Guilt is very subjective matter; in a given situation, two people might make exactly the same decisions and carry out the very same actions, yet one of them wouldn’t give matters a second thought, whilst the other will be racked with guilt about identical choices and circumstances. It all comes down to how you measure up to your own expectations of yourself. The higher and the more unrealistic those expectations are, the greater the risk that you will fail to meet them and set yourself up for a massive burden of guilt.
Guilt is profoundly destructive and rather futile emotion, it has the power to become a black hole inside the soul, sucking all the joy and life out of a person. I would go so far as to say that it is a morbid form of self-absorption that offers no benefit to anyone. Feeling guilty doesn’t feed a hungry mouth or hold a lonely hand.
Here is a handy 4 part system I teach to my coaching clients: To work this process you can either use a journal or talk each stage through with a coach, therapist or friend.
1) Reality Check
The first step is to get some perspective by recalling the events in an objective a manner as possible – without the benefit of hindsight. Describe the circumstances and you may also find it helpful to think about what information, knowledge and resources – both practical and personal, were available to you at the time.
Now describe how you would have handled the situation ideally. What are the specific expectations of yourself that you failed to meet?
Next, you are going to evaluate those expectations – weed out any that weren’t fair, realistic or attainable. (To help with this step, imagine someone you love very much and see if you would hold the same expectations of them in this situation.) Looking at the list of unmet expectations you have left, allow yourself to fully feel regret – but don’t get stuck there. An optional extra step at this stage would be to come up with some amends you might want to make if that is possible. If you can’t “make it up” to the person in question, you can also consider an act of kindness or charity that you would do in their honor for someone or something else.
Here is where we come to the most important step. Reviewing everything you have come up with so far, make a list of intentions for the future. First on the list might be to set the intention of forgiving yourself. Next, write down a list of new and/or revised expectations you have for yourself and set some intentions for a different behavior in the future.
In conclusion, my loving suggestion is that rather than being paralyzed by guilt, you take action to transform it into something else which can actually benefit yourself and others. Regret what needs to be regretted and forgive what you can, this is the alchemy of healing, by which you can extract the gold from guilt, which is to learn from our experiences.
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