How to Take Charge of Your Guilt

Isn’t there something you were supposed to do?

As a child, I was terrified of thunderstorms.  I was afraid thunder was the call of The Archangel Gabriel’s horn and Judgment Day was at hand.  Our preacher at The Church of Christ had described in gory detail what happens after that sound.  Not surprisingly, I had a strong sense of doom.

Because, at 12 years old, I was eaten up with guilt. I can’t remember why.  I just remember the torment of feeling guilty.  I made lots of confessions, sometimes for things I didn’t even do. Curiously, I still felt guilty.

I got over my fear of thunder storms, but guilt never went away.  Sometimes, I thought guilt was valid–screaming at the cable company’s customer service rep, for example–but mostly not.  It wasn’t until my kids were out of high school and off to college that I found it doesn’t have to be this way.

I lived in fear that I’d done something wrong–or not done something I was supposed to do.

Every night, after prayers but before sleep, I’d go over a litany of activities for the day and second guess all my actions.  Not surprisingly, I was afraid to express myself for fear of  judgment–other’s and my own.

I brought this habit with me into adulthood, with a twist.  Going over the litany of things I’d done wrong moved to “the morning after.”  And if, by some kindness (or blackout), I skipped the guilt session, there was always someone to remind me of my drunken escapades.  And the guilt would take it from there.

As an adult, I didn’t wait for bedtime to second guess myself.  The guilt committee in my head tried mightily to check everything I was about to say against a list of things one must not say.  I had trouble keeping the tribunal happy AND relating to others.

It was impossible to be authentic in my relationships

I was introduced to Nonviolent Communication several years ago and began incorporating the empathic listening and the empathic speaking techniques developed by Marshall Rosenberg.  With time, I began to re-educate myself and learn ways of communicating that promoted deep connection with others, as well as myself.  There are many rich resources based on Rosenburg’s process of communication.  Holly Michelle Eckert’s book, “Graduating from Guilt” was particularly inspiring.

If you are haunted by feelings of guilt, like I was, here are six steps for releasing guilt, found in “Graduating from Guilt:”

  1. Identify the guilt
  2. name the “shoulds”
  3. Connect with unmet needs
  4. Experience the feelings of unmet needs
  5. Connect with the positive motivations
  6. Check in and make a request.  This is done using the four basic components of “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg.
  • Observation
  • Feeling
  • Needs
  • Request

Did you mean to do that?

Here’s how I turned the torment of feeling guilty about my half-dead plants into acceptance and understanding:

What do you feel guilty about?
Not watering the plants regularly.

What are you telling yourself you should and shouldn’t do?
I should have a schedule of watering plants.
I shouldn’t have real plants if I’m not going to take care of them.
I shouldn’t accept plants as a gift.
I should check them more often.
What needs are not met by choice you made?
How do you feel when you get in touch with these unmet needs?
What needs were you attempting to meet by the choice you made?
What are your Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests in the present moment?
Observation – When I see dried up plants
Feeling – I feel sad, embarrassed, annoyed, overwhelmed
Needs – because I need beauty and order in my living space
Request – would I be willing to put ‘watering the plants’ on my activity calendar?

This process has helped me get rid of feeling guilty and uncover the unmet needs behind the feelings.  Try it and, if you feel like it, bring it to the comments section and share your experience with the rest of us.

As for me, I’m no longer afraid of judgment–whether on high or right here.  And I sleep like a baby through thunderstorms.


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2 Responses to How to Take Charge of Your Guilt

  1. Kaylee says:

    What an in-depth way of looking at your feelings. I love it! And the demonstration is really helpful too.

    I can definitely apply this to my own life, as I’ve been slacking off a bit with meditation recently. (See the language – “slacking off” – can you guess how I feel about that?)

    • admin says:

      Kaylee, thanks for checking it out! You are half way there if you already recognize the ‘violence’ our words evoke. Oddly, calling this process ‘nonviolent communication’ seems to be the sticking point for most people. Lots of charge around ‘violence’ and ‘nonviolence.’

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