Some More on Guilt

Reader’s Question:

You showed very deep insights into the issues of guilt and shame. A query for me is that to let go of guilty feelings of long-standing duration seems to sometimes lead to the issue re-issueing in dreams – and at times during meditation! How does a person become really free of unwanted old messages – old holding back feelings of “Oh God, how could I have caused (or missed) such pain or need?” – when the consequences may still be apparent but insoluble?

This is a good question and we will attempt to respond to it from different perspectives.

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.

Fritz Perls saw feeling guilty as retroflected anger, resentment turned back on to ourselves. Often blocked energy can be released when we replace “feeling guilty” with answering the question, “what is it that you resent?” It might sound paradox, since you feel it’s all your fault. Yet, often this leads to the release of blocked energy and to the experience of the stuck situation in a broader context.

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.” (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?

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.

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.

Mirjam Busch & Rudolf Jarosewitsch

Copyright © 5/1999 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Southshore Beacon #107, May1999

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