Do you have your own personal Guilt Monster (GM)? You know the type. Maybe your GM is an innocuous fellow. He might hide out in a small corner of your brain, causing little trouble until you stumble across him again. Then, however, he can be like a bee stinger left in your skin. A week or two later, the itching restarts with a vengeance, perhaps long after you thought you were finished with that issue.
Alternately, your GM could be plaguing you night and day, a permanent resident of your primary thought patterns, looping through your consciousness with clockwork regularity the way a roller coaster threads constantly over a track filled with highs and lows. Either way, if you want to evict your GM, try these coping strategies.
Stay alert for disguises your GM might try. Anxious feelings, ruminations, vague numbness and an upset digestive system could be your GM trying to stay connected. Remind yourself this is a chronic problem (it is if it has gotten to the point of impacting your life) that requires steady work.
Step One: Interview your GM. Take out pencil and paper to write down questions and answers. Questions about the cause and nature of your guilt can help you assess if you are dealing with facts or with fictions your mind is generating. Opinions do not count at this stage. Save them for later when you will be going over your interview again. Feel free to complete interviews over time, asking the same questions and adding new ones to consider.
Step Two: Find out what guilt is by looking up the word in the dictionary and reading about what other people have said about this incredibly difficult emotion. Write your own definition based on your research.
Step Three: Add activities to your routine that can counteract helpless feelings. Exercise or other type of movement, watching a light-hearted movie that you enjoy, visiting with friends (even virtually), taking in the natural beauty of a park or public garden, and working on hobbies or projects can give your mind something else to ponder. Good self-care might include making sure you drink enough water and eat healthy food. (Alert: Do not fall for your GM’s assertions that you are not worth tender care. You are.)
Step Four: Read over your questions and answers again. Choose those you want to take responsibility for and write them down on a new page. If there is any truth here, you can deal with it in a later step. Draw an “X” over those that are exaggerations, generalizations, or falsehoods. An example of those to cross out might be statements like “I was the only one responsible for what happened.” Why? Because, despite what your GM might tell you, total control – especially over another person – is not possible. Also cross out any sentence that contains “if only” or “should.”
Step Five: Now the real work begins. Examine the questions and answers that are left. Look up the word “regret” to see how it relates to (and is sometimes used by) your GM. Use your questions and any new thoughts to shed light on your feelings about what happened. Write down your insights. Guilt can “collapse” into regret. Place an “R” by sentences that fit this emotion.
Step Six: Decide to do something about the remaining questions that are not marked, if possible. Do you owe someone an apology? Can you make amends in other ways? If nothing can be set right or if others refuse your attempts to make peace, move one to Step Seven. Come back to Step Six in the future if you feel you might be more successful later. But don’t live in Step Six.
Step Seven: It is normal to regret that something bad happened or that you played a part. But in Step Seven, commit to taking your life forward without your GM. It’s time to say good-bye. And these last suggestions can help. You can always go back to the other steps to reinforce positive truths and deal with lingering doubts. Working with a professional counselor or therapist is always a choice you can make. Your goal now is to live the best life you can. That is within your grasp.
- Recognize when you do need professional help.
- Keep working on yourself.
- Make dealing with stress a priority in your life.
- Purposely divert thoughts that threaten to overwhelm you.
- Practice taking a few deep breaths and relaxing.
- Remind yourself to fight negative thoughts by holding up your hand or saying “Stop!”
- Include self-care in your daily routine.
- Replace traumatic memories with thoughts of positive times.
- Believe this will become easier.
- Stay with it.