When I was about 23 years old I got my very first tattoo. It was during my “breakdown”. I went to get an armband tattoo but saw this beautiful dragon intertwined with a Yin Yang. It covers my shoulder blade and I still love it to this day. I wore a Yin Yang necklace – looked for anything that had a Yin Yang. The dragon in Asian culture is a symbol of wisdom, peace and strength. Both of these were the things that my soul was scratching to get back to. The guilt and shame I felt for being so sick, guilt of all the mistakes I made and was still making, guilt of failing myself, my daughter, my family….it buried me. There was not enough sleep or alcohol to make the monster stop. It was eating away at me – so my tattoo – was one of the first strikes I made against it…the war had started.
Now – most would think that I believe that guilt is unnecessary. On the contrary – without guilt we would have no conscious (or we would never had made mistakes to feel guilty about but we know that isn’t going to happen.) You see – we as human beings – lack but strive for balance in our life. Unfortunately when our balance is thrown off – we overcompensate and then slide into the ditch. Instead of turning into the skid – we jerk the wheel and either crash lightly or keep rolling down the hill. What we fail to recognize is first what we really should feel guilty for and then what to do with it.
I feel guilty about many things I have no control over. At the same time I have felt guilty over things I completely have control over – and rightly so. I recently recognized with the advice of a very good friend and mentor – that I “retreat” when things go wrong. If I can’t keep in touch with all of my many friends (that I am so blessed to have) on a “timely basis” I feel guilty – so I either don’t call or just text (wimpy!) If I fail at a project or a goal I feel guilty that I let my team or leadership down – I back away – I retreat (hiding!) If I get my kids to bed too late I feel guilty – like I’m not a good mother – so I brush it off and tell myself it will never happen again (unrealistic!) When I am under pressure financially because of things in or out of my control – I feel like I have failed my entire family and those that have helped me along the way – so I stop balancing my checkbook for a while until forced to (denial). All this is driven by guilt and I handle it wrong.
Things I should feel guilty for – if I lie to someone about something important, hurt someone for no reason, don’t fulfill a promise simply because I didn’t “feel” like it, or just over promise knowing I can’t meet that promise ! We all have the things we should feel guilty for and those things we shouldn’t. But let me tell you what we should actually use our guilt for – an alarm system. That’s it. Put the batteries in and when smoke happens guilt should be our alarm then we have to decide if we need to take action to call the fire department or if it was a false alarm that we could have avoided.
You see guilt when held onto is nothing but destructive and actually is the easy way out. We think that if we feel guilty that it means we are actually a good person. If we hold onto the guilt then we are really sorry. I call bull shit (and I call it on myself). We hold onto it because we don’t want to deal with what it was that we did and change ourselves so that it doesn’t happen again. We don’t go to rehab because we just feel guilty and don’t want to talk about it. We don’t talk to our partner about an infidelity because we feel guilty so why would they need to know? But guess what – unending guilt makes us worse. It is harder to DEAL with our problems than to let go of our guilt. It is harder to FORGIVE ourselves than to believe that guilt will somehow hang on a cross for us to rid us of our sin.
Now to the guilt over the things we can’t control. Things we shouldn’t really feel guilty for but do. That is a “false alarm” but it is one that still has to be dealt with. If we let something boil over on the stove – the alarm may go off in your home. Do you just let it continue to go off? Do you call the fire department even though you aren’t in danger? NO! So to continue to feel guilty over something that we logically shouldn’t is like calling in the Army to deal with a cockroach. We need to figure out why we really feel guilty and use that as an alarm letting us know we need to change the situation in a way that makes sense. I, for example, feel guilty that I can’t talk to all of my friends all the time. I am letting them down. Well, you know what? My friends know I have a big family, big responsibilities and that if they needed me to be – I would be there for them and give them a kidney. No I don’t have time to call everyone or even see everyone but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love them just the same. If they don’t know that – then I just need to tell them – oh..just did.
I am sooo not perfect and everyday I realize something else about myself and you know today was the day to DEAL with my guilt and to stop retreating without warning. Its hard – but I’m a warrior and so are you. Use guilt as a temporary feeling, deal with the emotions, change, forgive yourself and others and let it go. Guilt doesn’t make you a better person – it just makes you a person.