Mae West: ‘For a long time I was ashamed of the way I lived.’
Interviewer: ‘Did you reform?’
Mae West: ‘No, I’m not ashamed any more.’
Guilt is anger turned in on yourself. It is one of the most common emotions, and one of the most disabling. It is also one of the most useless.
Many people fret needlessly over things which they could have done little to change. Others feel guilty even when they know they’ve done nothing wrong. And others spend their whole lives punishing themselves for not being the person they (or their parents) think they should be.
Guilt looks to the past which is, of course, impossible to change. But we can change what we think about it. Dwelling on something that can’t be changed is energy consuming and self-esteem destroying. Everything that happened happened for a reason. Look for the lesson. Don’t keep repeating the same mistakes.
However, a twinge of guilt can trigger a positive response if it’s handled well. It can motivate you to put things right.
If you feel guilty about something:
- Reflect on the situation. What message is the guilt trying to convey? Why are you punishing yourself in this way? Did you really err? Is someone else trying to manipulate you into feeling guilty? What are you trying to achieve? You may find you had no reason to feel as guilty in the first place.
- If your guilt is not justified because you have done nothing wrong, or couldn’t have prevented what happened, let it go.
- If you genuinely did make a mistake or could have done better, let the other person know and apologise. Then do what you can to put it right and make a commitment not to do it again in the future.
- Then forget it at move on. If you can do nothing more about it – either because events have moved on or you’ve lost touch with the other person – you’ve nothing to gain by dwelling on it, and neither have they.
Give me the serenity to accept what I can’t change,
The courage to change what I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
©David Lawrence Preston, 3.7.2018
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How To Books, 2004