In my coaching practice, I encounter a lot of clients who have trouble letting go of guilt. They beat themselves up relentlessly for something they should’ve done or something they wish they hadn’t done. It weighs heavily on them, and they know that this guilt isn’t serving them, but they feel a sense of responsibility to keep carrying their burdens. After all, what kind of horrible, soulless, conscience-less person doesn’t feel guilty about their past “mistakes”?
Me. That’s who. And I don’t consider myself horrible, soulless or devoid of a conscience. I’ve simply learned how to let go of my guilt, to adopt a perspective that feels better and to forgive myself. And in today’s blog post, I hope to pass that point of view on to you. If, however, you are currently enjoying your self-flagellation (statistically speaking, at least a few of you are bound to be into that. I’m not judging. Just saying…), then by all means, flagellate away. The rest of you should listen up, though. This is important stuff.
In order to demonstrate what guilt is and how to overcome it, I’m going to tell you a little story (because I’m entertaining that way. See? Not a horrible person).
Lucy is feeling guilty. She has two daughters, both of whom have relationship issues and can’t seem to either attract decent guys or hang on to them for very long. They both have obvious self-esteem issues when it comes to men. Lucy, as mothers do, blames herself. She figures that she somehow created her children’s low self-esteem and that if she’d just been able to make her own marriage work instead of going through an ugly divorce when the girls were little, they’d both be happily married now.
Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s break down exactly what is causing Lucy’s guilt:
Lucy got divorced twenty years ago. Her husband and she were having screaming fights, often while their two daughters were in the next room and undoubtedly able to hear every word. Insults were hurled with a hateful vengeance that would’ve made Attila the Hun blush, and on a couple of occasions the violence even turned physical, with a vase being thrown across the room and a fist going through a wall. Lucy and her husband had finally ended it and the divorce had been ugly. At the time, Lucy knew that she had to get herself and her girls out of this ugly situation. But years later, she wonders if she did the right thing.
You’ve heard of beer goggles, right? This is the phenomenon used to describe the direct correlation between the amount of beer consumed vs. the attractiveness of the opposite sex. In short, the more beer you’ve chugged, the hotter you and everyone around you seems to get.
Well, I’d like to introduce you to “Hindsight goggles”. As time goes by, our memories become, shall we say, selective, or fuzzy. We tend to block out certain details and our memories morph into whatever we need them to be to support our current beliefs. That means that if you’re inclined to beat up on yourself, your past memories are going to remodel themselves in order to support your guilt. You start to look at the past with hindsight goggles, minimizing the severity and pain of the situation and suddenly seeing options that weren’t there at the time.
As Lucy puts on her hindsight goggles and looks back on her “failed” marriage (in quotes, because it’s not a failure to get a divorce), she may well conveniently gloss over just how volatile her fights with her ex were. She may forget just how much she suffered, how hopeless and trapped she felt, how angry and afraid she was so much of the time, how she cried herself to sleep in the spare bedroom most nights. She may not recall how, when she finally made the decision to leave, she felt a sense of relief that nearly knocked her off her feet. She may not remember how afraid she was for her girls, how controlling her ex husband was, and how she’d feared at the time that her ex’s behavior would scar the girls for life.
No, seen through her hindsight goggles, Lucy can only see that she left what might’ve been a repairable relationship and therefore somehow doomed her girls to be single forever. Bring on the pain.
Seeing options that weren’t there
Guilt is usually created when we look back on a situation and see options that either weren’t there, or to which we had no access at the time. It’s easy to look back on a situation with the benefit of our current perspective and knowledge. Lucy’s husband was an alcoholic. If only she’d gotten him into treatment, the marriage could’ve been saved and everything would’ve been rosy. But she had obviously been too weak and/or too stupid to get her husband the treatment he needed and like a bad, bad wife, simply ended the marriage. Where’s a good lynch mob when you need one?
Only, there are several major issues with Lucy’s guilt ridden recollection of these past events:
- She didn’t know that her husband was an alcoholic until they’d been divorced for several years. She just thought he drank a lot.
- Even if she had known, her husband never would’ve consented to treatment at that time. In fact, his willingness to undergo rehab several years later was in no small part due to the fact that he’d lost his family. He had to go through his journey on his own, at his own pace, in order to be ready to release his pain. Her leaving may have actually saved him.
- Looking back, she sees the option of reconciliation. The fact that she had tried again and again to make the marriage work before finally, and only after having exhausted every option she could think of, deciding to leave, has gotten blocked out by the hindsight goggles. But the truth is that the option of making it work was no longer on the table when she left.
Lucy is feeling guilty for not choosing options that weren’t actually there at the time.
Options that were there but which she couldn’t see
Lucy also feels guilty because she now feels that she should’ve gotten her girls into therapy after the divorce, but didn’t. She has had some therapy herself over the years and knows the value of it. If only she’d insisted that her daughters see a counselor of some kind, then she’d be surrounded by happy grandchildren now. Instead, she’s created two unhappy spinsters who will probably die alone. And it’s all her fault. Let the whipping begin.
Again, there’s just one teensy problem with Lucy’s reasoning: When she got her divorce, the idea of therapy wasn’t wide spread. It was something you did only if you were insane, or at least completely unable to function in normal society, and not something considered ok for “normal” people. In short, the idea of therapy hadn’t even occurred to Lucy at the time, and if someone had suggested it, she would’ve declined for fear of scarring her girls for life, either from having been psychoanalyzed by some Freudian weirdo into becoming stippers or from having the stigma of “needing therapy” attached to them.
The truth is that the option of therapy, as Lucy is aware of it today, simply didn’t exist for her back then. Certainly, there were counselors that could’ve helped both her and her daughters, but Lucy hadn’t known that then. She is judging herself using her current perspective, one that contains a great deal more information and experience than she had access to twenty+ years ago.
She should’ve known better
Lucy’s guilt is based on a false concept – that she should’ve known better. But that presupposes that she saw all the options she now sees, had all the information she has now and then made the decision she made anyway. She didn’t.
She made the best and possibly only decision she could, given the information and perspective she had at the time. She believes that the options she had were:
- Stay and tough it out and find a way to make it work
- Leave and get her girls lots of therapy
- Flee into the night like a weak little girl.
When in fact, the options at the time were:
- Stay and allow her girls to grow up being afraid of men and feeling like victims, with one or both of them possibly running away in their teens to become strippers. Years of living with an alcoholic, who would’ve never sought treatment by the way, would’ve taken their toll on Lucy, leaving her a shell of her former self. Instead of getting a job and eventually becoming regional manager and being a strong role model for her daughters, she would’ve most likely wiled her days away hiding in the kitchen, secretly smoking out the window and trying to avoid triggering her husband’s temper.
- Have the courage to finally leave and get her girls into a safer, more stable environment.
Lucy is feeling guilty for not choosing options that, in all honesty, simply weren’t there at the time.
What are you feeling guilty about?
Whenever you’re feeling guilty, ask yourself these questions:
Given the information and perspective that you had then, did you make the best choice you had access to?
Given your emotional state you were in at the time, were you able to see a better option to the one you took?
Chances are, if you’re feeling guilty, you are looking through your hindsight goggles and beating yourself up for not choosing an option that, to you, was not on the table. Perhaps the option didn’t exist. Perhaps it did, but you were not aware of it. Perhaps you were aware of it, but it simply wasn’t a valid choice for you, given your point of view and/or emotional state at the time.
In every case, when you’re feeling guilty, you are being grossly unfair to yourself. And no, it doesn’t matter how bad what you did was. Even if you hurt someone, I still maintain that given the point of view you had, whatever you chose to do seemed like the best option for you at the time. Remember that people will do horrible things to escape their pain. In every instance (and I have yet to encounter one that this isn’t true for), you did the best you could, no matter how harebrained, illogical or “weak” that choice seems now. You cannot judge your past self using today’s perspective. All you can do is to do the best you can in each moment.
You didn’t make a mistake. You did what you thought was right at that very moment. The mistake would be to let past actions, which you can no longer change, dictate how you feel right now – the only thing you do actually have control over.
Do you suffer from guilt? Has this post helped you to gain a better feeling perspective? Have you, personally, found freedom from guilt? Share your stories in the comments!