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Stress and guilt and forgiving yourself
Guilt, like any other emotion, is your internal GPS. It’s your conscience speaking when you have not respected your moral compass. It’s a sign to do something different, and to apologize for the misbehaviour.
Unfortunately, many of us, while born with an intact moral compass, have grown up in ways that put that compass out of whack. It overfunctions so we find ourselves feeling guilty even when we have not done anything wrong because we inherited our parent’s guilt. It’s passed through generations and it shows up as toxic guilt.
We can feel guilty for not meeting the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves, whether it’s about something we did when we did not know better or how we don’t manage to keep up today, also called the Superwoman or Superman syndrome. We can so so feel guilty when we get involved with people who are masters of manipulation, have unrealistic expectations of us and always blame others.
One particularly insidious form of toxic guilt (the non-real type), comes from having grown up in a dysfunctional home – home with either parental alcoholism, mental illness, violence, neglect, etc. This makes us prone to feeling responsible for others because it was a responsibility put on us (being parentified) when our parents were less than able to mentally and emotionally take care of our needs.
This inherited toxic guilt (and shame too) makes us work harder and harder to please and to take care of other people’s emotions, leaving our needs out of the equation.
I worked in the field of addiction for over 20 years. Mostly with women, addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs, including prescription drugs. One common theme in addiction is guilt – about 100% of my clients carried guilt. For having used, i.e. done drugs or drunk, for having neglected their kids, spouse, friends, jobs, finances. Guilt figured highly in the time we spent together. Guilt also figured largely in the lives of my clients as it was often a huge trigger for a binge or a relapse.
While they had an extremely hard time and strong resistance to forgiving themselves, these same women were extremely generous – sometimes too generous – excusing other people’s behaviours. Often very abusive behaviours.
This difficulty forgiving ourselves is not limited to the world of addiction. If you ask 10 people around you whether they have a hard time forgiving themselves, most will say yes. And those same people will say it’s a lot easier to forgive others. Maybe you too will admit you find it easier to forgive others than to forgive yourself. I often have to talk to myself when I see myself starting to beat myself up. The good news I now catch it pretty quickly and you can too.
Holding on from truly forgiving does affect more than our moods. Whether we don’t make peace with what someone did or we did, those repressed emotions of anger, hurt, pain are stored in the body and it affects our health.
What is the difference between forgiving and making excuses, also called pseudo-forgiveness? And why is it important to know the difference and make sure we truly forgive ourselves?
Why does self-forgiveness sound so self indulgent to so many people? Like I said at the beginning, when we grow up we have to be responsible because we cannot count on the adults in our life, there is a good chance we don’t always succeed and this unfair burden sets the stage for not feeling good enough. This in turn makes us feel we have to try harder to feel worthy and not feeling worthy makes it very hard to even think about letting ourselves off the hook when we don’t reach perfection.
You don’t need to be abused or like Rhonda Britten, author of Fearless Living, to see your dad gun your mother down and then turn the gun on himself. It can be living day in and day out with a workaholic dad, or an alcoholic mom, or dad, like losing a parent in childhood, or like me, being sent to live with relatives for a year because my mom was sick.
For someone else it can be because money was tight and they did not have as much as the neibourhood kids or being the youngest of a big family and feel like an afterthought. Or a thousand other reasons you felt you did not measure up. So instead of believing you made a mistake, you start feeling you are a mistake. A loser. A no-good nobody.
Imagine the fear of looking inward when you believe you are a mistake or that you are so bad (because that’s what abuse led you to believe) that you don’t deserve to feel good, to let yourself off the hook, to find some peace and happiness.
What real forgiveness is not is minimizing what happened “it was not so bad”, making generalizations “it happens to everybody”, too early “understanding” “he was doing his best”, “that’s how it was done then”, etc
Real forgiveness involves a very profound reflection and holding our pain, touching it and grieving the loss of what did or did not happen and the effect it has had on our life. It’s a painful process – although it does not have to be long. I remember the moment I did it for my being sent away from from my parents when I was 9 years old. I cried what I had not cried at 9. I extended empathy for the child I was then, feeling alone and scared. It left me raw for a couple of days, then it started healing.
The important aspect is we must acknowledge the effect, acknowledge the pain and often the anger, instead of using humour or other means to push it away. The same holds true for forgiving ourselves. Which is not like saying “oh, well, it happens”, or “too bad”. Forgiving ourselves also involves an interior voyage to touch the guilt and often the shame associated with what we either did or did not do. It involves acknowledging our responsibility for what happened and then choosing to forgive ourselves for our own sake and that of those around us.
In the process of forgiving ourselves, it’s important to take responsibility only for our behaviours and avoid taking the responsibility of others. This is especially important for those of us who have a big tendency to feel responsible for everything. Most likely if you are reading this, you may fall in that category since people who never feel responsible seldom read personal growth material.
So, how are you going to do it? To forgive others but first of all, to forgive yourself ? The first step is to look at whether you are guilty of anything. Did you do something wrong and did you do it willfully? If you did not do it willfully, you are still responsible but you are not guilty of anything. Guilt implies that there was an intent. No intent no guilt. Second, do you tend to feel guilty and to take on the sins of the world, or your family and friends? Here you have to look at whether you are the scapegoat of the family or whether you are dealing with a narcissist or a sociopath. Those are the people who never, but never feel guilty. How to recognize them: they never apologize or do it quick without feeling, with a “whatever” thrown in to signify they are just placating you. Then go gently, very gently. You are going to have to make the decision to love yourself unconditionally – that is with all that you find wrong and ugly in you, including those things you don’t want to forgive.
If you did willfully commit an act that constitutes a crime, then as Mira Kirshenbaum explains, put yourself on trial and decide on an appropriate sentence. If you can repay or make amends to whoever you hurt, do so if it is safe to do. If not you can make a donation to a charity or commit to doing volunteer work for a certain amount of time. And then, you have to let it go. The same way you let go and make peace with other people’s misbehaviours, you do with yourself too.
The bottom line is it all starts with loving yourself and that requires a big decision. There is no way around it. And blindly. With a leap of faith. Trusting that what you have done up to now has not worked and trusting that what I say is true and is backed by science: self-compassion and self-forgiveness is essential for your health.
While alcoholics and addicts go and relapse when they don’t forgive themselves, you may just continue stuffing yourself with junk food . Sweets (and alcohol) give a physical energy spike which translates into an emotional energy spike. It’s also called medicating your emotions. Or maybe you will continue shopping too much, sleeping too much, or not enough, or gambling, or somehow sabotaging yourself and your happiness.
If you find it difficult to do the self-forgiving, give yourself a gift and find a qualified counselor, psychologist or psychotherapist to help you so you can unload that unfair family baggage. You will breathe easier and you will have more to give to your loved ones.
Let me know how you plan to unload that heavy “guilt” baggage.
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