Overcoming the Burden of Guilt
When something terrible happens to you that causes you to be constantly fearful or ashamed, a deep level of guilt can begin to take root. Guilt can keep you from seeking out and experiencing the joy you so desperately need to fully heal by making you feel as if you don’t deserve it.
Everyone feels guilt once in a while, but if you’re a trauma survivor, it becomes a part of you. Suddenly all the mistakes you’ve ever made (or think you’ve made) start to overwhelm you.
You can feel guilty for what you did. You can feel guilty for what you didn’t do. For knowing better and making a bad decision – or for not knowing better and making that same decision. You can feel guilt for being a victim, and for being a survivor.
The point is that if you are compelled to feel guilty, you will. You don’t always need a reasonable reason to feel that way. You’ll find one, and it will stand in the way of your happiness. Learning to let go can enable you to go further than you ever thought possible! Try this exercise to help loosen the grip of guilt:
Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and draw a line down the middle. Set your timer for thirty seconds; on one side of the line, write down as many things as you can that make you feel guilty. Now do this again on the other side of the line, only this time write down the things that make you feel proud.
Which list is longer?
Look at your list again. Mark out every line on your Guilt list that involves circumstances that were beyond your control. Don’t over think it.
Now mark out every line on your Guilt list that involves any amount of unreasonable resourcefulness on your part. Done? Good!
Now cross off any incident that would have required you to have anything that you didn’t already have in your possession at the time in order to change the outcome. Include knowledge, physical ability, money, time, a weapon, a support system.
An easy way to look at it would be to say to yourself, “If only I would have had/known [that one thing]…” If you didn’t have or know that one thing, then cross it off your list.
Your Guilt List should be growing smaller, but we’re not done yet. There’s one more.
Cross off every line in which you feel that you contributed to a bad situation by ignoring your gut instinct, intuition, common sense, or went against your better judgment. Also mark off things that were a result of (or resulted in) unintended consequences on your part.
Now your Guilt List is most certainly quite a bit shorter than it was before you started. As short as it may be, if you are a human being (and I’m going to go out on a limb here and presume you are), there are probably still some things on there for which you are, at least in part, accountable for.
As regrettable and unpleasant as those things may be, go ahead and take responsibility for them now. Don’t lose yourself to thinking about what a terrible person you must be, or the damage you might have inflicted. Keep it short. Own it, but don’t live in it. Stay with me here.
Consider the things that may have driven you to make that bad decision, to deliberately do something to cause harm, or to willingly participate in something you knew to be wrong – and immediately follow-up that thought with the affirmation that if you were presented with the same situation as the person you are today, right now, at this very moment, that you would choose differently.
Take a minute to give yourself credit for both the lessons you have learned and the growth you’ve experienced that now enable you to be a wiser person, capable of making better choices. If in doing this you think of a few things that belong on the Proud List, go ahead and add them on.
Now maybe you’re sitting there thinking “That wasn’t so hard, but I don’t feel any better.” Hang in there! You’re almost done, and the hard part is just ahead.
Many people initially believe that the most difficult part of this exercise is taking the time to accept responsibility for some of the things you may have done in your life. In reality, looking at the things that cause us to feel guilty is quite easy, especially if you struggle with guilt on a daily basis. It requires very little effort to wallow in our own heartaches and failings.
It’s as if repeatedly inflicting the pain of guilt upon ourselves is a suitable punishment by which we can eventually be absolved of our wrong-doings. Or that if we don’t continue to hang onto the ache of regret, we never really were sorry to begin with.
That’s where we get stuck. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
So here is the hard part. If you can do this, really do it – it will change your life.
Take the pen that you hold in your hand and mark a big “X” over your entire Guilt List. You’re not erasing it. After all, we can’t erase the past.
Now at the bottom of your Guilt list, underneath all the gunk and pain of the past, write the following:
“I forgive myself”
Say it out loud, even if it feels like you don’t mean it. If it feels like you can’t, close your eyes and simply imagine speaking the words. Hear them in your own voice, and consider what it might feel like if you really COULD forgive yourself. If it were just that easy.
“I forgive myself”
Let that feeling wash over you. Imagine the relief. The freedom. What would it be like to feel the weight of those burdens being lifted? Do it again.
“I forgive myself”
Take what you need, and leave the rest. It’s time to move on.
Tear your paper in half along the line you drew. On one half you’ll be holding your Guilt List. The other your Pride.
Leave your Pride on the table and crumple up your Guilt List into a ball with both hands. This little ball of Guilt has no place in your life. Not anymore.
Throw it in the garbage where it belongs.
You’ve learned the lessons you needed to learn. Breathe, and let the pain go. It doesn’t belong to you anymore.
Now you have one more thing to add to your Proud List: ‘I am forgiving’.
- the forgiveness of others is not required in order to forgive yourself
- you can forgive yourself while still taking responsibility for your own actions
- forgiving yourself helps you learn to forgive others more easily
- the lessons that can be learned from our mistakes are clouded by the grudges we hold against ourselves, resulting in repeating the same mistake over and over again
It’s your choice to make, and only you can make it.
Let go of the pain, and your life will change. It’s amazing how different the world looks without old guilt distorting the view. You can do it.