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31 Words to Create a Guilt-Free Life
Finding the Freedom to Be Your Most Powerful Self A Simple Guide to Self-Care, Balance, and Joy
By Karen Bouris
Inner Ocean PublishingCopyright © 2006 Karen Bouris
All rights reserved.
Acknowledging Your True Feelings
We all know guilt isn't good. It doesn't make us better friends, partners, or parents. It's not motivating, it's depleting. It's not heroic, it's tragic. It's a destructive form of self-flagellation that consumes our energy and leaves us more distanced from the people we love. So why would we ever want to cop to such a regressive, disempowering emotion? Isn't it better to hide it away in a dark little corner of our hearts and pretend we're above it? Shouldn't we just suck it up and be closeted guilt cases?
In short, no way.
Here's the honest, radical truth: Each of your feelings, no matter how unacceptable or unhelpful they seem, deserves nothing less than your complete love and attention. But how can you tend to something you won't consciously acknowledge? (You can't.) How can you expect to be guilt-free without wading through all of that creepy, crawly guilt? (Same answer.)
Let's get completely honest about guilt. Start paying attention to when and why you feel it. Brad Blanton, author of Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth, suggests a way to identify your guilt, "Notice the bodily sensations associated with what you have called guilt (feeling constricted in your breathing, cowering, feeling tense, frowning)."
Once you notice those sensations, name your emotion, at least to yourself: "Oh, here's that cringy feeling again. I feel guilty." You'll be surprised how honestly naming your true feelings will free you. It's a powerful start to living a guilt-free life.
Blanton proposes that when someone does or says something that makes us feel guilty, we inevitably feel resentful. His ultimate recommendation is to express that resentment ("I resent you for XX"), engaging in an open exchange of resentments until both parties can honestly complete the phrase "I appreciate you for XX." He believes that whether or not our feelings are rational, it's important to get them out there so they can be resolved.
Although refreshing, Blanton's idea is perhaps not entirely realistic. For instance, it isn't appropriate to tell your kids or your boss you resent them (even though you sometimes do) and expect that they'll be capable or willing to engage in this kind of clearing process. But that doesn't mean you can't be honest with yourself about your guilt and corresponding resentment. In fact, it's crucial that you are.
To that end, get yourself a blank notebook and start your own guilt and resentment log. Divide it into three columns: In the first, complete the sentence, "I feel guilty about XX"; in the second, describe the physical sensations of your guilt; and in the third, complete the sentence, "I resent XX for XX." Let yourself be completely, wonderfully honest, and give yourself a few minutes to focus on and acknowledge those uncomfortable feelings. When allowed to run its course, instead of being stuffed and ignored, your guilt will begin to dissolve and float away.
I love and accept myself with all of my guilty feelings.
Experiencing the Grace of Letting Go
In her book All About Love, author and cultural critic bell hooks writes about the power of forgiveness: "Forgiveness is an act of generosity. It requires that we place releasing someone else from the prison of their guilt or anguish over our feelings of outrage or anger. By forgiving we clear a path on the way to love."
Forgiving is viewed in our culture as a noble act that serves the greater good. As hooks so powerfully says, forgiveness makes way for love. Why, then, does self-forgiveness feel selfish? Why do we instead imprison ourselves in fortresses of guilt and shame? Has self-punishment ever actually righted any of your real or imagined wrongdoings?
Rachel's brand of kindness to others involved a good deal of holding her own feet to the fire. If she slipped up, even if it was unintentional, she wouldn't forgive herself. To her, feeling guilty and ashamed meant she was making amends.
Recently, Rachel invited a new coworker to lunch, and he happily agreed. After they sat down, she rushed to break the awkward silence. Noticing his wedding band, she blurted, "So, how long have you and your wife been married?" He looked at his band and smiled, "Actually, my partner is a man. We've been together for eight years."
Rachel felt terrible about her assumption. She apologized immediately, and he smiled and said, "No problem." She cringed with shame and could barely follow the conversation during the rest of the lunch.
She felt guilty all day. She had meant well, but she couldn't allow herself to find comfort in that. She was about to take her miserable self home when he stopped by her office. "Hey," he said warmly, "Thank you again for lunch. I really enjoyed it." He'd clearly forgiven her. He knew she hadn't been intentionally hurtful by her heartfelt apology. He'd let it go. Why couldn't she?
That night she had dinner with a friend, who listened sympathetically before offering something she'd heard from a wise teacher: "Imagine putting your head into the mouth of the dragon and feeling comfortable there." In Rachel's case, this meant putting her head in the dragon of her guilt, shame, and embarrassment, laying her head ever so softly into the dragon's mouth and breathing deeply into these feelings.
The dragon of painful feelings — guilt, shame, regret, humiliation, loneliness, grief, rejection, loss — can be dark, and all-powerful (especially at 4:00 a.m.). But when you breathe into these feelings and forgive yourself, you remember that you are okay. Now there's a noble thought.
Bring to mind something you haven't forgiven yourself for. Close your eyes and imagine putting your head into the mouth of that dragon. Remember what you did and said, and how it was hurtful. Breathe into that pain and stop letting it rule your feelings of self-worth. Be completely honest about your mistake, and ask yourself for forgiveness. Imagine your wiser self emerging and replying, with love and understanding, "I forgive you." Become intimate with your dragons and extinguish their fires.
I forgive my mistakes and feel at peace with myself.
Claiming Your Right to Breathe
Lucia prided herself on being the best mom to her two daughters, the most loving partner, and the most innovative employee. She pushed herself from dawn till dusk. Though chronically exhausted, she felt like she had it all and then some.
That is, until the day she woke up with a pain in her abdomen, but still got up, got her kids ready for school, loaded the dishwasher, picked up everyone in her carpool, and drove to work. The pain worsened, but Lucia convinced herself it would pass. She had a presentation to give and she wasn't about to miss it for an upset stomach. Until she passed out and was rushed to the hospital.
To her surprise, her weeklong stay in the hospital became a rejuvenating experience, sans daily demands. She luxuriated in a bed to herself and compassionate nurses who didn't require anything from her. As she soaked in the relative peace and quiet, she felt she was coming back to herself. She'd forgotten what it was like to read a book without interruption, to listen to her own thoughts and dreams for a change. By the end of the week, she'd made a radical new promise to herself: She'd make sure she had some time to herself every week.
Prevention is everything. If you make space for yourself before you fall into depression, give up on your relationship, yell at your kids, or quit your job, you may be able to salvage the things that are important to you. But sometimes the guilt feels so much more pressing. When we believe that everyone else should come first, we feel horrible guilt when we desire time for ourselves.
In Codependent No More, Melody Beattie talks about detachment as a way to release guilt. "Detachment does not mean we don't care. It means we learn to love, care, and be involved without going crazy."
Skeptical? Then consider this: Beattie suggests that the way to best recognize when we need to detach is to identify every instance in which it seems impossible to do so, because that's where we need it most. Don't wait to fall ill and get hospitalized to have your own rest cure. Create space for yourself — today.
If life feels crowded, free yourself by acknowledging that this is of your own doing. Schedule time for yourself first, above all else. Start with a minimum of thirty minutes each day. Write in your journal what it is you want to do — whether it's napping, exercising, reading in the bath, or sipping tea in your favorite café. Whenever you start to feel guilty, take one minute to articulate why, and then, in your most nurturing internal voice, repeat to yourself, "That is very important to me, and so is taking this space for myself. This space is crucial to my ability to care for myself and others." Then return to your space, take a nice deep breath, and allow yourself to enjoy.
I regularly take space for myself, which benefits me and everyone I love.
Giving from the Heart Instead of the Head
Generosity is a tricky concept, one that comes with a hairpin trigger for guilt. Whenever we are asked for a favor, or we see someone else who needs or wants something they aren't getting, we have to make a decision: Will I help or not? These decisions are complicated, though we're usually required to make them instantly. If we say no, we may be met with an onslaught of guilt. Some of us are so afraid to feel those feelings that we say "yes" every time, regardless of whether or not it's something we genuinely want to — or can — give.
Giving in order to avoid guilt is not truly generous. Generosity isn't just about action; it's about a quality of spirit, a genuine willingness to give. If you barely remember how to say the word "no," chances are that you've lost touch with your true generosity. If you feel unappreciated for all that you do, you're not giving from a place of willing generosity.
Taking an action simply to avoid a painful emotion is not a genuine way to live. It's an unfortunate tradeoff. And living disingenuously leads to other painful emotions — like depression, anxiety, resentment, and bitterness. Giving from the heart instead of the head is imperative.
Everyone can be selfish. Sometimes we want the last piece, the best seat, or the first place in line. It's human desire, and it's not a bad thing. Allowing ourselves to have something we want is an act of generosity toward ourselves. It's only when we start giving all of our time or resources to others and neglect ourselves that we become a miser.
How do we avoid being a martyr, sacrificing so much of ourselves that there's not much of a self left, and being a miser, hoarding so much that we neglect to care for our loved ones and communities? The trick is to look inward and make honest decisions about when to give to ourselves and to others based on what feels expansive, invigorating, grounding, and deeply fulfilling.
For one day, make a list of every little thing requested of you by yourself and others. Next to this list, note whether you said "yes" or "no," as well as what you wanted to say to the request. If you aren't sure, check your physical self. When your chest or throat tightens, or your heart starts pounding, or you can't help but sigh, you probably want to say "no." When you feel energized by the request, or openhearted and connected to the person making the request, it's more likely that "yes" is your honest answer. At the end of the day, take a look at your sheet, and note how often you're going with or against your true generosity. While we sometimes have to do things we don't want, getting conscious about when we do so is the first step to genuine generosity.
I am generous to myself and others, always giving what I genuinely want to give.
Learning to Befriend Yourself
For many of us, the idea of being a kind friend to ourselves is a foreign concept that can seem elusive, or even greedy or self-indulgent. But the truth is, being kind to ourselves is an incredibly generous act that supports us in bestowing kindness to others. It's a powerful way to change the world from the inside out, not to mention that it just plain feels good.
In her book Lovingkindness, Sharon Saltzberg discusses the Buddhist take on kindness, "The practice of metta, uncovering the force of love that can uproot fear, anger, and guilt, begins with befriending ourselves. The foundation of metta practice is to know how to be our own friend. According to the Buddha, 'You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.'"
How might your day have been different if you approached it from the place of being your own kind, loving friend? But learning how to befriend yourself doesn't just happen instantaneously — it takes practice. You need to get to know your own true feelings and needs, and build inner-trust by taking steps to honor and address them. You need to prove to yourself over time that you won't consistently let yourself down by rejecting or abandoning yourself (and that, on the times when you do fail yourself, you can apologize and renew your commitment to yourself ). Building this friendship takes time, but the relationship you'll build will be the most important and influential one of your lifetime.
Write down some of the nicest things other people have done for you. Maybe your sweetheart comforted you when you were overwhelmed, or your coworker spoke up to make sure you got credit for a great idea, or a stranger complimented you on something you were wearing. Revel in these memories of kind words, generous gestures, and unexpected compliments, and record them in vivid detail, including how they made you feel physically and emotionally. Then, with the same pleasure and leisure, write down the kindest things you've done for family members, friends, and strangers. Allow the good feelings of doing something kind to fill you.
Once you've got a nice long list and you're basking in the memory of all of this kindness, write a generous list of kind things you could do for yourself every day this month. Include both quick things (such as giving yourself compliments and kudos) and things that take longer (like letting yourself sleep in on a weekend, even if there's too much to do). Try bestowing kindness on yourself every day for a month and see how it begins to buoy your spirits and inspire you to act kindly to others from a genuine place of good feeling, rather than from a place of guilty "shoulds."
Every day I shower myself with loving kindness.
Becoming Your Own Loving Parent
When we think of nurturing, many of us think first of a loving parent tending to a child. Once we're adults, we may assume we don't need or deserve any more nurturing. If we crave it, we may feel we're being immature. We're all too often told to grow up, keep a stiff upper lip, stick it out.
That's certainly not the most nourishing existence we can choose for ourselves. Self-neglect allows our painful feelings to flourish. Guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, and depression pop up everywhere, and somehow we're led to think that the mature, adult thing to do is to suck it up — when what we really need to do is tend to our spirit.
Our brilliant therapist friend Seana offered another view of nurturing that encourages us to tend to all the parts of ourselves, "Whenever you're feeling anxiety, horrible guilt, fear, this is your scared kid. And you need to ask yourself, what would that kid need? What can I — the powerful, healthy adult — do to take care of that kid and these emotions that can come back so quickly?"
For many of us, the term "inner child" can trigger 1970s flashbacks or seem self-indulgent. It's important to distinguish between being childish and childlike. There's a part of all of us that's a sweet, playful, creative, and sometimes frightened kid. When neglected — when we shelve our feelings and needs and put others first to avoid feeling guilty for taking care of ourselves — the part of ourselves that's childlike feels sad, lonely, depressed, angry, and hopeless, which can lead to internal conflicts that result in self-sabotaging behaviors and chronic painful emotions.
Excerpted from 31 Words to Create a Guilt-Free Life by Karen Bouris. Copyright © 2006 Karen Bouris. Excerpted by permission of Inner Ocean Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction by Karen Bouris, Editor,
SECTION I Self-Care,
SECTION II Balance,
SECTION III Joy,