Guilt. Guilt! Nagging, painful GUILT!
“Look what I did! Why do I keep doing that? I hurt their feelings. I hurt myself. I’m such a jerk / idiot / fool / weakling / (fill in word of your choice here)!”
I’m not perfect, are you? I’ll go ahead and handle that for you: the answer is NO!
So why do we sometimes act like we are supposed to be perfect?
Here you are, trying to be a better person by being more kind to others / breaking that addiction / controlling your anger / forgiving that person / taking better care of your health / (fill in good deed here), and time after time you fall flat on your face. SMACK! Down again!
Rather than kicking yourself when you’re down and wallowing in frustration or hopelessness, why don’t you try a different approach? You know you’re going to mess up sometimes, so cut yourself a break, get up, dust yourself off, and move on.
By cutting yourself a break, I don’t mean give up on your goals. I’m saying when you fail, do what you can to correct the matter — admit your mistake, ask forgiveness from those you’ve wronged, do your best to clean up the aftermath of your deeds — then move forward with new resolve.
A bumbling red-headed spitfire of a girl, who was always making mistakes, said that quote in L.M. Montgomery’s book Anne of Green Gables. If anyone had the need to rid herself of guilt and move forward, it would be this little imaginary orphan who was constantly letting her temper and her mouth get the better of her. It’s a sweet story that I recommend if you’ve never read it. There are several wonderful movies based on the Anne book series, as well.
You don’t have to wait until tomorrow for a fresh start, though. It’s a better idea to let go of guilt now and move on. Fall down, get up. Fall down, get up. Think of it as mental or spiritual exercise!
Hanging on to guilt over mistakes or poor choices you’ve made does nothing except cause you to be miserable and, in my opinion, makes you more likely to make the same choice again.
Let’s use anger, for example. Let’s say most of my life, I’ve fought a battle with anger, but I’ve decided I want a more peaceful, calm life by controlling my temper from now on.
I start the day fresh, speaking politely to my family at breakfast, even though the kids were noisily jumping around and knocked my cup of coffee into my lap. A new pair of pants later, I’m off to work; no problem!
The light turns green as I pull up to an intersection on the way to work, but a little old lady in a battleship of a car just sits there. Sigh…I’m not going to honk…Come on, lady, let’s go…Yay, she’s moving. Hey, I kept my cool! I can do this.
At work, my boss belittles me in front of my coworkers. The battery on my phone dies while I’m having an important conversation. Things were tough at the office, and I had to work an hour late…I just want to go home and unwind…And, I get a flat tire on the way home.
Tired, cranky, and covered with filth from changing the tire, I finally make it home. I did pretty well today; held my tongue, lots of deep breaths, no explosions. Yes, one day down. I can do this.
I walk in the door to see two kids screaming while pulling each other’s hair, the dog left a “present” in the middle of the living room carpet, and even though I’m an hour-and-a-half late, there is no dinner waiting for my hungry stomach.
My eyes bulge, my mouth opens, and…here we go! I explode in wrath! I know I’ll regret this later, but…What’s a person to do? I’m only human, right? A person can only take so much, right?
So, what’s supposed to happen the next morning when I (hopefully) wake up in a better frame of mind? After making the appropriate apologies and corrections for my behavior, I’ve done all I can do about that particular incident. I must then take my focus off feelings of guilt and start this day fresh again with a clean slate and with a plan of action in place.
You see, bad habits and choices do not just disappear by applying enough sheer will power. Getting rid of a bad habit or choice leaves a vacuum in your life that must be filled. Dwelling on your problems and feeding on guilt will refill the vacuum with the same junk you’re working so hard to remove from your life!
What’s supposed to go into this so-called vacuum? That’s up to you and depends upon what you are feeling guilty about. Your goal should not be merely to remove unwanted choices and actions, but to replace them with better ones.
Breaking your shackles of guilt can come through implementing a well-defined plan of action — nothing elaborate, necessarily, but something very specific and concrete.
The benefits will multiply even more if you write down your personal plan of action for overcoming bad habits, weakness, or guilt. Read it out loud several times per day, and even hang your written plan on your bathroom mirror, fridge, or other place where you will see it every day.
Make your plan a positive affirmation. Don’t tell yourself something like “I’m not going to lose my temper anymore.” What are you picturing in your mind when you say that? You’re picturing yourself being angry, which is exactly what you want to eliminate, not focus on! Rather than a negative (“I will not…”), you should find a positive action on which to focus.
Design for yourself positive plans of action similar to these:
- “Whenever I’m feeling sorry for myself, I will go call a friend and ask about their day.” (or go do a chore for a neighbor, or go visit someone in a hospital or nursing home)
- “Every time I feel the urge to smoke a cigarette, I will chew a stick of gum instead.” (or get a drink of water, or go for a walk)
- “Every time I feel anger growing within me, I will take a deep breath and think of three things I love about the person I’m with.” (It’s harder to be angry with someone while thinking about how much you appreciate them, right?)
- “If I start to think bitterly about the wrong that person did to me, I will stop and pray blessings for that person.” (or sing my favorite song out loud, or write down several good things I’ve seen the person do)
- “When I start to grab some junk food to eat, I will go do 10 jumping jacks and then find an activity to do outside or in another room.”
Rather than being dragged down by guilt over your past, focus on your new goals and move forward in a positive direction. It won’t work perfectly at first, but positive thinking will eventually lead to positive actions.
One last tip: If you are truly wanting to remove bad habits, bad choices, or burdensome guilt from your daily life, SECRECY can become one of your greatest enemies and enablers.
“BUT I CAN DO THIS. I CAN HANDLE THIS.” …Maybe. How’s that working for you, though? After honest self-evaluation, you might realize you’re not making much progress, or you’re falling deeper into a repetitious pit of failure. If so, it’s time to reach out for help.
And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
If you are not getting closer to your goals, enlist a buddy to help you (someone who will encourage your good habits, rather than commiserate with you in your bad ones) — an “accountability partner” I think some call it. You can lean on each other and help each other work toward your individual goals.
If your issues have gone beyond the help of a friend, professional help may be in order. Either way, I hope you can see that you don’t have to live in a spinning cycle of frustration and guilt.
Perhaps you think this all sounds too easy or too silly, or you think it would never work. I’m guessing that if you’ve read this far into this long blog post, either you or someone you know has fought a long-standing battle with the burden of guilt.
Have you ever heard the following definition?
Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
If guilt is a frequent part of your daily life, something needs to change. Give these suggestions a hearty try for at least three or four weeks, and you might be pleasantly surprised with the progress you make toward your goals of attaining peace and happiness.