Guilt Isn’t A Thing; It’s A Pattern Of Thinking - Grasshopper
How guilty can you feel? You didn't have to be brought up by a Jewish mother or raised Catholic to answer. We all feel guilt. And although it's a noun, it's not a thing.
The frame of mind known as guilt is often used as a motivator to get us to do something we think we should, yet don't want to do. Here's a little secret: Motivation produced by guilt produces more guilt, not more motivation.
Guilt is also produced by judging a past action by a present level of awareness. You think about something you did that, if you had to do it over again, you would now do it differently. That is something we all do that can act as self-correcting reflection OR it can be a pathway to unproductive guilt.
My favorite example is this one: You come home from work after a "trying" day and you encounter your children at play. They're just being the kids they normally are, doing the things they normally do, but on this night their behavior is annoying to you.
You shout out, "quiet down!" and the children quietly slink off.
Fifteen minutes later you are much calmer and realize that you overreacted. The kids were just being kids. You start to feel guilty about your behavior and the guilt starts to feed a narrative of how lousy a parent you are, and you are on your way to feeling worse than when you walked through the door – guilt producing more guilt.
We talk about guilt as though it were a solid entity – a thing. It's only a frame of mind that, if left unchecked, multiplies into a blob of bad feelings.
To stop your guilty feelings in their tracks takes some noticing and some action. Notice the narrative in your head that's beginning to cause guilty feelings. Just noticing that you're "thinking guilty" is often enough to stop its progression. But taking action regarding your past actions insures that guilt goes away.
One of the most productive guilt removal actions we rarely use is an apology. In the case of yelling at the kids, you might say, "Hey guys, I'm sorry I yelled at you when I came home. You didn't do anything to deserve that and I'm sorry." It's truly amazing to me how heartfelt, unqualified apologies make guilt disappear.
You can also apologize to yourself. Let's pretend that you're beating yourself up for not doing what you think you 'should' do. If you play that scenario out to its natural conclusion, you'd be in a constant state of guilt. What if you begin to notice that your guilty thoughts are creeping up on you, and then you apologize to yourself for measuring yourself against a standard that cannot be achieved – perfection – for example, being the perfect husband, wife, father, mother, daughter, son, etc.
When you use the "perfect" measuring stick, guilt will always ensue. When you apologize to yourself for expecting perfection, your guilty feelings begin to melt and fade away.
If you stop treating guilt as a thing and notice it to be a pattern of thinking instead, you'll make the necessary apologies and clear the guilt out of your head.
All the best,
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