Guilt is a weighty emotion. And it’s one I’m no stranger to.
Like all the uncomfortable emotions I looked at for a special season of my podcast, guilt exists for a good reason. Feeling guilty can prompt us to take action and rectify a bad situation in our lives – but it’s not always that simple.
“Guilt comes either when we've done something wrong, or when we feel like we've done something wrong,” says life coach Valorie Burton. “Those two things are not the same, even though they can feel the same.”
Let’s assume you’ve actually done something wrong. You may feel guilty because you forgot a friend’s birthday; or left a co-worker to clean up a mistake you made; or because you broke your roommate’s laptop and didn’t tell her.
All these things can gnaw away at your happiness. As Valorie outlines in her book, Let Go Of The Guilt: Stop Beating Yourself Up And Take Back Your Joy, the guilt we feel about doing something wrong can occupy our thoughts and even bring with it negative physical sensations and sleepless nights.
But Valorie also describes six steps – what she calls The Six A’s – to address this kind of guilt.
Admit it. I did something wrong. I caused harm.
Assess it. What is that harm? Did I just break a laptop? Or did I also break a bond of trust?
Apologize. Say you’re sorry – fully and sincerely to EVERYONE harmed by your actions— and acknowledge the impact your behavior had.
Atone. We can’t undo our actions, but is there a way to make amends or payback for your deed?
Adjust your behavior. Don’t go through all these steps if you’re just going to repeat your mistake next week, next month or next year.
Accept forgiveness. To stop feeling guilty, we have put our action behind us and move on. The person we’ve hurt might to be willing to forgive us – and if so we should accept their pardoning. But if the person we hurt withholds their forgiveness, we may have to accept that we’ve done our best to address our behavior and look to the future.
Facing up to the guilt of wrongdoing certainly isn’t fun… but it can be easier than tackling the other form of guilt Valorie talks about in her book – that guilty feeling we sometimes carry around even when it’s not clear that we’ve done anything bad or harmful.
Valorie calls this feeling ‘false’ guilt.
She had an epiphany about the impact ‘false’ guilt was having on her wellbeing one morning – rushing to drive her young son to school. Valorie was already running late when her son asked if he could eat a breakfast of dry cereal at the dining table – instead of in the car. The boy loved dry cereal, but Valorie felt terrible guilt that – unlike her own mom – she didn’t provide her son with a cooked breakfast.
“And so rather than saying what I knew I needed to say, I let guilt step in and say: ‘Well, we have to do it really fast.’”
Now running very late, Valorie and her son set off on the drive to school.
Valorie had put herself and her son in danger all because of ‘false’ guilt – the sense she wasn’t as good at parenting as her own mother, and that unconscious feeling that combining her busy career as an author with motherhood somehow made her a bad person.
“What happens is we allow [false] guilt to get in the driver's seat,” say Valorie. “It hijacks your decisions and your actions.”
To stop ‘false’ guilt from hijiacking her again, Valorie developed what she calls the PEEL strategy.
Pinpoint your guilt trigger. For Valorie this was unfavorably comparing her ideal childhood breakfast with what her son likes to eat now.
Examine the thoughts. What story are we are telling ourselves? Did Valorie think she was being lazy serving cereal? Or selfishly putting her own busy work schedule before her son’s nutrition?
Exchanged the lie for the truth. Did Valorie’s son even want his grandma’s “full out Southern breakfast of grits, eggs, orange juice and toast”? Was Valorie really a lazy or selfish parent? Certainly not.
List the evidence for the truth. To fully drop our ‘false’ guilt, Valorie recommends running through all the facts that undermine the inaccurate stories we tell ourselves. For Valorie that could mean listing all the evidence she had that she was in fact a caring and nurturing parent.
Many sources of ‘false’ guilt are buried deep in our upbringing or in the culture around us. They can be triggered by things like our careers, our relationships, or even our fitness levels (or the lack of it). And even with strategies like PEEL, facing up to ‘false’ guilt isn’t always easy.
“But I am amazed at the things that people are able to let go of,” say Valorie.
So next time you feel a pang of guilt - take that first step to dealing with it by separating out the true misdeeds we need atone for, and the false guilt that requires an act of kindness only to ourselves.
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