Why Guilt Is A Toxic Emotion & How To Stop It From Sapping Your Life Force
On Mother's Day this year, I was talking to a friend who has a toddler. I asked her what she considered the hardest part about being a mom. She didn't hesitate to tell me it was the guilt of being a working mother, or as she likes to say, "a part-time mom." It doesn't matter whether she's at the office or at home after work; she constantly wonders whether or not she gives enough time and attention to her kid. This guilt becomes even more pronounced when her daughter falls sick or throws a tantrum.
It was the same story with another friend who started her own business when her now teenage-daughter was very young. Years later, she's still struggling to come to terms with the guilt of being a part-time mom. She feels as if she didn't support her daughter enough early on, and she's filled with regret.
I see this kind of guilt in a lot of people I meet on my journey. No matter what part of the world I am in, it's the same.
The mental and physical toll of holding on to guilt.
When thinking about guilt, it's important to first remember that it comes as a result of something that has already happened. It's about the past—a situation that is over and done with. Let's say you got angry at your kids and then feel a sense of regret that sounds something like this: "I know I'm tired, and it's been a long day, but I shouldn't have yelled at my children. I don't want them to grow up hating me." This sort of inner dialogue can turn us into our own worst enemy moving forward. We start doubting our own worthiness. In this phase of guilt, we're using our own energy to beat ourselves up. We start to "eternalize" our behavior with thoughts like, "I always do that. There must be something wrong with me." Unfortunately, this sort of head space can eventually turn us into exactly what we don't want to become.
Several years ago, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with leukemia. Within a week of finishing a course of chemotherapy, he experienced an aggressive flare-up of the cancer, and his doctors ended up recommending a bone-marrow transplant. Turns out, the doctor who was leading his transplant had done extensive studies at the Chernobyl nuclear site, looking at the health impacts of radiation. He studied how some people develop aggressive, treatment-resistant cancers while others go through chemo and go on to thrive for many years afterward. What he found was that emotions played a huge role in disease progression and recovery. His theory was that guilt mutates our cells and genes in a way that weakens immune function and the entire mind-body system. Oddly enough, my friend was someone who struggled with huge amounts of guilt throughout his life.
It isn't so hard to believe that being totally stuck in guilt and regret can cut us off from our own vitality and cause us to spiral into a never-ending cycle.
Breaking the guilt cycle 101.
As I outline in my book The Power of Vital Force, regret and guilt are part of a vicious cycle between anger and fear. Here are some ideas for breaking the pattern and living life less encumbered by guilt:
Step 1: Remind yourself that guilt stems from the past.
The next time you find yourself experiencing guilt, become aware that your guilt is about something that has already happened, something that cannot be changed. Tell yourself that dwelling on it and feeling guilty is not serving you. In fact, it's taking away your life, your energy, your connection, and the things that matter to you most.
Step 2: Take inventory of the price that you and others are paying for being stuck in guilt.
Really look at what it's costing you and your loved ones. It could be anything from your health, well-being, and sleep to your relationships. The guilt of being a working mom might be making you less present and less able to enjoy quality in the time you do have with your kids, for example. It's a background noise that's eating at you. Once you get clear about the cost, you can get empowered to make the decision to either accept your guilt or change it.
Step 3: Don't judge yourself for feeling guilty.
Instead, be grateful that you're taking the steps to create change. When we shift our mindset from self-judgment to gratitude, our energy soars. Gratitude is the simplest, fastest, and easiest way to get rid of guilt in the system and reset our brains. It's an opportunity to make a new choice.
Finally, remember that your guilt means there's some part of you that wants to change. So, begin by forgiving yourself. Recognize that you are doing the best you can under the circumstances. And as you get into bed at the end of each day, savor the fact that tomorrow is a new day and you get to begin again.
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