Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Motherhood

Letting Go of Guilt

Cover of "I'm Sorry"

Cover of I’m Sorry

Treating yourself with the same consideration you give others…

For JFM

Guilt is a fascinating concept to me. Maybe its many manifestations (or lack of appropriate manifestations) intrigue me, but I have learned over the years that too much of it can be far worse than not enough of it. Not feeling any guilt, for example, although very dangerous at times, can be quite liberating. Imagine never (or rarely) feeling guilty. How much would you do without fear of feeling badly? Obviously, I’m not advocating some pseudo-hedonistic way of life, but I am suggesting letting go of some guilty feelings in order to realize a fuller life.

You asked, “How  do I do that?”, and I replied, “I don’t know.” I guess that’s the great thing about friends, real friends; there’s an honesty about personal capacity that should underscore conversations. The reality is that I can’t tell you how to do anything to enrich your life; that’s totally up to you. What I can say is this:

Too much guilt can be stifling, a sweltering kind of oppression, and in my opinion, it’s the worst kind because you do it to yourself. You cut yourself off from real progress, too afraid to forgive yourself of whatever role you played to put yourself into situations that you later regret.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t fear of personal forgiveness; it can be a feeling of “I’m not deserving of this forgiveness,” and to that I say, “Stop being so damn selfish.” It’s ironic, right? Sometimes we are selfish when we deny ourselves healing because of some perverse feeling that we should be in mourning over something that happened years ago. Here’s where I think women can learn something from men. In my experience, men commit some wrong, are called on it, and if they acknowledge it, they apologize. And most of the guys in my life, if they really care about me, mean their apologies. If you call them on it again weeks, months, or years later, they say, “I already said ‘I’m sorry!’ What else do you want from me?” Most of the time, we can’t answer, but if we really think about it, we want them to feel that same guilt we feel when we do things wrong. Is that right, though? Is it even fair?

When my kids wrong another, I make them say they are sorry. I talk with them about why they should be sorry, and how that behavior runs contrary to my expectations for them. I express that I never want to see that type of behavior again, and I am firm when I say that more unpleasant consequences will occur if I ever see or hear about them doing anything like that again. And I mean it. When another kid wrongs one of them, and their parent makes him say he’s sorry, I expect my kids to say, “That’s okay. I forgive you.” And I want my kids to be done with the hurt. I want the other parent to do what I would do in that situation, but I can’t expect that. I don’t expect all parents to do what I do in the way that I do it, and when parents act differently from what I think is healthy, it pisses me off, but I don’t get nasty. All I can do is to teach my kids how to behave on both sides of a wrong. I don’t want them taking that playground shove from last month with them day after day. Instead, I want them to be happy and healthy, and to do that, some stuff needs to be let go. Of course, I want them to be wary of nonsense and intolerant of bullying no matter what side of the popularity lines they survive on, but I don’t want them stagnant because of guilt, nor do I want them heaping grandmother loads of guilt on others.

I know that the previous is a very tiny issue compared to what we know to be causes of grown-up guilt, but I think in some way the concept remains true. Some stuff is easier to forgive than others. “I’m sorry for eating the last piece of chicken when I knew that you would be hungry when you came home” is a lot easier than “I’m sorry for [insert anything that you would cringe about if you had to confess with your grandparents anywhere within earshot]” but at some point, if your life is to be happy and healthy, you need to grow out of guilt. That doesn’t mean, “I’m sorry. Now I’m done with it.” But it does mean, “I’m sorry. I understand how this is not what I expect my life to be like or to entail. I must pay my dues, whatever is appropriate. I must understand what will happen if I let this happen again. I must forgive myself for my role. Now I must be done with it to grow.” At least, this is what works for me.

Figure out your let go strategy. It make take trial and error, but really try. Good luck.

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3 thoughts on “Letting Go of Guilt

  1. Anonymous on said:

    Guilt can be a strong emotion, but having the humility to apologize when faced with wronging a person is more powerful than letting go of guilt.

    • That’s true. But when the person wronged looks back at you in the mirror, you need to forgive yourself to be able to let go of the guilt. This piece is more about what happens when the personal guilt of a personal wrong begins to eat away at you, preventing you from moving forward in life. In my opinion, we need to treat ourselves with the same humility that we treat others when our decisions, whether intentional or not, hurt ourselves. For me, treating myself like I treat others when I realize that I’ve hurt them is how I face myself when I’ve done things to myself. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Pingback: Happiness: Guilt, Criticism, and Projection | Social Behavioral Patterns–How to Understand Culture and Behaviors

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