Perspectives on Feeling Guilty

Questions that came to us via our readers:

How do we let go of guilty feelings that keep re-emerging, in dreams and quiet times? How can we be free of unwanted old messages? How can we overcome feeling guilty in telling ourselves, “Oh God, how could I have caused such pain?” – when the consequences are still apparent but insoluble?

We will attempt to respond to these questions from different perspectives and will keep in mind that the issues addressed are multi-layered. To every perspective there is a potential “if” and “but” that could be explored further. Our input is designed to stimulate questions and discussion.

Fritz Perls said, “When you feel guilty, you actually feel resentful.” {Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, p. 168} He saw feeling guilty as retroflected anger, anger turned against ourselves. It becomes resentment and can be felt as stomach pain, for example.

We can undo this by acknowledging the resentment and releasing the anger. A familiar experience in Gestalt Therapy sessions or workshops has been to hit cushions to release anger. Releasing anger that way can lead to rehearsing and staying stuck in anger. What helps us to move on is forgiveness of ourselves and others.

Caroline Myss regards our unwillingness to forgive as a main cause for disease.

“Self-love means caring for ourselves enough to forgive people in our past so that the wounds can no longer damage us – for our wounds do not hurt the people who hurt us, they hurt only us.” {Caroline Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit, p. 204}

Family therapist Bert Hellinger says that there is “good” and “bad” forgiving. To forgive too fast may avoid resolving a conflict and cover up. Forgiving from an arrogant, superior position is also not helpful. For true reconciliation to happen the innocent not only has the right for reparation he/she also has the duty to demand it. This gives the guilty one a chance to make up. Both can keep their dignity. The innocent becomes guilty when he/she denies the guilty one the chance to make up. {Translated from: Gunthard Weber (ed.), Zweierlei Glück, p. 29}

Feeling guilty is a widely experienced foible of our society. We move through life hurting others and ourselves as well as being hurt.

Recently we had an unusual perspective on guilt being presented to us. During his last visit to Christchurch, Lama Samten from the Buddhist Monastery Karma Choeling, north of Auckland, told us that he has had difficulties understanding the exact meaning of feeling guilty. As someone who grew up in Tibet, he knows of regret, but not of feeling guilty.

Lama Samten suggested that feeling guilty might be based on the assumption that at the time we would have had the power or capacity to do things differently.

How about this? You feel guilty, and instead of rejecting yourself for it, you let yourself feel regret, and at the same time, develop compassion with your limits. What is there for you to learn? Let’s assume that at the time you did your very best. From the perspective and knowledge you have now you might do things differently, but at the time then, you had no other options. Our feelings are often much stronger than our mind. What is left is our opportunity to soften to feel remorse and pure grief: “I wish I had not done that” or “I wish I had done something different”.

It’s a humbling gesture, to accept our limits. It also can free us from guilt.

Regret gives us the option to make up if we hurt another person, it allows for a softening that is necessary in asking for forgiveness. When we remain stuck in feeling guilty, on the other hand, we intensify our suffering as we are unable to experience us as we are now.

Living with the consequences of actions we regret poses a tremendous challenge and opportunity for ourselves. The challenge lies in facing the grief and the suffering; the opportunity lies in developing compassion, kindness and patience towards ourselves. Seeking a resolution keeps us often trapped in wanting something different than is.

Irrespective of the fact that we think we have caused the harm or it has been done to us, we have the opportunity to feel the wound. In Pema Chödrön words: “If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart and to relate to that wound.” {Pema Chödrön , Where you are, p. 32}

We live in a society where we treat suffering and pain as an enemy. Yet they are part of life. In befriending pain and suffering we are able to soften and deeply share the pain that is felt by so many other human beings. We are able to gain a stronger sense of clarity.

When you feel that you have caused harm and hurt to the other person, you might need forgiveness to be able to complete your unfinished business.

First however, it is important to forgive yourself. You might find this hard to do, if you hold on to the belief that you could have done things differently at the time, when in fact you couldn’t have. It’s a humbling experience to consider your limitations and embrace your “mistakes”.

It is vital to develop compassion with yourself. What good is it to keep punishing yourself?

Recently we saw an English film with the title, “If only …”. A man who had had an affair told his partner. She left him and then met someone else. He regretted his action. In this movie, he was given the chance to go back in time and relive the situation when he got home. This time he didn’t tell her. Eventually, she still met this other man and ended up having an affair with him herself and breaking up, despite all his attempts to keep her away from him.

This movie suggests that things happen the way they are meant to happen and that we have little control over our destiny. Our opportunity is in understanding how we respond moment by moment to a given situation. There is nothing we can do in retrospect, and there is nothing we can do about the things that simply “are”.

For example, when it rains and you feel bothered by this, it won’t change the fact that it rains.

There is also nothing we can do about the past. We can learn from our mistakes. This is helped by staying open, soft and honest about our limitation.

Sometimes, however, we might not even have regrets, even though our actions were harmful to ourselves or others. Guilt can be obscured by unacknowledged shame.

I once met a man who had been accused of sexual abuse. He told me that if he even would consider the possibility to have done what he was accused of, he would not be able to live with himself.

Often we have a great investment to uphold a certain picture of ourselves, our image. We think, that’s all there is to us. Holding on and defending that creates suffering. It can be a relief to realise our true self, our limits, to face our mistakes and to feel regrets. We support ourselves when we face ourselves with compassion, “I did my best at the time”, rather than punishing ourselves with guilt and self loathing.

Compassion and self love soften us, and allow for new experiences.

Sometimes guilt is present in our dreams. Sigmund Freud used to call dreams “the royal road to the unconscious”. What comes back to us in our dreams is still with us somehow. It is, in Gestalt Therapy terms, “unfinished business”. A way to free yourself from unwanted old messages to yourself is to address unfinished business. When we do this in a counselling situation, we look at what it is that needs to happen for the client to free and unblock a trapped thought or belief. We deal with it in the here-and-now and attend to the feeling as well as the thinking.

What do you do when the consequences of your action are still apparent but appear insoluble? This might be the case when the person involved is unwilling to resolve the issue or perhaps dead. From a Gestalt Therapy perspective, this is only an apparent obstacle. Say you have for example an unresolved conflict with a relative or close friend. This unresolved conflict lives in you. It is frozen history, yet deeply felt in the moment. Since both, he/she and you have changed, the conflict is not with the actual person now but with the representation of her/him in your own mind. Therefore you don’t need the other person’s actual presence to complete unfinished business with him/her. You need to complete it within yourself. A simple technique that can help with this is to write a letter to this person expressing fully how you feel. This letter is not meant to be sent. It is a tool to acknowledge and release what you have been holding inside.

“There are many ways and portions to forgiving a person, a community, a nation for an offence”, writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes. “It is important to remember that a final forgiveness is not surrender. It is a conscious decision to cease to harbor resentment.” {Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves, p. 372; see also Stephanie Dowrick, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, p. 327.}

Mirjam Busch & Rudolf Jarosewitsch

Copyright © 6/1999 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Integrative Dialogue #10, Jun1999

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