Are you holding onto guilt? Do you punish yourself because you feel like you “should have” acted differently in a scenario? Guilt is directing pain at yourself, and held onto, can negatively affect your well-being.
In December of 2012 I received a phone call from my father. I held the phone in my hand as I watched it ring, debating whether I should answer it. It rang a few times and eventually went to voice mail. I thought he could be calling to wish me a Merry Christmas, since it was only a few days away, yet there was that part of me that felt this call was initiated because of an ulterior motive. Usually, whenever my father called me, he’d ask for money, an unfortunate behavior resulting from his struggle with heroin addiction. I listened to the voice mail and figured I would just call him back. In that moment, I made the decision to create a boundary and to give myself some time to gather my resolve before calling him back.
The week flew by and before I knew it, it was Christmas Day, and I still hadn’t called him back. Unfortunately, I would never have the opportunity to. My father died the next evening, and when I got the phone call letting me know he was gone, I immediately felt the most unbearable guilt that I had ever experienced. It was intensely painful. I can only describe how I felt by referencing the movie The Princess Bride. If you’ve ever watched The Princess Bride, then you must remember the scene when Westley is hooked up to the torture machine in the pit of despair. Prince Humperdinck sets the machine to the highest level sending Westley into a catatonic state resembling death, only after his squeals of agony reverberate throughout the forest.
After the initial shock, my thoughts spiraled out of control. I should have picked up the phone. I should have called him back. Louise Hay, author of the best-selling book “You Can Heal Your Life” says that guilt leads to punishment and punishment leads to pain. I punished myself for months, listening to his voice mail repeatedly, continually berating myself in the present moment for something that had happened in the past. Have you done that to yourself? Are you doing that to yourself right now? If you are, I’m here to tell you that guilt will never make you feel better and it cannot change the situation.
The only way to return to a state of peace is to let go of guilt. How do you do that? It starts with having compassion for yourself and acknowledging that you were doing the best that you could at that moment. Ask yourself, would you forgive someone else for the same actions? I know if a friend shared the same story with me, that I just told you, I would have compassion for her in my heart. How does it benefit you to continue to punish yourself? The answer is, it doesn’t.
I also had to dig deeply to cultivate compassion for my father for the struggles that he had endured. That was hard, because I had accepted who he was, yet I realized there was still that little girl inside of me that just wanted her daddy to call her because he loved her, not because he needed something.
How else can you unlock the cage that guilt can often feel like your trapped in?
Besides having compassion for yourself, the act of forgiveness will help release guilt. Research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, demonstrated that the practice of self-forgiveness helps dimish feelings of guilt over time.
Ph.D. researchers: Michael Scherer, Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Joshua N. Hook and Kathryn L. Campana studied the impact the process of self-forgiveness could have on easing guilt of with a sample of people going through routine treatment for alcoholism. This study did focus on several other factors but for our purposes we’re going to hone in on the guilt findings. For more on the overall study, click here. The participants were split into two groups. One group continued with treatment as usual while the other group was assigned a four-hour self-forgiveness process that took place over three consecutive weeks.
The self-forgiveness group reported reduced feelings of guilt over a period of time compared to the regular treatment group. Interestingly enough, participants in the self-forgiveness group also reported that feeling less guilt diminished the urge to drink, when drinking was used as a coping mechanism.
So, what does this mean for you? What step can you take to free yourself from guilt? The answer is forgiving yourself. You can begin by doing a simple forgiveness exercise involving utilizing a mirror.
With your hand on your heart, look yourself in the eyes and say silently, I am willing to forgive you. If it feels comfortable, continue with this statement, and use it whenever feelings of guilt are aroused. If you’d like, you may say those words aloud. Work with that phrase for as long as you need until eventually you can easily say “I forgive myself for___, and I set myself free.” I’ve used this process with much success in addition to an affirmative prayer that helped me release the guilt I internalized after missing my father’s phone call. Here is an example that you can customize yourself.
Thank you God for helping me to forgive myself, and release all guilt that I hold in my body. I clear all the ways I allow conscious and unconscious guilt to affect my life. I clear all the ways I am consumed with guilt. I release all my unexpressed and unresolved guilt. I clear all the ways I suppress my guilt. I allow this guilt to be removed from my body and now let love and peace flow unconditionally through me. And So It Is.
Remember, whatever it is that you feel guilty about is in the past. Any negative thoughts that you are directing toward yourself, are only thoughts, and thoughts can be changed. The more you choose compassionate thoughts, the easier it will become to let go of the guilt. Be patient with yourself and know that you deserve to feel peace.
Nanette Nuvolone: Peak Mindset Coach