Sometimes life’s a beach. Sometimes it’s a little rainy. Sometimes it’s an epic sh*t storm and there’s nothing we can do about it.
And I seriously mean that. Despite what all the hokey super-duper-positive-all-the-time people (maybe I’m an assh*le for calling ‘em like I see ‘em, but I’m already over it) will tell us, there are times when our circumstances reach far beyond our control no matter how grateful we pretend to be for such grave or upsetting occurrences. It doesn’t matter how religiously we follow the Law of Attraction or how much we meditate or go to yoga or try to “be good” on paper; sometimes, our attempts at being okay just don’t result in those life-altering changes we’d hoped to make by ignoring the truth of the matters at hand.
Then they try to tell us that things could be worse, and to that I’ve always thought, no sh*t, Sherlock.
Of course things could always be worse. What am I supposed to say, that my problems are insignificant because I’m so privileged in the grand scheme of things? That I’m an inconsiderate loser for being upset about anything because my life is a f*cking fairytale?
I’ve tried that. And guess what…it’s not helpful.
In fact, this very sentiment encouraged me to shut down and feel guilty about ever expressing sadness or anything less than supreme satisfaction with my absurdly abundant life riddled with “first-world problems” at worst (which is bullsh*t, and I’ll tell you why in a moment).
Not only did I feel worse, but I acted on those pains through various escapades in self-destruction. (And if anyone has the nerve to say that self-destructive behaviors are only the fault of the person affected, then I’d kindly say you don’t understand.)
So, shock of all shocks, what ended up being a decade-long guilt trip only made me less okay than I already felt, which only made me feel worse, which only perpetuated the guilt trip. And so it went.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate what I had; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I was so aware and appreciative that it only made me feel more horrible to think that I could be sad with all the good stuff in my life. It didn’t help that accusations of ungratefulness were thrown left and right from those closest to me.
Perhaps it seems ridiculously self-centered to say it, but after having toiled with severe depression and self-abuse largely as a result of these manipulations and skewed perceptions at the most vulnerable points of adolescence and early adulthood, I realized how scarred and deranged I’d become simply from feeling guilty about being ungrateful, as this was what I’d been told.
That kind of guilt can be a serious b*tch. But the good news is that it can also be overcome, and the truth is that we can’t live a free and happy life until we get over it. So here’s how we start:
Asking the right questions is immensely helpful in uncovering the reasons for guilt. It took me a solid 10 years to first realize that the source of my issues did, in part, revolve around feeling guilty, and then another year to understand what made me feel that way in the first place.
It also took me seeing a therapist, which was hands down the best decision I’ve ever made.
In order to fix what’s wrong, we have to first identify the problem. The problem isn’t self-abuse or depression or whatever else has gone awry; those are merely the manifestations. The problem goes back much further—far enough that its taken its toll in the form of outward signs of pain after months or years of harboring the residual chronic effects. It could have something to do parents, friendships or a multitude of other deep influences earlier in life. Whatever we find, it’s worth familiarizing ourselves with those sources of struggle if for no other reason than to have the “I’m not crazy!” epiphany. (Still, it’s not so much about blame, which I’ll discuss further in the next two points.)
It’s imperative to get to the source not because that alone will heal and free us, but because it’s the first step in that process.
So, let’s say we’ve uncovered the roots of our guilt, either with a therapist or a trusted confidant or ourselves alone. Chances are the findings are a bit unsettling.
Personally, I’ve felt simultaneously disheartened and alarmed: How could I have let this happen for so long without realizing it? Why didn’t I see this sooner? I could have saved myself from this!
And when those feelings of utter confusion come along, the most effective tactic in my experience so far has involved taking the time to compassionately understand my circumstances, realizing the lack of control I had in the situations which led to my guilt (even though people tried to tell me otherwise). And even if I could have had control, I can’t change the way things went down—another lesson in understanding. Again, these were conclusions I reached only as a result of forcing myself to talk to someone about it, which was profoundly new for me as I normally internalize everything in complete solitude.
Just as much as I extend that compassion to myself, it also helps to apply it to those who contributed to my guilt in the first place. It’s taken time, but I can somewhat understand why those individuals might have reacted the way they did toward me, why they perhaps wanted me to feel guilty—to teach me something, to make me more aware. No matter the reason, the effect has been what it was and what it has continued to be: unhealthy.
Intentions rarely match up with outcomes. Understanding this allows us to see circumstances for what they were: misconstrued efforts with unforgiving consequences. This, in turn, puts our guilt into perspective in that we were only coping with the result of a result—the reaction we garnered for our preceding actions (which were actually also reactions because everything we do/say/are is a result of influences, which is why there’s really no need for blame.)
If we can understand that whether or not we deserve the burden of guilt is irrelevant, then we can understand that it’s useless to carry it. And while it takes time to drop it completely, it’s worth doing so as the next step in the process.
What a loaded concept: forgiveness. When it comes to guilt, forgiveness is perhaps the most relevant matter; not only do we have to forgive ourselves for whatever we may or may not have done that threw us on our guilt trip in the first place, but there’s also a less popular means of forgiveness we need to employ.
Aside from ourselves, it’s crucial that we find it in us to forgive those who may have manipulated us into feeling guilty, those who made us feel badly about being honest with our sadness or pain or frustrations because “your life is too good to be sad” or whatever else they could have said.
This doesn’t mean we should expect an apology from these people. In fact, they probably have no idea the effect they’ve had on us. They’ve simply acted in a way that made the most sense to them as informed by their own pains—whether they were aware of them or not—and so the brunt of it was at least partially taken out on us. This is especially true in dealing with narcissists in that they make us feel guilty by making our expressions of pain their problem (e.g. “you have no idea how much you’re hurting me by being this way,” “you’re killing me by doing this,” etc.).
And as hard as it is, that requires forgiveness nonetheless, because even if we’re going through the most epic sh*t storm known to man, people like that truly can’t understand it. It’s not their problem, so it’s simply not as important to them. That doesn’t mean you can’t be angry at them, but in my experience, anger makes things worse and then that makes me feel more guilty and then I’m right back where I started.
Ultimately, forgiveness is the better option.
I should mention that I write this as someone who’s still going through this process of un-guilting, that I’m not a “professional” in any sense of the word and that I’m only recounting what’s worked for me so far.
And if there’s one thing I can say without concern for my qualifications (since I have none), it’s that guilt is an awful burden to carry and it can have serious effects on our health—physically, emotionally and mentally. But as I dig and understand and forgive my way out of the mess, I’m beginning to realize that freedom from this burden is possible and truly the only way to (sort of) get over it—those heavy and unbearable feelings and the decisions that came of them and all the pain that transpired along the way.
In the event that these words acquire some comments recounting horrible, gut-wrenching pasts and how I’m totally wrong about everything because “positivity has reshaped my life” and whatnot—that’s wonderful. I’m happy for you. But I ask you to think of your intentions in making such a comment: Are you looking to shame others for being ungrateful simply to boost your own ego?
If so, are you sure that you’ve really reshaped anything, that there isn’t a good bit of guilt left in you to heal, that this entire article isn’t about you in one way or another?
It’s just food for thought. You can press on and try to make me feel bad about myself anyway. That’s perfectly fine. You have that right, and I won’t try to make you feel guilty for it—not that you care what I think anyway.
I, too, have the right to remain unapologetic and guilt-free for liberating these thoughts. So here they are. Finally free.
Author: Sara Rodriguez
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Hartwig HKD/flickr