Guilt can also be used to manipulate people. We see (and probably have done this ourselves!) how guilt can motivate kids to behave or be "more appropriate." People use it with their partners and feel validated when they say, "How can you do this to me?" We respond with guilt because who wants to be responsible for hurting those we love?
Most of the time, mindful people don't consciously intend to use guilt to manipulate people, but it is so effective, that it can become second nature. Of course, the reality is that people do this consciously, as well. For our purposes here, I suggest you just become aware of the role guilt plays in your interactions with others. When you feel guilt, check in with yourself about where it is coming from and how true is it that you are responsible for another's feelings in this situation?
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It is through internal investigation that you discover the answers. The problem is, we don't want to take all that time and energy to look, to seek. It is so much easier to blot out the uncomfortable answers and clutter up our lives with stuff that makes those answers "go away." We use food, alcohol, working too much - to blot out the feelings associated with guilt.
Steps for Releasing Guilt:
- Acknowledge the feelings behind the guilt. We often believe that we are supposed to feel a certain way and when we don't, we feel guilty. Examine where the beliefs came from - whose values are these feelings reflecting? Yours, or someone else's that you inherited but don't necessarily believe?
- Decide on and set your boundaries. Really delve into why you are feeling guilty. Guilt often shows up in relationships and usually it is because expectations weren't discussed ahead of time. If your relative wants to stay with you for two weeks, and you know you'll drive each other batty after 3 days, do you really need to say yes? If you are in a romantic relationship with someone and you prefer to have some time alone, do you explore that with your partner, or remain silent in fear of causing hurt? These scenarios can lead to resentment, which leads to guilt. So decide where you want to set your boundaries. It's okay to have needs and wants.
- Related to #2: discuss your feelings, desires and boundaries with others. When we do things out of guilt, there is always a nagging, underlying feeling of resentment. It permeates you and your life, and doesn't allow you to enjoy yourself. It also creates tension for you, and for those you are with. For example, your sister wants you all to buy extravagant holiday gifts for each other. You may not be financially flush at the moment, but because you feel you should go along with it, you pull out your credit cards and buy. Soon resentment creeps in. Talk over your feelings, needs and desires with others to avoid unnecessary negative outcomes.
- Quit setting yourself up by setting goals you don't believe you can accomplish. I'm all for setting goals, even ones that are fairly lofty. However, if you don't break your goals down into step by step pieces that you may feel are a stretch, but know are do-able, fear that you can't accomplish the goal will likely sabotage your success. Then guilt steps in and takes over.