Yep – she’s been such a constant presence in my life for such a long time that she actually has a name. She has perched so stubbornly on my left shoulder that there seems to be a permanent indentation there, in spite of my efforts to send her to her room on a regular basis.
In The Conscious Parent, Shefali Tsabary says “Guilt is a murky emotion that coagulates our true voice, leaving us with the aftertaste of inadequacy and insecurity.” That sounds about right to me. Been there, done that… But just what is guilt, actually, and what purpose does it serves? Not to mention where does it come from? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over many years but quite suddenly I have some new thoughts, and perhaps a new way of dealing with dear Gilda.
I love how looking at definitions of words I already understand often serves to clarify nuances for me, so let’s start with a definition. According to Dictionary.com, guilt is:
- the factor state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability: He admitted his guilt.
- a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
- conduct involving the commission of such crimes, wrongs, etc.: to live a life of guilt.
Looking at #1, guilt is appropriate. If you rob a bank or willfully hurt someone, you should feel “guilty”. This is one way the fabric of society is held together. #3 is closely related. So far, so good.
It’s #2, however, that fits my dear sweet Gilda: “feeling responsibility for some offense, crime, wrong, etc. whether real or imagined.” Aha: My Gilda has a great imagination!
As to where guilt comes from? I can speak only from a personal point of view. If you know anything about the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator®, you know that ENFJs like me are classic people-pleasers. We have a high need for harmony, and we somehow learn to feel like it’s our job to create it, sustain it, as well as to overcome disharmony wherever we encounter it. T-a-l-l order, and irrational, for sure. The world is a chaotic place, full of conflicting opinions and interests, indeed dependent on conflicting opinions and interests, but that’s easy to forget that when your orientation is capital-H Harmony.
I’m over-generalizing, but I think this is where guilt creeps in the doorway. The subconscious message goes something like this: If my world is tension-ridden, it must be my fault, because if I did something different, or better, or _____, or______, (you fill in the blanks) everything would be copasetic.
When things are not copasetic, it can feel a bit like falling over a cliff into utter bedlam, causing me to clutch for some Giant Tether in the Sky as I tumble, grabbing madly for a lifeline. The lifeline? You guessed it: guilt.
Guilt as a lifeline? That may sound like an odd metaphor, but hear me out: Guilt sends me the message that if I hold on tight enough and try hard enough, everything will be okay. (Whatever that is!) It goads me to try harder. To accommodate. It lures me to think I can swing back into harmony. Also, it tends to make me feel like it’s the only workable choice I have: “I must be wrong. I need to do better, always better.”
It’s odd, and striking indeed, to realize that I have been clinging to something negative in the hopes of creating positive results. I’m having a hard time thinking of any example where it works that way. Negative does not beget positive.
Further adding to the irony, in the name of creating peace, guilt leads me to abandon the peace that is my core truth, way down underneath all the layers of experiences and circumstances. It asks me to be someone other than who I am.
Somehow thinking of guilt as a lifeline I’ve been grasping rather than as a pesky nuisance sitting on my shoulder totally changes the hypothesis for me.
Perhaps I can simply let go.
I haven’t murdered anyone, committed some heinous crime against society for which guilt would be the appropriate emotion. I’m ordinary. I fail. I disappoint people. I can be short-sighted, misguided. I’m flawed, just like everyone else is. But as my good friend says, it’s also true that “parts of me are excellent”. Guilt is largely inappropriate.
Ah, but if I let go, then what? Free-fall into uncharted waters? What can I hold on to instead?
Maybe the secret is not to hold on to anything at all.
That’s what the Buddhists have been trying to tell me all along! Let go of attachments. All of them. Live right now, just in this very moment.
How then to handle those uncharted waters? There are lots of unknowns out there. Sometimes it looks like a raging river. What will sustain me? Not guilt, surely, but what?
I’ll need a lifeboat. Not just any old lifeboat, but the ultimate one: Love, and by this I am not referring to some hearts-and-flowers, soft, feathery, soppy definition of love. I’m talking about the Real Thing: the Oneness of all things, the cosmic unity of which we are all an integral part. I’ll need to trust enough to sink into that Unity. Not to is actually hubris, as if I could ever be wise enough to have better answers than Love has.
How lovely to think of being held instead of grasping with all my might. What an comforting, interesting image — to ride in a lifeboat that is fully equipped to carry me along the River of Life. To carry me through the rapids, be they happy or scary ones. To buoy me up through shallows, depths, storms, becalmed seas. I don’t have to work so hard. I just have to be. I need no longer hold on to fear, or angst. I don’t need to feel inadequate or inept. I just need to do whatever is right in front of me to the best of my ability.
Gilda, I thank you for all the ways you have guided me. After all, you’re a big part of how I got to be the me I am. At this point I’m ready for a different journey. You’ve grown outsized, to the point that you hamper, not help, me. I invite you to take a vacation at a lovely spa in Fiji, where you can slim down to a more proportionate size should I ever need you again. Meanwhile, I invite Sofia (wisdom) to sit on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. I invoke Spirit to guide me. I release my frantic grasp on any and all “lifelines”, and cast my whole self into that Ultimate Lifeboat, Love. I am sure it will hold me and take me where I’m supposed to go.