I’ve always found guilt quite a difficult emotion to be present with. It’s a really visceral feeling that plants itself in the forefront of my thinking and gnaws away, urging me to solve the problem. Finding ways to make good on the wrong doing or re-contextualising the situation to make it less problematic. It’s not surprising that guilt is such a ‘persistant’ emotion, because it’s there to act as our conscience. To help us remain part of a positively functioning social group. We feel guilt when we believe we have acted in ways that may impact on our position with that social group or within a specific relationship. Strong, uncomfortable feelings are nature’s way of telling us to change course or make amends.
When I forgot to buy my husband rugby tickets the other week, I had that sudden, cold realisation about an hour after they went on sale. Obviously, they had all gone within minutes, so by the time I looked, they were on the re-sale sites for massively inflated prices and I couldn’t make good on my mistake. There was nothing I could do to re-frame what had happened as I simply forgot. I had no choice but to admit my mistake and feel the guilt.
As I spent some time just sitting with my emotions I could feel how physically it affected me. The tightening across my shoulders and neck, the feeling of wanting to squirm, the unsettled feeling in my stomach. I did my best to just extend some curious attention to these feelings and I realised that I felt some discomfort with the balance of ‘give and take’ in my relationship with my husband. I spend so much of my time ‘giving’ to my children that I often don’t have much left to give my husband. He’s a good egg and doesn’t ask for much, so to have let him down on one of my opportunities to actually do something for him was really disappointing.
It was important for me to feel that so I could think about our relationship in a broader sense and decide to make some changes. To think about how I could give a little more to him and create a better sense of balance. Rather than sitting ruminating and feeling uncomfortable for days, I had the opportunity to make positive changes for both of us.
Luckily, mindfulness offers us tools for using guilt in a positive way to make improvements in our lives and strengthen our bonds with others. If you notice that you’re experiencing guilt and you’d like to try relating to it in a different way, here are my 6 steps to use guilt positively. I’d recommend doing this when you have 5-10 minutes to just sit and be. It doesn’t have to be silent, but you do need to be able to turn your attention inwards. Closing your eyes while travelling on a train for instance would be fine.
Step one: welcome the emotion of guilt
Once you’ve noticed that you’re experiencing guilt, let go of any attempt to resist the emotion or blame others. Just allow it to be there for now. If verbal mantras work for you, you may want to try repeating something like “Thank you for being here guilt. I am open to learning.” You can do this silently if people are around you.
Step two: explore the physical experience of guilt in the body
As you welcome the feeling of guilt, pay curious attention to how it feels within the body. Are there areas of your body that feel tense or uncomfortable? How does your breathing feel? There’s no need to change or resist any of this, just allow it to be there for now.
Step three: observe your thoughts
Allow yourself to observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them. You may experience some critical thoughts like “I’m a terrible wife” or some questioning thoughts like “how did I forget?”. None of these thoughts are ‘true’ per se, they’re just thoughts. It may help to imagine each thought as a different person offering their perspective on a particular situation. You have a choice about who you listen to.
Step four: extend yourself some self-compassion
Imagine that you are talking to a friend or loved one. What would you say to them in the same situation? How would you help them be kind to themselves? Self-compassion allows us to let go of any over catastrophising (such as “I’m a terrible wife”) and make peace with our actions as normal, human imperfections or mistakes.
Step five: set intentions for future behaviour
By this point, you should have a more compassionate and clearer view on your situation and can start to set some positive intentions for what to do next. Going back to my example above, my intention was to write down one kind thing I wanted to do for my husband every day. These weren’t massive things. Perhaps preparing some lunch for him, tucking a note into his work bag or simply giving him a big hug. Small daily acts of kindness reminded me to prioritise him more and create more balance in our relationship.
Step six: give a heartfelt apology if it’s appropriate
Guilt can actually cause us to avoid the people we’ve wronged or even become angry with them (as we try to deflect the feeling). Giving a heartfelt apology in which we acknowledge our wrongs helps us to let go of the guilty feelings and repair our relationships. Apologies can feel really awkward (and we often put them off), so a good way to get over this initially is to set ourselves a reward for when we’ve done it. This could be a solo trip to the coffee shop, reading a book or perhaps visiting a friend. Whatever works for you. Having something to look forward to afterwards makes us much more likely to do it.
So there are my 6 steps to using guilt positively. I hope you found them useful. If you’d like to keep up to date with all my news and articles then please do follow me on Facebook.