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Guilt? Regret? Justifying your choices to others? How to move on from these unhelpful thoughts and emotions.

May 13, 2024

Think it over

We all think, don’t we? Thousands of thoughts come in and out of our head and these will lead to the emotions we feel. Do you find though that it’s those unhelpful emotions which seem to stick, and you might perpetuate them by allowing unhelpful thought patterns to take you on a loop. The key is to consciously take note of the nature of those thoughts, interrupt and then reframe them to ensure you feel a more helpful emotion.

Sounds so easy doesn’t it– you feel sad, disappointed, irritated, upset or angry, you work out why, change the thought and Bob’s your Uncle, you feel better. If only it were that easy…

The fact of it is though, it’s about taking responsibility for the nature of your thoughts- consciously recognising that you are the one who allows them into your head, so you are the one who gets to stop them. Not always easy, but possible. You intercept that loop, turn down the chatter and instead, work hard to create helpful thoughts which move you forward.

People will sometimes try to make us feel certain emotions. 

Mixed emotions

Let’s firstly deal with guilt. Do you think there is too much guilt in the world? Is guilt an emotion you experience regularly? I know I have worked hard on this emotion – I would take on the guilt of the world – matters about which had nothing to do with me yet I felt bad, apologised for situations that people felt upset about, although they had not been my doing at all.

A friend of mine has openly said guilt is not an emotion she identifies with and very rarely feels guilty; she says that the guilt chip just doesn’t get activated. She makes considered and informed decisions, stands by her values and therefore, if someone feels upset as a result of something she says or does, that’s up to them– she can not make them feel anything, and she refuses to feel guilty for taking on the emotions of the world. At first it sounds harsh but actually, I see where she is coming from.

No one can make us feel guilty, nor can we make anyone feel guilty- it physiologically isn’t possible. Some people will have a good ole try though won’t they– they’ll try to generate that emotion in us if we don’t do as they’d like us to.

Tibetan-Buddhist Pema Chödrön, in my view, puts it perfectly: 

"Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event to control your emotions.”

Emotional blackmail is one mechanism that others will try to elicit guilt. Quite frankly, this is the most dishonest form of behaviour modification you can get. Have you ever gone round to a relative’s for some lunch, or dinner, and even though you are stuffed, Auntie Mabel wheels out a cake, then she says those immortal words- she made it especially for you!  Now, we know that Auntie Mabel made that cake for herself, because it satisfies a value of bringing joy, putting on a nice tea, feeling she’s done her best, and so forth. Only if you said that to Auntie Mabel, she might not quite understand that concept in the immediacy and would most possibly, and understandably, resent such a thing being said.

The thing is, you don’t have to have a slice of the cake. You might feel like you do as Auntie Mabel might be good at turning on the puppy dog eyes and looking hurt if you don’t have a piece of her wonderful baked efforts. But if you really don’t want a piece (that’s different to being stubborn for stubborn sake!) you can say how lovely it looks and you’d love to take a piece home in a doggy bag. If she keeps putting the pressure on, whose problem should it be, hers or yours?

No one can make you feel guilty, only you!  Tie on a metaphorical pink bow and hand that guilt straight back. 

Guilt is flawed- until we recognise the thought behind it and work out the reasons for our choices- rather than beating our self up. We might be choosing to work late and thinking: “I should be spending time with my partner and the kids, rather than working right now.” However, by working late, perhaps you are heading towards promotion, or building your business, all working according to financial security and freedom which might be one of your goals, which will have an impact for all the family. That guilt is preventing you from being in the moment, you’re not as productive. And if you did up sticks and go home to be with your partner and children, would you then be feeling guilty you weren’t working?

It can feel visceral can't it, when we feel that intense guilt? If we reflect back on past words or deeds and wish upon wish that we hadn't said or done something, it can churn away inside us. I’m sure we can all recall a choice we’ve made, something we did or said that we still have a pang of guilt about. You can’t change the past though- unless you can hop in a time machine to undo what you wish you hadn’t done. Not possible though I’m afraid. However, when we stop making ourselves feel guilty and cease to feel victims, we free our brain up to find the hidden options. We cannot change the past, we can only learn and grow.  It's about being more consciously aware of your values and why you are choosing to do what you are choosing to do. 

It’s about taking personal responsibility for your thoughts, feelings and behaviours– owning them and doing what moves you forward, not what has you treading water and therefore not getting anywhere or being productive.

You can apologise if others felt hurt. You can make reparations. If you are certain that the person you’ve grown and developed into wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes as the person you were then, it’s important to stop beating yourself up with guilt because you are condemning an innocent person. Self-forgiveness is so important. Take full responsibility for the act, feel genuine remorse, learn from it and let it go. You use that experience, and you take what you can from it and then move on. You can never grow into the full potential you have as a human being whilst you are stuck with a past event that you can’t forgive yourself for.

Regret- now there's another one that can't be solved in terms of going back to change things. Perhaps you feel sorry, or unhappy, about something you did, or maybe failed to do. The saying goes that we regret far more of what we don't do, than what we do. However, there might be circumstances when we do regret what we have chosen to do. But that regret is futile because as with feeling guilty about past words or deeds, we cannot turn back time. It's about learning and it's about personal growth. If that thought pattern of regret is continuing to go around and around, it's consciously catching it, recognising that you are doing it, processing why, and then reframing it- choosing to look at it in a different way that helps you to learn and to move on. Otherwise- you remain stuck, reliving that moment for perpetuity.

Putting your best foot forward

The Justification Dance is next on my list. What do I mean by this? Well, it goes something like this: “Ooh, I see you’ve got another new car. I thought you hadn’t had the last one very long!” To which you might reply: “Ah, yes but the other one wasn’t very economical, and I wanted one with better mpg. This one was such a bargain, and I got such a good deal on my old car that I felt it made sense. I’ll probably run this one into the ground now though. No more new cars for a while!”

When you catch yourself justifying yourself, who are you actually justifying to? You.

When someone invites you to justify yourself or feel guilty, gently decline. You don’t have to give reasons for what you do to anyone – especially not, in my opinion, to busy bodies who think you need to justify purchases to them. “Another holiday abroad eh? Somebody’s doing well…” I wonder if it’s envy and therefore, no justification of your success or choices is required.  

I like these kinds of answers to prying and assumptive questions: “You live in a big house.” – Yep. “Only two of you?” “That’s right.” “You must rattle around in there…” “Oh, we get lost in it.” “I bet the council tax is huge!” “It’s more than that, it’s a small fortune!”

When you hear yourself justifying your actions to others, stop. As long as you know why you did what you did and the thoughts around it, and that it stemmed from your values, you know it sits comfortably with you and nobody will get the satisfaction of witnessing your justification dance.

It’s important to say that this doesn’t necessarily apply to work- it’s not an excuse to avoid having to justify a mistake. I wouldn’t advise that if your manager says: “That was a big sale we lost”, that you reply with: “Yep, huge!” Personal responsibility means ‘fessing up to the mistakes we make, rather than shifting the blame onto others, or blaming circumstances. In some instances, it might not be our fault something happened, but it is our responsibility. The justification dance is when you needlessly justify choices that you make and the success you have created for yourself.

Personal accountability 

Sometimes we make decisions and they don’t quite pan out how we intended them to or hoped they would. Here’s a really important thought: you’ve never made a wrong choice or decision in your life– it was right at the time and you made it based on your experience and emotional needs and the information you had at that time. When we make a choice, it's always the easiest for us emotionally at that time compared with any other choice in that moment. Maybe now, upon reflection, with new information, or different knowledge, skills and experience, we might make a different choice. But as long as we learn and grow, and accept that hindsight is 20/20 vision, we can move forward.

By taking control of your thoughts, therefore your emotions, and thus your behaviours, which repeated enough over time, creates your results, means you are in the driver’s seat. The control sits with you and nobody else. Nobody can make you feel angry, nor can they make you feel guilty. When you are in the driver’s seat in life, you get to decide the destination and the way we’ll get there.

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