The older I get the more I realize my biggest critic in this life has been myself. The opposition in my life has merely been an illusion of self-inflicted doubt, judgment, and criticism. The fact is that though many can be credited with using hurtful words against me, no other person has put me down more than the voice within my very own head.
Guilt is a diet many of us live on. We use it to train (or punish) ourselves into self-improvement. We also quickly learn that if it works on us, we should use it on others. It becomes a perceived lever of change. If we can make ourselves or others feel bad enough, we can use shame to create transformation. It is a relentless, self-abusive pattern we fall into when we are faced with challenges or feelings of inadequacy.
The lesson that is often missing is that we have the power to let our choices empower us or devour us. What we must understand is that guilt is a wasted, useless emotion. This form of punishment is meant to withhold peace or happiness, as a means of retribution. What we fail to recognize is that this form of discipline starves us of our potential.
What power could we yield if we replaced guilt with grace? What if our mistakes were seen as opportunities for growth and learning not just for ourselves, but for others? What if we forgave ourselves and boldly met our inadequacies with courage? What if we gave ourselves understanding and space to engage in messy learning? What could we accomplish if we brought our fears to the gym and lifted the weights of life to yield strength and endurance?
The profession of teaching is universally known for the vast amount of decision making required (1,500 a day to be exact). Decision making can go from empowering to burdensome if teachers cannot win their dance with guilt. We seldom question our limiting thoughts or the intent behind them. We accept them as truth, even though the only message this inner dialogue has to offer is validation that we are not enough for the moment. We build up or catastrophize events, creating the story where the only role we can see is us as the villain.
Doing wrong can only be remedied by acceptance, compassion, and growth in our virtue to do better next time because the next time will surely come. We need to release what we cannot control and center ourselves in a loving way on what actions can bring us closer to our goals or mission.
Steps to Managing Feelings of Guilt:(3 R’s) Recognize, Resolve, Release
Recognize: Be willing to expose and compose. Fully accept your shortcomings or wrong doings to move forward with better choices. Proceed with caution over your reflection. There is a difference between acknowledging a mistake and ruminating over that mistake to lead yourself to disempowering conclusions about your abilities and self-worth. The discomfort you recognize amidst your failure is a signal that you have high standards for yourself. Replace the automatic thoughts of guilt and punishment with excitement over how to do it better next time. Lessons learned through suffering are gifts of how to evolve from who you are to who you want to be.
Resolve: Make amends the best way you know how. Resolution may not equate to perfection. Sometimes acknowledgement and apologies are all we can do, but we may not completely be able to repair a relationship or situation with a student, family, or colleague. This does not mean we abandon courage and choose to ignore the situation. Do the right thing and own your missteps. Find strength in learning and inspiration in growth. Sometimes resolve comes from doing better with the next class, student, family, or colleague. Our current classes do not always reap the benefits of our mistakes. My students who I started with 15 years ago would have received an entirely different teacher if they were learning from the professional I am now. My mistakes made me who I am and learning to do better makes me a better teacher every year.
Release: Hanging on to your mistakes can cause you to trap yourself in the past. Activate your self-compassion and look forward. If you have messed up, absorb that lesson so you can do better next time. Some strategies include journaling, offering gratitude to those who taught you how to be better or called you on your bullshit (even if it was a less than comfortable situation), meditation or reflection to offer up your feelings of wrongdoing to physically walk away. Some people may sit in a favorite chair and after picturing their mistakes get up to metaphorically leave those decisions behind. Others have a “worry tree” or “thinking bench” where they can ditch those thoughts before entering their homes. Ideas of inadequacy are only weights that we choose to carry around as reminders. Whatever works for you, find a way to place that heaviness down so you can concentrate on becoming a better you.
Remember that odds are you are harder on yourself than anyone else. If a friend came to you to share the same wrongs that you had done, you would most likely meet those words with grace and perspective. Give yourself that same gift of self-compassion and grace. Anchoring to shame is a recipe for self-destruction. You are meant for more than that. Guilt separates us from our potential and from others who we may feel we have let down. This loneliness only breeds more thoughts of inadequacy. Simply put guilt traps us in a mode of standing still when our spirit is meant to move forward.