Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Guilt: How to Learn from Our Mistakes and Move On

A couple weeks ago we talked about everyday forgiveness, or making a practice of forgiving the little annoyances and judgments we experience on a daily basis. This week, I wanted to address the issue of guilt, or how we hold onto unforgiveness toward ourselves for things we've done, or think we've done. (Note the following distinction between guilt and shame: guilt is about what you do, while shame is about who you are.)

I had the opportunity, yesterday, of spending time with a terminally ill woman and her husband. Probably because of old religious conditioning, Elsie believed that when she transitioned out of this life, she would not be welcomed at the pearly gates. She vaguely referred to "mistakes" she had made in her life, but wouldn't elaborate. Her husband became annoyed, and said, "Oh, for God's sake, Elsie, you're practically a Saint. What mistakes could you possibly have made that would make you think you were going to hell?" Elsie looked at him, surprised. After all, he knew her better than anyone else had.

On a personal level, this made me consider what guilt I might be holding onto that would follow me to the grave. Interestingly, the only thing that came to mind was an isolated (parenting) incident that anyone who heard the story would quickly forgive. I found this interesting, because, like any human being, I've probably done my share of damage, but this mothering faux pas was the only thing that really "stuck."

As I thought about it, I realized that guilt is completely subjective and unreliable as a record of what we did or who we are. I thought of the "life reviews" I've so often read about in hypnotherapy case studies of life after death, near death accounts, etc., and realized that the incident I felt most guilty about wouldn't even appear in my life review, except as an example of how I had been too hard on myself. What would more likely appear were the unconscious ways I had behaved or affected people, both positively and negatively. Fascinating.

And I imagined that the perceived mistakes Elsie had made in her life were in the same category. The supposedly poor judgments, or times she broke the rules, or situations where she had adversely affected others, were probably just landmarks designating where she had learned what not to do. But instead of extracting these important lessons and moving forward, she had held onto them. Maybe that was her only actual "mistake."

The Purpose of Guilt

Guilt is an important human emotion, because it lets us know when or how we've gone against our own values. It's actually very personalized and doesn't reflect how good or bad of a person you've been, as some might think. It's all in our perception.

Feeling guilt is valuable to us in the short term, but not in the long term. Like fear, anger, or jealousy, guilt gives us a "heads up" so we can make adjustments or right our path, but isn't useful as a permanent fixture in our psyches. In fact, guilt that has taken root can downgrade into shame, or even make us complacent in the role of perpetrator: "If I'm a bad person, I might as well act like one..." (I've often seen this play out with people who, as children, were taught concepts such as original sin).

Moving On

Naturally, the cure to releasing guilt and moving forward is to work through these thoughts and feelings and find a way to forgive yourself for not being perfect. As mentioned, it's important to acknowledge where you believe you went wrong, and learn from that. You might need to make amends to yourself or another. (Even if that person is no longer on the planet, you can still apologize. He/she will receive the message loud and clear). But know that whether or not others forgive you is their business, not yours. Ultimately, your business is between you and your Higher Self or God.