Guilt is My Middle Name

Bet all too many of you can relate!

Guilt seems to be my default setting.  I feel guilty about things that affect only me — that is, if they affect me at all. Like having a messy desk. Not making my bed every day. Doing nine reps of my physical therapy exercises instead of ten. Buying fresh produce instead of over-the-hill stuff on sale.  Not paying enough attention to the cats. Paying so much attention to the cats that I don’t get enough work done.

Then there is guilt about things that affect others. Having said something stupidly hurtful thirty years ago.  Having said stupid things all my live-long life. Giving away or losing something that meant something to another person. Not calling my kids often enough. Losing touch with my friends. Worrying others by not asking for help when I need it. Not having figured out earlier why I was depressed, since depressed people are not fun to be with and I therefore made others unhappy. Being too anxious to be able to be fully emotionally available, to babies, to kids, to adults, to animals.

And the environment. My carbon footprint is way too big. Instead of wetting myself, turning off the water, shampooing and soaping up, then quickly rinsing, I leave the shower on the whole time. I put a plastic bag that I could have washed and recycled into the trash.  I wasted water by washing plastic bags. The thermostat is set at 60 at night instead of 55. I don’t turn the computer off every night. I drive instead of taking public transportation. I fly to visit my kids and go places I really, really want to see. I’m not vegan. It goes on and on.

The Book of Common Prayer sums it up; “I have done those things I should not have done and left undone those things I should have done.” “I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and there is no health in me.”

Now I have known for a long time that level of guilt is ridiculous. The burden of guilt I carry has nothing to do with the things I feel so guilty about. It comes from the past, from those evil times when I was made to feel everything was my fault and I was bad, guilty, shameful, evil through and through.

It’s not hard to make a little kid, three or four or five years old, believe anything you tell them. It’s all too easy to make them believe that they are so evil they can cause a thunderstorm and ruin a picnic, or make another kid fall down just by looking at him, or make an old person die. All sorts of bad things are your fault. And there is no way no way to fix things, no way to say you are sorry. You are stuck with the guilt of having done a really bad thing and that false belief is reinforced when you are punished for having done something evil you didn’t do in the first place. Add to that admonitions to not tell and not remember, and no wonder we carry forward so much guilt.

Once I figured out that whenever I felt guilty I was having a feeling-flashback, I could do something about it. I want to  point out that sometimes I really did do something that was against my moral code. It was fitting that I should feel guilty. But not that guilty! In that case, part was from the present and part from the past.

I decided that I would not longer do things I found immoral, like lie, cheat or steal. Not that I did them often, but sometimes I still did. By giving these behaviors up entirely, I could automatically assign all the guilt to the past. Of course, being human, I do slip, and then I have to sort past from present.

It took a lot of work to separate out thinking of something, saying it, and actually doing it. Thoughts, despite the fact that we were told they had magic powers, are just thoughts. If you think “I would like to wring his neck,” that person is just fine physically and remains oblivious to your feelings. If you say it out loud to him, you have to deal with his reaction, which may or may not be a good thing. But if you actually do it — well, you have committed murder. Big difference.

The biggest job was working through the source of the guilt in the first place. It usually was fairly easy to identify the trigger and it was a snap to recognize what feeling was being triggered, but what had they done to me to install that feeling? If the answer didn’t come in a flash, I would free-associate to the trigger, assuming I recognized it. Sometimes I could get the matching memory, but usually I found it could have been any one of dozens of things. No matter: the guilt still weakened, but not as spectacularly as when I got the exact memory. It was still well worth doing. Every time I do this, my guilt fades a little, and I am very grateful for that.

I’m not yet ready for a name change, but I am working on it.

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