Guilt and Stress: Our Fake Friends?

What is happening here?

Peter is having a hard time enjoying his relationship with his girlfriend Cindy. He recently found out that Sue, his ex-wife and mother to his three kids, has been diagnosed with cancer. Although it was a bitter divorce, Peter struggles with his urge to fix things for Sue during this tough time. In a twisted way, Peter believes he is responsible for Sue’s illness.

What about the kids?

Peter feels responsible for preparing the kids to deal with their mom’s cancer, but refuses to ask anyone for help. The kids sense something is wrong because he is so distracted and distraught when he’s with them. Emotionally paralyzed, Peter does not realize he has emotionally abandoned them.

Eventually Peter crumbles under the mental and emotional worries he has imposed upon himself. The last thing on his mind was coping with his own distress and looking after his personal needs. He felt he didn’t deserve to take a break from his obligations. In a short time, Peter has reached crisis mode.

What about Cindy?

To Peter, Cindy’s presence appears to be another inconvenience despite their steady relationship of four years. Cindy recently expressed hurt and resentment towards Peter’s preference to tend to Sue and the kids. These days Peter pays little attention to their relationship or her needs. Cindy wasn’t sure where the relationship was heading and asked Peter for a time out. Peter lashed out at Cindy telling her she was inconsiderate and needed to stand by him. In tears, Cindy told Peter she wanted to be with him but she couldn’t carry him when he wouldn’t carry himself. 

What is guilt? How does it impact us as a society?

According to Psychologist Diana Lalor, “Guilt is an emotional state where we experience conflict for having done something which we believe we should not have done (or conversely, not having done something we believe we should have done). This can give rise to a feeling state which does not easily go away and can be difficult to endure.

Guilt feelings arise when we focus on something we have done that is embarrassing, harmful to another person, or some other behavior which has contributed to negative consequences for ourselves or someone else. Guilt feelings can sometimes become so big that we may feel overwhelmed, and are not able to manage the intensity of feelings.”

If we shift our perspective on guilt from a personal to a global level, it is obvious that society places high value on stress and guilt. Guilt-induced scenarios pop up everywhere. We live with these negative energies to the point of normalizing them. Motivated by unhealthy reasoning:

  • We feel guilty for working too much and not spending time with loved ones.
  • We feel terrible for not showing up at the party where we’re often ignored.
  • We insist it is our obligation to donate to a particular cause, or others might die and suffer.

Can Peter be helped?

We go so far as to say someone is not “right” if they don’t feel guilty and stressed according to our own misguided beliefs. After reading Peter’s story, do you think Peter looks like a struggling hero or a self-absorbed and thoughtless lowlife?  How might you act and feel if you were in his shoes?

Is Peter a lost cause?

Without inner fuel, a support system and resources, Peter is left to wither alone under the weight of heavy pressures. The likelihood of Peter making poor choices such as alcohol or drug use is high. It is easier to hide and drown in sorrow with substances than to face agony.

Fortunately a co-worker noticed Peter’s unexplainable behavioral changes and asked what was going on. At this juncture Peter suffered a meltdown. His raw emotions erupted in pain and out into the open. Because Peter valued his job and work identity, he couldn’t afford to appear unproductive or unstable. The guilt of talking to someone versus the guilt of losing his job had to be a better option. 

With the support of his co-worker Peter scheduled time with a wellness coach. The goal: Peter wants to diffuse guilt and enjoy his life and relationships. Slowly and painfully, he took the vital steps required to unravel from guilt. Peter committed to a series of exercises designed to energize his spirit, maintain his physical body and restore his mental state.

Peter’s homework   

Step 1: Recognize the type of guilt he’s carrying.

Peter knew he was driving on a one-way street with no outlet. His goal became to turn himself around and get on the right road again. His first road trip consisted of passing by the guilt road signs that read:

“I am guilty for….

  1. not being able to do enough for Sue and the kids.
  2. not being able to make Sue’s cancer go away.
  3. not being fully present for family, partner Cindy or myself
  4. not listening to Cindy and her concerns about the relationship.
  5. neglecting self-care.
  6. expecting Cindy’s rescuing.”

Step 2: Determine if the guilt motivates or suffocates him.

Sometimes guilt can reset our inner compass. If we feel guilty for offending another or for focusing on our own personal agendas instead of relationships, we have been put on notice. Guilt now offers us the choice to stay on course or make a less harmful choice. He could choose between the guilt of not fully caring for his ex-wife and kids or carving out quality time to be with them. 

In Peter’s case, he values relationships more than guilt and stress. If he ignored his suffering and continued to carry guilt he would suffocate from feelings of despair, anger and shame. With help from his coach, Peter became clear about what led to his feelings of guilt. Now it was easier to move through his negative emotions.

Peter jumped at the chance to be the fun person. He set up activities with a focus on play to lighten up their activities. Sue and the kids now looked forward to Peter’s visits. Peter and Sue created a two-hour time limit for weekly visits so they could enjoy other commitments.

Step 3: Forgive self/others.

Guilty feelings can be contained and released through forgiveness. Most people forget the most important step in moving forward: forgiving the self. He had not connected the dots between why he felt guilty about caring for himself and his lack of healthy boundaries. He believed everyone else mattered but him. 

Inspired by an article on overcoming guilt, here are Peter’s DO Not Keys to self-forgiveness and a guilt-free life:

  1. Do Not over-commit or over-promise.
  2. Do Not give in to procrastination or perfectionism.
  3. Do Not give in to self-blame.
  4. Do Not use guilt to motivate or punish.
  5. Do Not live with unrealistic expectations or standards.
  6. Do Not live according to other’s standards and expectations
  7. Do Not make people feel guilty about doing or not doing something.
  8. Do Not make life-altering decisions while feeling guilty and stressed.

Peter journaled the chain of events occurring in the last three months. As well, he highlighted how he mentally and emotionally responded to each event. Peter now realized how his guilty thoughts and stressful behaviors contributed to a downward spiral. He became emotional when he realized how poorly he had treated his beloved Cindy. Peter loved her and wanted to know how to make things better with her. They hadn’t spoken for a few weeks.

Peter called Cindy and asked if they could see each other for 15 minutes. Cindy was quiet and hesitant at first. She was unsure if Peter were going to hurt her again. Truth be told, she missed him a lot. Peter assured her his intent was simply to find healing. This behavioral change melted Cindy’s heart. She accepted his invitation to meet at the park. Peter brought out a piece of paper and read the following:

“Cindy I love you. I am sorry for disrespecting you and not honoring our relationship. These past four years have been remarkable because of you. You bring out the best in me. I am so grateful for you. I promise not to dump my guilt on you. Please forgive me.”

Step 4: Be open, honest and accountable.

Being attached to guilt and stress means we are attached to judgment and ego perfection. These energies limit our access to peace, love and joy. When we have the courage to face our thoughts, feelings and actions we step into authenticity. We become real to ourselves even if the road appears dark and lonely. The way to clear guilt is to connect to our experiences without the burden of fear and negativity. Obsessing about a situation keeps bad feelings circling. Accept and acknowledge the guilt, determine what actions will return us to a state of peace, and then move on.

Peter learned to open-up his feelings about being at fault for Sue’s cancer. It took effort, but he discovered that his guilt was sabotaging everything important to him. Peter confronted his ego which insisted upon fixing the situation. He now approached Sue from a genuine place of kindness. He let go of seeing the relationship as if they were still married.  With humility he asked Sue what role he could play in her life. 

Step 5: Find another way.

Guilt and stress grab our attention more than any other feeling. Guilt teaches us how to see possibilities, encourages us to change for the better, and to stop carrying stress.

Peter came to terms with guilt and stress no longer being his friends. He was ready to let go of these energies:

  1. Making others happy at his expense.
  2. Stressing over every action or inaction.
  3. Being overly sensitive about his words and deeds.
  4. Letting guilt confuse his ability to make good choices.
  5. Mistake guilt as leading him to be open, honest and accountable.

To get out of the guilt and stress routine, Peter awoke 30 minutes early three times a week. He walks outside and engaged in positive self-talk by:

  • Reminding himself he could care for both himself and others.
  • Setting an intention to carry on with his day from a place of peace, love and joy.
  • Blessing himself and his loved ones.
  • Looking for signs to remind him what matters most.

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