In this blog, I will be using the example from my previous post ‘From Anger to Integrity’, to elaborate on the regret and guilt dimension which played out in the scenario. Please read this blog first to gain full context.
So in my previous blog, we walked an example of how we tend to act while emotions are high, and end up regretting the course of action we took. This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth which we experience as guilt and regret.
Now, a fascinating thing with Guilt, is that we use guilt as a self-punishing instrument. The moment we act in a way which we perceive is wrong or contrary to our personal principles, guilt sets in where we feel bad about ourselves and feel ourselves being stuck in a rut.
What I noticed with myself, when taking a course of action with my son which I would regret – is that I would go through a period of feeling really bad about myself and putting myself down. However, as soon as another opportunity arose – it was very easy to make the exact same mistake again – only to be followed by another ‘guilt session’.
Within this, the act of feeling guilty and indulging in this experience was in essence ‘punishment enough’. Where I did something wrong, ‘paid for it’ – and was then able to once more go about doing as I please. We find this pattern in our own religious belief systems as well. We will go for confession and ‘confess our sins’ while feeling bad for it – be forgiven, but come next Sunday we are right back at square one asking forgiveness for the same sins.
In my parenting journey, it became invaluable to not remain stuck and indulge in an experience of guilt. Feeling guilty and deliberately prolonging the experience by participating in self-diminishing thoughts only places you in a position of disempowerment. How you’re ‘such a bad parent’ or ‘how inadequate you are’. These are all statements where we condemn ourselves to remain stuck, and define ourselves by our weaknesses. Instead, I learnt to listen to the message behind Guilt – which is that of Personal Accountability.
When I find myself feeling guilty after a particular action of behaviour, I check my actions and ask myself where, how and why I acted contrary to my principles. The experience of guilt lets me now that I strayed from my moral compass and that there is a lesson to be learnt. Instead of indulging and plunging in the emotional storm of guilt, I ask myself what course of action would have been appropriate. I immediately commit myself to live this this course of action as a correction and to remind myself of this particular weakness I identified within myself. The moment I embrace this commitment and set myself up for success next time around – any feeling of guilt disappears. So just like anger, guilt does not arise for us to punish ourselves and tell us ‘how bad’ we are. It’s a flag in our biofeedback system indicating that there is an improvement in our approach which needs to take place. Guilt lets us know we made a mistake. It’s an indication for yourself to take responsibility for your actions and to restore your trust in yourself. After all, nobody likes it when someone says ‘sorry’ but fails to follow through in adjusting their behaviour. What makes an admission of remorse real is not the utterance of it, but the actions which follow.
On another note – I have also experienced adjusting my behaviour and approach the next time a similar situation took place, but where instead of being clear inside myself, I would experience a sensation of discomfort inside myself.
Guilt is linked to our moral compass and comes about when we move in a different direction than the one our compass dictates. Yet sometimes (or for some maybe often), it is not the behaviour or approach we need to change – but the morals we were responding to. Our sense of right and wrong is established in our childhood years where we absorb what is right and wrong from our parents, family, school, friends – you name it. We often copy beliefs and morals believing they are ‘the right thing to do’ because others told us so, without checking whether we actually agree with these beliefs/morals. Often, these morals are imposed to use using some kind of emotional enforcement. If we don’t obey/comply to the morals set out for us, we get punished, excluded – leaving ourselves feeling alone and unaccepted. To avoid these experiences, we behave as we are expected to behave by our environment, and not because we agree with the morals presented to us.
Say your parents were very intolerant of any kind of crying in the house. Crying is seen as a form of weakness and not to be tolerated. When you were found crying you received comments to ‘man up’ and ‘get over it already’. Now, many years later you have a baby. Your baby is crying for no apparent reason and you pick your baby up to comfort her. While you are holding and rocking her, you feel guilty for ‘giving in’ to your crying baby. You think you are being weak and that indulging in comforting her will cause her to develop a weak and dependent character.
Now say that because of this, you promise to next time leave your baby to ‘cry it out’. The next time comes around and you leave your baby to cry it out. On the one hand you praise yourself for your discipline but on the other hand you feel very uncomfortable and sad about the whole situation.
In such a scenario (which I personally went through as well!), it’s important to take a moment to evaluate your compass. Do you really stand by the moral dictated by your compass? Do you really believe and stand by it? Or have you conditioned to stand by it to avoid uncomfortable experiences and criticism of others?
Here, it can be valuable to investigate your own childhood, to see how you responded to such an approach and whether it had the best possible outcome for you. You can for yourself, play out the future of your own child. If you uphold this approach and behaviour in the long-run, will you achieve the long term goals you have set for yourself as a parent as well as for your child? This can sometimes be difficult to emulate, as we often only tend to draw from our own experiences. If ignoring and suppressing crying is all you have ever known, it can be hard to imagine how things could have turned out if your parents had opted for a different approach. When I face an impasse like this, I reach out to other people and do my own research on the internet. Even if I am not sure of a new approach or suggestion, I will push myself to test it out unconditionally to see what the results are. Remember though that each person’s perspective and suggestions may not always work for you as not everyone finds themselves in the same situation, nor do we all have the same children. Find what works for you and be honest with yourself whether you are satisfied or not with the approach you are taking. This is part of being accountable to yourself. To be fully cognizant of the decisions we make and to be able to stand by them. All too often I found my parenting mistakes to be rooted in copied beliefs and morals from my own parents, media, schooling etc. This is in part what I love about my parenting journey. To constantly assess and evaluate any ‘hidden’ beliefs or morals, to check whether I agree full heartedly with them – and to change them if need to be. As a child,I lacked the autonomy and skill to establish these for myself. As an adult with my own child, I am bound to revisit these and can filter out the junk and keep what’s good.