I was raised on guilt. As adults, we, the four siblings, called my mom “The West Coast Distributor of Guilt.” Well, maybe my brother didn’t, because he was always mom’s favorite. In her defense, I’m sure she came from a long line of guilt distributors. It’s sort of Jewish mom thing. I know, you Catholics are going to claim the top spot, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of guilt to go around.
When I had my own kids, I tried to break that cycle. Now, you have to understand, I’m working against what is probably thousands of years of guilt-laden history. It’s worked its way in to my very fibers, my DNA, as can happen with behavior. And, I didn’t have the tools to change my behavior that I have now. Was I successful? I have heard differing opinions from my offspring, so I couldn’t really say.
I continue to work on my own struggles with guilt. I have come a long way, and I still have a long way to go. My meditation and mindfulness practices have been key. As I told my son once, I wish I had discovered meditation when they were growing up, I’d have been a much better mom.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, no one else can “make” you feel guilty. Just remember that we’re working against culture and genetics and neurology here. It ain’t easy. And I know all of us suffer from guilt every once in a while, but I’m talking about the hard core, all-consuming, life-altering kind of guilt. The I’m-responsible-for-all-that-is-wrong-in-the-world kind of guilt. Yep, that was me.
Just last week, the guilt monster reared its ugly head when we had to make that difficult decision to euthanize our dog. Darby was 17 years old, and suffered from progressive and late stage dementia (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction) which I didn’t even know existed until recently. He was the perfect dog for us. He was about 15 pounds, so small enough to make it easy to take him places and not so small as to be fragile. Plus, as my husband liked to point out, little poops. But, while his body was in pretty good shape, except for his arthritis, his mind was not.
He’d wander aimlessly about our house, getting lost in corners. He was getting up around 3am every morning, and staying up wandering around for a couple of hours or so. He didn’t know when he had to poop or pee. He didn’t like to be touched. He was mostly blind and deaf. He couldn’t groom himself and wouldn’t let us groom him. But he still loved his food, and was still able to get up on all four feet, so I thought that was enough to keep him going.
I also thought that if I decided it was time, I was doing that because I hadn’t had a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep for close to a year, and that made me feel guilty. Now that’s some twisted kind of guilt right there. But the thing is, I recognized that (it took me a while), and in doing so was able to let go of the guilty feelings. I looked at it more objectively, like we learn in our mindfulness practice. What it came down to was two things: 1) This is a progressive disease and his life will never improve; and 2) what advice would I have given a friend in this situation, if asked? Looking back, I know it was the best decision for him. I was grateful that we were able to hold him and be with him as he took his last breath. I wanted him to know how loved he was and how much we’ll miss him.
Okay, so meditation is a great tool in taming this beast, we know that. Then, along with meditation, be sure to set up a system for when it happens again. And it will. You’re only human. Here are some ideas:
Determine why you feel guilty in the first place
Did you do anything wrong? If so, what? Was it intentional? Was there anything you could do to control it? For example, you missed a coffee date with a friend. Maybe it’s because your car wouldn’t start, or maybe it’s because you got caught up watching funny kitten videos. Do you see the difference?
You might apologize and let your friend know why you missed coffee with them. If it was something in your control, let them know they are important to you and you won’t let it happen again.
If the shoe were on the other foot, you’d probably forgive your friend, right? It’s often easier to forgive someone else than yourself. Learn by it, be mindful not to repeat it if possible, and then let it go. No good comes from holding on to guilt
Make positive changes
Use the incident as a springboard for change. Need to keep a better calendar? Find a system that works for you, even if it’s the old-fashioned pocket calendar. Need to organize more? Set up a system to help you do that. Need to eliminate a bad habit? Work on that.
Everyone experiences guilt at some point. This system of addressing why you feel guilty, responding, forgiving yourself and then using it as a catalyst for change gives you tools to make changes. And your meditation practice will help you to let it go. Soon you’ll be well on your way to a (almost) guilt-free life.