Wednesday 13 November 2019

Guilt, be gone ...

Self-compassion can help you break the cycle of shame.

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

You've probably felt a pang of guilt today. For sleeping past the alarm or for staying out past bedtime; for eating that dessert or missing that Pilates class. Guilty for spending too much money; guilty for spending too little time with friends.

You'll notice that for every action there is an equal opportunity to feel guilty. We feel guilty when we leave work early. We feel guilty when we sacrifice family time by working late. Working mothers feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children; stay-at-home mothers feel guilty about not working. Sometimes we feel guilty about feeling guilty.

Guilt has become the stick to beat ourselves with. It is a powerful psychological impetus - no surprise then that the marketing and advertising worlds use all sorts of manoeuvres to elicit guilt in consumers.

Guilt drives the cults of capitalism and religion, hence, we all have a hundred and one 'shoulds' humming away in the background at any given time.

"It seems to me that everyone on this planet, whom I know or have worked with, is suffering from self-hatred and guilt to one degree or another," writes motivational author Louise Hay.

"The more self-hatred and guilt we have, the less our lives work. The less self-hatred and guilt we have, the better our lives work, on all levels."

Guilt, which arises from actions or inactions, gnaws away at us. Left unchecked, it can become shame, which is the belief that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy.

Something tells us to hide our shame. We don't talk about it and so it devolves into an even deeper-rooted feeling of inadequacy. We feel ashamed for feeling shame, which makes it difficult to heal the symptoms, let alone pinpoint them.

And symptoms abound. Suppressed shame leads to anxiety, restlessness and irritability. Those carrying the burden find it difficult to get into the moment - they project into the future and reprimand themselves for what they did in the past.

They have difficulty establishing intimate relationships - as the oft-quoted fridge magnet wisdom goes: if you don't love yourself then who will?

It leads to destructive behaviour too, from alcoholism to workaholism and everything in between.

Crucially, it is the bedrock of low self-esteem, which can also manifest as egoic chest thumping. Superiority complexes are simply inferiority complexes in disguise...

Perhaps the shame cycle that we are all most familiar with is the one that governs our relationship with food: denial-binge-guilt, repeat ad nauseam. Shame has an insatiable appetite because there is just no filling a hole in the soul.

You've probably heard of the study in which people from different countries were asked what words they associated with 'chocolate cake'. 'Guilt' was the top association of the Americans. 'Celebration' was the word most commonly conjured up by the French.

Yes, the French have given themselves permission to feel good, hence they don't really do unnecessary guilt or incessant self-condemnation. Ask a French woman about Catholic Guilt or Mother Guilt and you'll generally be met with a flamboyant flick of the wrist.

Perhaps they don't concern themselves with trivial guilt because they know that we all have to contend with real guilt at one point or another. It was a Frenchwoman, Coco Chanel, who sagely pointed out that "Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death".

When you consider that guilt - the deadening, suffocating kind - is inevitable, it makes the daily self-flagellation that we torment ourselves with seem all the more futile. No doubt one informs the other. If we beat ourselves up for eating a second helping of chocolate cake, how will we treat ourselves when we really do transgress?

Nobody judges us as mercilessly as we judge ourselves, which is why so many of us lock ourselves in self-imposed prisons when we commit a real wrong-doing. We don't feel deserving of forgiveness, not least from ourselves. But the decision not to forgive ourselves isn't the only form of punishment. We punish ourselves unconsciously too.

Self-forgiveness is the only way to break free, and self-compassion is the only road that can lead us there.

Self-compassion helps us rationalise our misdemeanours. It makes us ask ourselves if we have really tried to fix the problem or just resigned ourselves to feeling ashamed.

Self-compassion tells us not to fixate on our action or inaction but to reflect on the circumstances that prompted it. It reminds us that nobody's perfect, that we're all here to learn lessons (and we need to practice forgiveness to move from one lesson to the next).

Self-compassion is crucial to thrive in a world where sacrifices have to be made each and every day. Prioritising has become paramount and we are all struggling to find equilibrium. Being a little less hard on ourselves is not the easy option. It's the only option.

If you're having difficulty forgiving yourself, give this tried and tested self-compassion exercise a go: imagine your best friend shared your plight with you. What advice would you give her? And why is that advice different to what you are telling yourself? If that doesn't work, talk to a French person.

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