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  • Brynnan Reddy

A Tale of Two Guilts

What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word “guilt”? Dread? Doom and gloom? For me, I get a big pit in my stomach. Things start moving around in there, and sometimes I feel like I’m going to be sick. I notice my heart beats a little bit faster, and it feels like my breath gets caught in my throat. And if I let myself sit with such a strong emotion for too long, I may even feel a little depressed.

There’s a good chance if you’re reading this post, you’ve experienced guilt at one point or another in your life. Of all of the emotions we experience in our lives, guilt is definitely a hard one. Guilt often leaves us stumped and stuck in a place of suffering for far longer than necessary.

Let’s talk for a minute about the two forms of guilt I see not only in myself, but in the clients that come to my practice. First there is JUSTIFIED guilt, and then there is UNJUSTIFIED guilt.

Let’s break those down a bit. Justified guilt is experienced most often when we feel guilt for a legitimate reason. Perfect examples: 1) accidentally backing into a car in a parking lot and leaving before you check out the damage, then ruminating on the feeling that maybe it would have been better to leave a note for the other driver, 2) losing your cool with a loved one over something that in the long run isn’t such a big deal, then feeling guilty for the way you handled the conversation, 3) doing a homework assignment for your kid who was too busy with sports practice, but then feeling ashamed when the teacher finds out he didn’t do his own work. You get the idea.

Unjustified guilt is that feeling we get when we “should” be doing something different. Let me give you a few examples of this unjustified guilt, and ask yourself if you’ve ever experienced something like this. 1) Taking time for yourself after a really hard week, rather than helping a friend move into a new apartment on your only day off from work, 2) Setting a boundary with a friend or family member who creates a stressful environment for you, 3) Basically any and every thought related to parenthood where you think you “should” be doing something differently (you can insert your own “should” here…in my opinion Mom Guilt is unjustified guilt at its finest).

So what do we do with all of this guilt we are dragging around with us? If your guilt is justified, address it. Apologize for hurt feelings. Repair transgressions. Accept the consequences from your actions gracefully. And as best possible, acknowledge and accept the experience and move on.

If you’re experiencing unjustified guilt, DO IT ANYWAY. What?! What do you mean, “do it anyway”? I can relate to what you may be thinking, because I’m sure I’ve had similar thoughts: “But what if I set a boundary with someone and that person gets mad at me for telling them no?”, “But what if I need my friend’s help in the future and they don’t help me because I couldn’t help them?”, “But what if my child misses me while I’m gone, or is upset about me being away, or I miss something really important?” Most of the time, unjustified guilt is unnecessary. It is connected to irrational thoughts that are not based in truth. And focusing on irrational thinking and believing what it tells us keeps us stuck in the suffering.

Here’s the thing. Unjustified guilt is most often connected to our need for self care. Setting boundaries…HEALTHY. Taking time away from the kids so you don’t absolutely lose it…HEALTHY. Not helping a friend who contacts you at the last minute when really your only “plan” for the night is drinking wine and watching Netflix because it has been one doozy of a week…HEALTHY. These are all examples of self-care. And without taking care of ourselves, we can’t care for others. I often think of self-care as taking time to fill my own water glass before sharing it with others. (I know, I know. You aren’t supposed to let others drink after you, but hey, I’m a mom. We rarely get the luxury of a glass without kid germs.) Think about it. If I don’t keep my glass full, what are my kids going to drink the 18,000 times they ask for a sip out of MY cup instead of the one that is sitting right in front of them?

Even if it doesn’t come naturally, you have to be willing to push forward with the actions related to unjustified guilt. Short-term pain for long-term gain. Chances are it will feel scary. There’s a strong possibility it will feel uncomfortable. But pushing through the guilt means taking a leap of faith in pursuit of long-term emotional well-being. Approach, don’t avoid. And I’ll be happy to hear just how far this new “DO IT ANYWAY” mantra takes you!

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