If you’re a woman, the feeling of guilt is a close and constant companion. But unlike a close friend, guilt doesn’t feel great to hang out with.
For many years I felt guilty about everything: I felt guilty for working and then guilty when I wasn’t working. I felt guilty for doing too much for people and then for not doing enough. I felt guilty for having my own needs and guilty when I’d do things to take care of myself. I felt guilty for not exercising and then guilty when my husband looked after the kids while I exercised.
After connecting with so many other women, it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone, and that guilt is a given in the lives of most women.
Why is the feeling of guilt so prevalent in women? Guilt is considered to be the emotion that results from being “other person focused.” Women genuinely and deeply care about other people. Combine this beautiful caring quality, with the fact that we’re encouraged to believe we should put others first and have a deep desire to not be selfish, we’re creating the perfect storm for guilt to brew.
Guilt happens when we believe we either have or are about to do something wrong.
Since guilt is so common in women, you’d think we’d be experts at dealing with it, but unfortunately, we’re not. So how do we let go of guilt?
I actually don’t think we do let go of it. I believe we transform guilt into an emotion that fuels our growth and reclaims our power. Trying to let go of guilt is like trying to push on a rope. It doesn’t work. Or, at least it hasn’t worked in my own life.
Transforming guilt, and using it as a source of wisdom, now that’s where the miracles happen.
To transform guilt, we have to look at it head on and get a better understanding of the nature of our own guilt.
I find it helpful to divide the feeling of guilt into two categories: soul guilt and conditioned guilt. Soul guilt arises from our inner wisdom and fuels nourishing decisions. Conditioned guilt often spirals into sadness, depression, and shame.
Soul guilt is the guilt you experience when you are faced with a decision that invites you to connect with your moral compass and values as a person. This type of guilt invites you to make a decision that you know deep down feels “right” for you. For example, if you value being compassionate and a situation triggers a response that doesn’t align with your value, you’ll experience soul guilt.
This soul guilt or the anticipation that you’ll feel guilty if you behave or don’t behave in a certain way actually can be used as a source of inner wisdom, guiding you so that you won’t have any regrets. This type of guilt is healthy as it fuels us to live in alignment with our highest selves and what we value.
Conditioned guilt, on the other hand, is not aligned with our highest selves and weighs us down. It drains us of our energy and leaves us feeling depressed and lousy about ourselves.
Conditioned guilt creeps into our lives when we don’t love ourselves enough and act out of a need for approval. It is often associated with “I should.”
It stems from countless subconscious beliefs about what it means to be a “good” and “worthy” wife, employee, sister, friend, parent, and human being in general.
This type of guilt is toxic. It is problematic in our lives because it hinders our ability to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves and nourish ourselves. It also robs others from learning how to take responsibility for their own lives and happiness.
How then can we navigate mindfully through the mind field of guilt? I have found this process to be helpful in my own life:
Turn Towards Your Guilt
When you are experiencing the feelings of guilt, turn towards it rather than trying to turn your back on it and avoiding, numbing, denying or suppressing it.
Tend to your guilt as you tend to flowers in your garden; With attention, love and curiosity. Notice how it feels in your body and become curious about it. Does your guilt feel like anxiety, sadness, or something else? How intense is the feeling? How long does it last? What triggers it?
You’ll notice that when you bring loving awareness to it, the feeling often dissipates on its own.
Look For Meaning
Begin to investigate what this guilt means and what it is telling you. This is where it’s helpful to identify whether this is soul guilt, which is meant to ensure your actions are aligned with your values, or whether this is conditioned guilt that is destructive to your well being.
As you look more deeply into the origin of your guilt ask yourself: What action is wanting to emerge? Does the action arise from a feeling of what you “should” do, or from a place of love and alignment with your deeper values?
Soul guilt arises from love, while conditioned guilt arises from fear.
Regardless of its source, it will not release its hold on you until you’ve used it to fuel your growth, expansion, and love. Or in the case of conditioned guilt, you give in to the “should” and take action that then leaves you feeling resentful or like you’ve compromised yourself in some way.
Take Inspired Action
If soul guilt arose because we didn’t act in alignment with what we value, we are meant to own it by taking the steps to make amends and ask for forgiveness if that is required. We then take the next step and forgive ourselves. This is where the power and vibration shifts from something destructive to healing, expansive and the transformation of negative energy.
To transform conditioned guilt, we may need to seek help or talk with a friend to get some perspective. It’s often about giving ourselves permission and learning how to: set healthy boundaries, develop greater self-love, say “no”, create space for ourselves in order to nourish ourselves without feeling guilty.
The real gift of guilt is that it creates an opportunity for us to bring subconscious beliefs into our awareness. Through awareness, we can transform our beliefs to ones that nourish both ourselves and others.
Make an agreement with yourself, that you will wrap your entire experience of guilt in a big, warm, loving blanket of self-compassion, NO MATTER WHAT. The last thing you need when you’re feeling guilty, regardless of what triggered it, is to be hard on yourself and further amplify your feelings of guilt.
Learn how to practice self-compassion when you’re feeling difficult emotions like guilt. It is life changing!!
Transforming guilt from a feeling that is destructive and erodes your happiness, to powerful energy that fuels you to step fully into your best self is one of our greatest challenges of being a woman.