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Carrying Around Guilt Stresses Body and Mind

Many will remember the moment that Dorothy walks from black and white Kansas into technicolour in the movie Wizard of Oz.

That’s how Patricia Berendsen describes shedding weeks, months or even years of guilt. Carrying around guilty feelings is “uncomfortable so people distract themselves with drinking, substances, work, spending money – any-thing to avoid dealing with it. It takes a lot of courage to face things rather than distract. But things catch up with us and we must deal with them.

Doing that is like breaking out of a straitjacket. Having love for yourself is a game changer. Living a life without that weight and being happier and freer, being able to communicate with partners, children, parents and co-workers in a more positive way is so fulfilling. Going from that black-and-white world to one that’s full of colour and joy is magical,” says Berendsen and it’s one of the most rewarding things about her practice as a psychotherapist.

Being able to forgive yourself and develop a better relationship with your-self is the first step to having improved relationships. But some don’t realize they have internal guilt. The death of a parent or another family member can reveal feelings long buried.

According to Marnie Wedlake, psychotherapist, these guilty feelings can actually be engendered by someone else’s agenda, someone else’s voice in your head. She explains that when we say to ourselves, ‘My mom would be rolling over in her grave. Or what would my dad say about that?’ we are channelling the voices of others and their opinions are coming through replacing our own thoughts.

“We often reflect the values of others who have been impactful on us,” says Wedlake. Feeling like we haven’t lived up to the expectations of the voices in our heads can result in feelings of guilt or regret. These feelings can manifest physically, according to Berendsen. “If you’re feeling really crappy about yourself, what are you noticing in your body – not what you are thinking. Is your stomach feeling tight; are you holding your breath; is there tension in your jaw; what’s my posture like; what are my hands and feet doing?” These are signs that negative feelings are impacting you more than you might realize.

Not all guilty feelings are unwarranted, agree Wedlake and Berendsen. “If we’ve hurt someone, I think it’s a good thing to feel that pang of guilt. It’s an indicator light that says, ‘Hey, pay attention,’” explains Berendsen. She adds, “But there is a difference between what people do and who they are. We aren’t meant to wear that guilt forever.”

It’s important to make amends and move on. “We are often reluctant to sit with vulnerability regarding the behaviour,” says Wedlake. We often apologize but add an excuse which negates the apology: “Sorry about that but . . . happened.”

She advocates for keeping it simple and genuine. ‘I’m sorry I was late. Or I’m sorry I disappointed you.’ and leave it at that. Adding that people often drop the ‘I’ when phrasing an apology. “They eliminate the ‘I’ because it’s too close to home to put ‘I’ next to feelings that are deep or hard.”

But the payoff for taking ownership of bad actions or words can be rewarding for us and our internal dialogue, as well as for repairing relationships. “If we want to be our best selves, we have to take ownership of things that we don’t feel good about,” says Wedlake.

What happens if the person to whom we feel we must apologize isn’t available (deceased) or unwilling to receive the apology (broken relationship)? Wedlake recommends using one of these methods of ridding ourselves of intrusive negative thoughts caused by guilt, “when you don’t want this to take up real estate in your mind.”

Thought stopping – When you’re ruminating on something, catch yourself and latch on to something else, like reading a book or watching a video to interrupt the cascade of negativity. Journalling – Get all the negative thoughts and feelings out by writing them down. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or complete because it’s just for you, a mind dump.

Do a cleansing ritual – Wedlake calls this “a symbolic representation of my intent to move on from this.” Some examples might be writing the things about which you feel guilty on pieces of paper and burying or burning them.

She adds that it’s important to go deeper and find out what’s truly causing this angst. “Keep going (with self-analysis) if you’re still having a hard time because there’s something underneath it. You have to figure out what it’s really about.”

But why would someone choose to remain in the guilt zone by not using one of these methods to escape this morass of pain?

“I think people sometimes feel that others will like them more if they are feeling guilty. Or it makes them feel humble or more worthy. Or, alternatively, they feel like they should feel that way,” says Berendsen.

Both agree that it can be helpful to seek professional assistance in working through deep-seated feelings of guilt. “Feeling guilty is the way some people connect with the person they lost, but they need options to think differently. Having someone who can help them move on from a rigid worldview and help them find other ways of reacting and looking at themselves can help,” says Berendsen. Looking inward instead of distracting, doing the work and talking to a professional, if necessary, are all ways that we can move through the fog of feeling guilty into the clear, colourful world of self-love that improves our relationships with ourselves and others.