Five steps to letting go of guilt and self-blame

Self guilt

               Flickr 23102017_103710_0o                 You’ve been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.~Louise Hay, American motivational author. 

It’s the beginning of the holiday season again…and dreaded by many, again. So many of us feel guilty this time of year. Guilty for not being able to spend more time with family. Guilty because we cannot produce the perfect Norman Rockwell holiday scene. Guilty because we haven’t stayed on our diet, called our mother, organized a play date for our child. Guilty because we are unable to finish all the projects on our self-imposed agenda, and will now have to spend “vacation” time working to finish our research or writing or other administrative tasks that have been deferred until we are “less busy.”

Many of us, me included, also find ourselves feeling guilty at this time of year for the abundance we enjoy. We have food on our table…and we know there are people starving in other parts of the world. North Americans consume an average of 3,500 calories per person a day, compared to slightly over 2,000 for Africans (statistics from Our World Data by Max Rose). We have a roof over our heads and we know there are millions of refugees worldwide. We have friends and family around us, and we know that many people are grieving the loss of those near and dear to them, making the holiday season more difficult.

It’s time to get over it!

OK, so I recognize that letting go of guilt and self-blame is a lot harder than it sounds. The truth is we have to let go of whatever is painful, like listening to the “guilty, guilty, guilty” verdict, or the “I should have done more,” voice over and over again…and again…and again. The voice is boring and repetitive and not helpful or constructive. With perseverance, the voices can become a little less loud, and we can let it go a little more quickly. No doubt you will have to silence, or at least quiet, the accusatory voices. Forgiving yourself takes practice. Ending, or even curtailing, self-blame takes practice.

5 Steps to Letting Go of Guilt and Self-Blame

1. Be mindful of your blessings. It is far better to be mindful of all our blessings than to beat ourselves up with guilt. You did not create the global inequalities. You are only human, and there is a limit to how much any one person can undertake. Trying to do it all, from chores to childrearing to professional responsibilities will leave you exhausted, frustrated and burnt out. A first step is recognizing that you are not at fault for many of the things making you feel guilty. Many are a product of history, whether familial or global.

2. Reclaim your agency. The last paragraph is not to suggest you do nothing. There is power in reclaiming your agency. That includes forgiving yourself because you can’t do everything.  You get to choose your own level of engagement. It can certainly be OK to prioritize your work for a time if it means enhancing the well-being of your family in the long run (though you do not want to make it your modus operandi).

It’s OK to choose where you will meet the world head-on, by supporting the charity or cause of your choice in any way you are able, whether financially or with sweat equity, knowing you cannot end all the injustices of history by yourself.Although it may sound paradoxical to discuss this here, it should be acknowledged that guilt does have a purpose. As an emotion that allows us to understand unfairness in the world, or as an emotion that reminds us that spending time with family is important, it serves as a reminder that something is out of balance. Paying attention to that feeling can help change you, and our world. After all, some of the great plots in world literature are driven by feelings of guilt, from the Inferno by Dante, Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, or Beloved by Toni Morrison.

3. Stop setting yourself up for failure. Change will not come if you are overcome or paralyzed by guilt and self-blame. Michael Formica, psychologist, calls guilt and self-blame “the ultimate form of emotional abuse.” It’s a form of attacking your most vulnerable self, instead of protecting that part of yourself. “I should…” leads directly to feelings of guilt. Replace it with “I could…” That’s far less judgmental and provides more agency. You can even replace it with “I want…” to insert flexibility, and allow space for the possibility that something may not happen. Examples include: “I could do less for the holidays, and my family can still be happy.” Or, “I want to spend more time with my writing over the holidays because it is important to my own well-being and future.”

4. Notice the big picture. In cosmic terms, we may be insignificant. But to our loved ones, we are very significant. You are already doing a lot. Your absence would be noticed. Somehow, you are continuing to juggle a wide variety of responsibilities. You can take responsibility for mistakes made along the way, but you are not the only actor in the wider scheme of things. Stop blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong, from the burnt dinner to the unfinished project waiting for another person’s action.

Don’t take on the guilt of disappointment or the feeling that you should be doing everything. As a wise old aunt of mine once said, “You are making too much of yourself here,” in saying “I’m the only one that can make this happen.” Stop being so hard on yourself, there are other actors in this play. Give yourself credit for all the principled things you have done over your life. Focus on your positive traits: “I am responsible, reliable, caring, kind, loving, forgiving, and compassionate.” Find the words that most resonate with you as the truth about who you are in the world.  Remember the good. Your pursuit of the good is important to the big picture.

5. Tell a new story. Some of your guilt may come from an unconscious knowledge that you are not living the life of your parents. Or your grandparents. Or any other person that had a significant role in shaping your childhood. It’s OK. You are not them. And the world is not the same as it was when they were coming of age. We know far more about injustice in far-flung places than any predecessor of ours could possibly imagine. We know more about the subtle ways our own psychology can sabotage us. Say to yourself, “I am doing the best I can.” Notice the verb “doing.” You are not paralyzed by inaction. You are moving on.

Banish the guilt and self-blame and enjoy the season. You are worth it.


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