own your behaviour despite the sense of discomfort that arises from seeing a part of yourself that is vulnerable.
· Voice your remorse
Communicate clearly to the injured party that you accept that they have been hurt as a result of your actions. You do not need to give an explanation of what led to your behaviour. Simply Own your actions and voice your remorse for how the other person felt about them
· Ask what is needed
Aske the injured party what they need and consciously whether those measures are appropriate for you to take.
· Do the work
Understand that your actions have come about as a result of a need to feel safe. Curiously explore that need with kindness towards the Self. Allow this process to have been instrumental in your becoming more conscious of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours in future. Explore also how you might chose differently next time.
· Let go
Now detach. Let go of any harmful emotions such as guilt or sadness. You have felt them fully and you have done all that you can do for the injured party. Let go of the thinking and analysis. You have harvested the lessons and processed the event. You are free!
For more insights and a host of tools and techniques for exploring the Self and improving your human experience see our book: