Whether listening to mothers share at Mothers Together, working with clients who struggle in their relationships or talking to people who are concerned about the climate crisis- guilt tends to be a central actor on the stage. This is concerning, because it is so dangerous to feel bad about things. Guilt is such an impactful emotion. The many mothers I speak with- guilt is a constant companion- feeling guilty for not being present enough, not relaxed enough, not loving enough. Feeling guilty towards your partner for not being available enough, sexy enough, interested enough. Feeling guilty if you are taking time for yourself, to the extent of almost not being able to enjoy it. Feeling guilty for not missing your children enough when you have a moment away. And it goes on and on. Guilt also came up so strongly in connection to Extinction Rebellion- so many people, myself included, who couldn’t make it to London for the recent protest- feeling guilty for not being there. Feeling guilty for not being activist enough. Feeling guilty for flying or buying something wrapped in plastic. Guilt is everywhere. It stops and taints so many interactions.
What is good about guilt? In a best case scenario, feeling guilty can lead to an examination of what is and isn’t working in your life. It can motivate us to change our behaviour and to do something - take social action, contribute money, spend time, educate ourselves etc.
But too much or constant guilt has the opposite effect. It feeds on itself and distracts us, makes us self involved. Doing something out of guilt often is an act. We want to be seen to do something so that others think better of us. It doesn’t lead to actions from the heart, but to do something “for show”. Too much guilt distracts us from taking accountability. From having a calm look at ourselves. Instead, you flagellate yourself.
As an outsider interacting with someone who is full of guilt is a tedious experience. You might try to help them let go of the guilt, which in most cases is almost impossible. People full of guilt tend to apologise and explain a lot, in the hope that the other won’t judge them as harshly, when it is in fact their own judgment they are suffering from. It gets boring and unrelated, because you are not being seen, instead you have to make space for the other’s guilt. If the guilt is in relation to something they have done to you- this is doubly hard. Because instead of the “guilty” person showing up for you, they now want you to make them feel better- the emotional labour is on you. This is so draining.
I witness this at its most toxic around racism. White guilt, white fragility- it is so common it has its own name. A huge part of the toxic cycling around racism is white people feeling so ashamed and bad and worried about saying the wrong thing- that all the effort is about making things bearable for white people, which only further worsens the agony of people of colour.
Another dangerous aspect of guilt is that we can buy into feeling bad about ourselves so much that we start treating ourselves badly- we stop looking after ourselves as a way to punish ourselves. We feel we deserve bad treatment and put ourselves in harms way.
Essentially- guilt is a feeling that makes everything about you. It stops relationship. It closes doors. It is all ego. What we need instead is accountability, responsibility and compassion. Guilt in a paradoxical way is a huge privilege. It may feel horrible to feel guilty but it keeps us from actually dealing with what is going on. In terms of the climate crisis- we can spend endless time feeling guilty for the harmful things we do- or we can find ways to look after ourselves as we navigate how to change. Even reading this- you could use this post to start beating yourself up for how bad you are with guilt. That yes how terrible of you you do all of these things. Or you can recognise it and start noticing when it happens. Just by noticing this automatic story of guilt that happens, a door opens to making a different choice. What could you do differently? Can you notice the guilt and instead focus on other emotions and thoughts you have- watering these with your attention so they can grow over time? Practice being uncomfortable, breathing with it. That creates a lot of space for things other than guilt to arise. Practice compassion. Practice slowing down.