Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dealing with gut wrenching guilt

When I was around eight years old I was invited to Jenny McMillan's birthday party. When you are eight, birthday parties are the social events of the year, and being invited to one can make or break your social status. I've always been a social butterfly, and I wanted to go. I was excited. Except, Jenny's birthday was July 1st. The same day as my dad's.
I have a great dad, and you can clearly see, I am his favorite. 
I was torn. Should I go to my friend's birthday party, who was only sort of my friend from church (a whole grade older than me! The honor!) or should I stay with my dad an attend whatever small family gathering my mom had planned (a family picnic). To this day, more than twenty years later, I can still recall what a major dilemma it was. I'm sure I made a mental pros and cons list, though I had no idea what a pros and cons list actually was at the time. My dad left it "up to me" he said was going to be fine either way. Knowing my dad, I'm sure he said something like, "You're going to go to a friend's birthday instead of spending time with your dad?" And I'm sure he would have made the comment in jest. I decided to go to Jenny's party.

From the moment I climbed into the back of her parent's truck, I KNEW I'd made the wrong decision. Part of me thinks that the birthday was held somewhere up a canyon or something, but I could be wrong, because all I could think about was how I must have let my dad down. I had to have hurt his feelings. Could he possibly have a happy birthday without me? Did he feel rejected? How could I, his oldest, not to mention FAVORITE child have betrayed him in such a way? I was wallowing so much that one of Jenny's parents offered to take me back home, but then I'd be ruining TWO birthday parties and I don't think my little heart could have taken it.

Guilt is a funny thing. It lingers with you, eating away at your gut. Guilt has it's purposes, but I also think that guilt is very often self inflicted and unnecessary. It can render us utterly useless. We need to learn to cope with guilt in healthy ways so that we can learn from it, but not allow it to overtake us. Some things that have helped me deal with guilt are:

1) Recognize it for what it is, don't ignore it. If I face my guilt head on, it allows me to acknowledge my mistake, and I'm able to deal with it quicker and easier.

2) Own up to it. If the guilt is induced because a mistake has been made, instead of making excuses, apologize for what you've done. I must have apologized half a dozen times to my dad, who could see I was torn up about what I'd done. To him, it wasn't a big deal, but he could see the way I was being affected by it, and he readily forgave me. In my experience, when you sincerely apologize, most of the time it's hard for the person not to forgive you.

3) Recognize your own limitations. Sometimes the guilt we feel comes from the feeling of not being enough. It's okay to have limitations, and we shouldn't necessarily feel guilty for having them. Recently I was asked to bring a meal to a neighbor who had just had a baby. I was 38 weeks pregnant and my husband had just had knee surgery. Initially I said yes, because I felt like saying no would be a betrayal. My husband gently reminded me that I couldn't even cook for my own family, let alone someone elses. I initially felt guilty, but then I recognized my own limitations and I forgave myself.

4) Accept the mistake that was made, and move on. This one's a toughy. As the saying goes, sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself. The lasting memory of my first experience with true guilt over potentially hurting my dad's feelings has obviously stayed with me for many years, but I've learned through my many other experiences with guilt that unless you accept that you cannot change your mistake, only make restitution and move on. The quicker we develop this skill, the easier life will be.

5) Turn the guilt into a positive learning experience. Do you think I thought a little harder about my choices the next time I was faced with one? You bet. Especially knowing my choices could have potentially negative consequences for another person.

Guilt is a part of life, and knowing how to deal with it is a skill we must continually master our entire lives. We need to deal with it quickly, and be quick to forgive ourselves if we are truly penitent.

No comments: