Many of us feel a deep pang of guilt about many things. We feel guilty about eating certain foods. We feel guilty about not exercising or exercising enough.
We feel guilty about our weight or size. We feel guilty about taking care of ourselves.
We feel guilty about the things we think we should do. Maybe even about the way we think we should be.
These guilty feelings can feel incredibly overwhelming. And they can perpetuate a slew of unhealthy behaviors (like dieting or skipping self-care).
Recently I came across a passage in Elizabeth Lesser’s Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow that serves as a powerful reminder when guilty feelings arise. It’s a quote from sister Wendy Beckett, a Roman Catholic nun. She talks about prayer, but I think her words apply to how we view guilt in general.
I don’t think being human has any place for guilt. Contrition, yes. Guilt, no. Contrition means you tell God you are sorry and you’re not going to do it again and you start off afresh. All the damage you’ve done to yourself, put right. Guilt means you go on and on belaboring and having emotions and beating your breast and being ego-fixated. Guilt is a trap. People love guilt because they feel if they suffer enough guilt, they’ll make up for what they’ve done. Whereas, in fact, they’re just sitting in a puddle and splashing. Contrition, you move forward. It’s over. You are willing to forgo the pleasures of guilt.
Guilt is a trap. It makes sure that we’re spinning our wheels without moving forward. We just sink deeper and deeper into the mud and muck.
I know it’s not easy to erase feelings of guilt. But I do think it’s important to keep reminding ourselves of its futility. In other words, guilt isn’t just draining, it’s also useless.
It’s not some good motivator. It doesn’t lead to positive change. It just makes us feel worse and worse. It makes us feel defeated, helpless.
Feelings of guilt may still arise. But when they do, it helps to gain perspective and remind yourself: Guilt does not help us become healthier or happier. It silences us. And keeps us stagnant.
I also think the most powerful lesson I’ve learned about guilt is that just because you’re experiencing these feelings doesn’t mean you have to act on them.
Some days, I still feel guilty after eating dessert (a smaller kind of guilt, but one that still lingers and gnaws at me). Some days, I still feel guilty after not exercising “enough” (whatever that means).
The difference today — from years ago — is that I don’t let those guilty feelings dictate my actions. I don’t start a new diet. I push pause on my inner critic. I quiet the voice that says I need to punish myself for the supposed sins of relaxing and exercising less.
It’s not always so neat or natural or automatic. It’s something I practice. And keep practicing.
We can question our guilt. We can challenge its validity. And we can make the decision not to let it drive our actions. One step. One action. At a time.
When you do something wrong, truly wrong, by all means, apologize. When you make a mistake, work on making it right (and uncovering the lesson). When you hurt someone’s feelings, reach out to them. That’s contrition. That’s helpful, and it’s sincere.
But there’s no need to bash yourself over food, exercise or appearance. It’s splashing in a puddle. Even more so, it’s undeserved.