My mother graduated from a long and painful struggle with cancer and alcoholism in 2007. My father graduated from his long and painful struggle with Alzheimer’s, dementia and coronary disease in 2015.
What I want to share about those experiences is that I discovered that it wasn’t just my grief that was difficult to deal with regarding those two events, but the underlying guilt that came with it.
In my experience, grief is often accompanied by assumed guilt, which only exacerbated the level of grief. The guilt I felt was due to my mistaken belief that there was something I could have done to make my parents happier or their experience less painful. Many times the guilt is one of survival; I lived, they didn’t. Yes, I miss them (grief) but the underlying guilt is what made it a more painful experience.
Most people describe emotions as being positive or negative. Positive emotions are those emotions that are healing and create well-being, freedom and awareness. Negative emotions are emotions that cause emotional and physical pain, isolation and disease. Grief is one of those negative emotions that everyone has experienced, however, we can transform this negative emotion into a positive experience by removing the guilt.
Guilt is the emotion that we feel when we believe we have done something wrong. That is all it takes, that one simple thought spoken silently to ourselves or by someone else. Guilt plants the seed of judgment that you have done something wrong. Where did you get the judgment? Where does the term “wrong” come into your vocabulary? Why does anyone feel like they have done anything wrong? It is because someone told them that they have done something wrong. What a major screw-up.
This could have been a very short article when I tell you that there is nothing that you can do that is wrong. There is no cause for the feeling of guilt. It is all an illusion. From the beginning of human history, each generation has taken on guilt and passed it down to the children. Parents, children, friends, spouses, partners and others have used guilt for behavior modification, punishment and revenge. Institutions like businesses, governments and religions have used guilt to keep people in line and oppressed. Guilt is so much a part of the fabric of our culture that it seems quite radical to suggest that it’s been a mistake.
Emotions, even the powerful negative ones, need to be felt, addressed and moved through. Without guilt, feelings like grief, fear or anger can flow smoothly and move through us. The truth is that you and I, everyone…we are all innocent. Many have believed that guilt has been necessary to keep us from doing “wrong” things. But this isn’t true, a good conscience does not depend on guilt, but rather on a sense of what is truth and what is not. We all eventually learn to live without the object of our loss, we are pretty flexible that way. What we are not so good at is dealing with the underlying guilt.
In a healthy situation, we feel the feeling—and then it’s gone. Oh sure, remnants here and there, snips and bits of “what ifs” to acknowledge. Eventually though, it leaves a space within us that can later be filled with joy, excitement, power or other emotions. For instance, grief without guilt feels warm and smooth, tender and round edged, like love. Fear without guilt feels like excitement or anticipation, edgy and bright. Anger without guilt feels like power. However, emotions with guilt in them are much more difficult to feel. They hurt. Guilt in, or around, an emotion causes it to abruptly stop and start again. This jerkiness in the otherwise smoothly flowing feeling causes a pain-like sensation, that we interpret as “feeling guilty.”
The easiest way to deal with feelings infected with guilt has been to deny the feelings. For many of us this has been crucial to maintaining self-esteem and keeping our optimism high enough to go on with life. The problem with this is that denied feelings don’t go away, they submerge and stay unconscious. This creates an opening for the split off parts of us (that experienced the feelings and are now unconscious) to repeat destructive or unwanted patterns of behavior. Denial is only a coping mechanism. It’s not a “dealing with and working through” mechanism. Real healing can come only when the feelings are felt and the guilt is confronted and removed. Although the suggested practice that follows is very easy to do, for most it can facilitate very deep healing. The true healing of guilt is in releasing the judgments that hold the painful grip of guilt in place.
The punishment and obvious result of negative judgments, is guilt. Guilt erodes our sense of self worth and makes it very difficult to feel feelings that have been infected with it. I mean who really wants to trudge into the dark territory of possibly feeling worse than we already do, when it seems that there aren’t any guarantees of relief on the other side of the process? Depression is often the consequence of guilt-bound feelings that seemingly cannot move and are therefore denied.
Guilt is held in place by judgments. There is light at the end of the tunnel though: Release the judgments, and the guilt goes too. And because judgments are decisions, they are easy to change. The secret is simply to decide again. Take back your original judgment, change your mind, un-decide, un-judge. Whatever it was that caused you to judge against yourself, whether they said it and you believed it or vice versa, it’s not wrong, it’s a choice. We have free will and every choice we make is valid, and particularly valid when it’s used as a learning experience. Release each negative judgment until there are no more. That’s all there is to it, when the judgments are released you are free again to decide about how you will feel and act in this and similar situations.
So how do we release the self-judgment that make us feel guilty? Here are some suggestions: