A Guide to Handling Guilt and Self Punishment

Published March 7, 2012 by matchsoul

Guilt is the source of much sorrow; the driving force behind a constant mental whipping, a constant stinging. And from whom? Who holds the whip?

What is one to do? Is one helpless?

This series is not to say one should abandon all guidelines for behaviour, or that we should not follow our conscience. Reparations, the power to change and improve – these are all actions that are done best without the torment of self-imposed shame, and that is what the series aims to promote.

The First Step

The first step is to recognise our feelings of guilt. For many, this section might seem stupid, superfluous, but it isn’t. Guilt is insidious, stealthy and cunning. Guilt is a thief in the night, one that has taken up residence in your home, so skilfully that sometimes you can’t recognise it.

I remember the first time I encountered a racist; my age was barely in the double digits and my self esteem was fragile. I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when a man walked up to me and began spitting, swearing, wildly gesturing. I was too stunned to respond; I stood there in silence until he finished and walked off.

The event weighed heavily on my mind for many years. I didn’t know what I was feeling; it was just a constant replaying of the event in my head. I felt inferior; I felt angry; I felt scared. And one day, I suddenly realised that I was blaming myself for the attack. I hated myself for not being strong enough to stand up to him, and worst of all, I felt I was somehow at fault; somehow I had deserved what had happened to me.

How preposterous, one might think! But it is not uncommon; a friend who works as a psychologist has told me many survivors of childhood abuse blamed themselves. To a young child, their parents are almighty. How can a perfect being be wrong? If their parents were abusing them, they must have been at fault, not the abuser.

And that realisation dropped me into a more subtle trap – I began to feel guilty about feeling guilty.

Take a Moment

Close your eyes, become still, and welcome any thoughts and sensations into your awareness. Is there anything that you have not forgiven yourself for? Bring to mind a person or an event that still carries an emotional charge. Then follow it back to the root. You might be surprised at what you find, for you might be feeling guilty without even knowing what it is.

How does one change what they don’t even recognise, what they don’t even know exists?

We Were Helpless

The second step is to realise that we were helpless. There was nothing we could do; we were not in our own hands, merely dragged along by the force of our past.

This recognition could be enough to drop the self-flagellation. If it doesn’t, at the very least it gives us permission to heal, to take the next step and let go of the pain.

Welcome the pain, feel the sorrow completely without necessarily acting on it. Relax into your sorrow; find compassion for yourself; and let the shame go. Emotions are the wind; we are the flute. Unblock the passage; let the shame be there, and you’ll find that it will leave you soon enough. That is all it takes. And yet we fight it, deny it, pretend it doesn’t exist – and that keeps us blocked, weighs us down.

Penetrating the Memories

There is a quiet meditation I have developed on my own; I’ve found it tremendously helpful for four things.

The first is to find the root of the problem. The second is to see for yourself the strength of the forces that were pulling you at the time. The third is to dissolve the emotion of guilt. The last, and perhaps the most important, is to prepare for the future, to make it easier to catch your pattern the next time it threatens to overwhelm you.

We’ve discussed this meditation in the first part of this series – it is simply to relive and recreate the original situation in your mind.

Take a few minutes for this. Find somewhere quiet and penetrate your memories. Relive the event as vividly as you can. Visualise it – what was happening then? Recreate the external situation, down to the finest detail. What was happening? What triggered it, what led up to it, what did you do in response?

And this is perhaps the most important step: turn your attention to your inner space. What were you feeling, what were you thinking? What triggered your actions? What contributed to it? We’ve discussed this in the first part of the series: your beliefs, your knowledge, your mental-emotional state – even external conditions like the heat and humidity have their part to play in deciding what you did.

Watch, analyse, feel. Go deeply into your unconscious. A journal will also be helpful.

Finding the Root

Use your guilt as a tool to penetrate yourself, to find the origin of your behaviour.

You give your opinion on a minor topic, and someone disagrees politely and respectfully. And yet you fly into a rage. Why? Is your opinion that important? Or is it something else?

I used to know someone like that; she told me she was invisible as a child. No one cared about her opinion; in her own words, “no one gave a damn about what she wanted.” Her entire childhood was spent as a shadow, and the shame had taken over her adult life.

Follow your behaviour to the root, and heal that wound. It will mean the end of your unskilful behaviour.

The Strength of the Unconscious

The second benefit: During the contemplation, you’ve gone some way towards recapturing the force of your emotions, your patterns, and the circumstances that led up to it. Combine that with this truth: No mental image can come close to recreating the pull that you felt at that time.

The truth is reinforced in your mind, and there will be an even greater relief: given what you knew, you could have done no better.

Releasing the emotions

The third benefit: We’ve discussed how feeling the emotions completely are the key to letting them go. This meditation helps tremendously in releasing the emotions you were feeling then; not merely the guilt you felt about it afterwards. This weakens the very patterns themselves, which prepares us for the next step.

Intimacy with your conditioning

The most important benefit: Psychologists and spiritual teachers alike state the key to changing our conditioning is to become aware of it as it arises.

How do we stop something we don’t recognise? First become intimate with your patterns, know what triggers them, analyse how they feel, remember the thoughts and emotions that lead up to your actions.

Delve into it and watch it, feel it from every angle. The more you do this, the easier it is to catch your unconsciousness when it is next triggered.

Mindfulness: The Key to Transformation

Emotional Intelligence is defined as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

The Buddhist practice of mindfulness has been tremendously helpful in my life. Constantly check inside yourself – ask yourself this question: What is going inside me? What am I thinking, what am I feeling?

When you first begin this practice, you might be shocked. So much tension in your muscles, ragged breathing, an unruly and obsessive mind, a background feeling of sadness or anger…

As Daniel Goleman said in Emotional Intelligence: The ability to control impulse is the base of will and character.

Awareness is the key to transformation and control. For most people, this change might be slow. Old patterns might still arise, for emotional intelligence does not come overnight. But the moment you have become aware of it, the change has begun.

Overcoming your self-defeating behaviours

Someone makes a snide comment; immediately you feel your anger take over. You leap to your feet, you pound the table with all your might, and you begin to scream in rage. Awareness might only come afterwards, a dawning realisation – “Oh no, I’ve done it again.”

But as you practice, awareness begins to arise sooner, interrupting your patterns at earlier points. You might catch yourself with your fist in the air, and stop it before it hits the table. The next time it happens, you might catch yourself just as you jump to your feet, and stop before you go any further. Soon you might catch the anger as it begins, even before it has taken over your actions.

It is important to note that one shouldn’t fall back into self-blame. Buddhist teachers call your past actions and thoughts unskilful; as distinct from wrong. Skill comes with experience; unskilfulness is therefore a result of inexperience and a lack of proper learning. Wrongness is twisted; a lie that we are somehow fundamentally flawed, somehow evil.

When you catch the past, simply breathe. Pause, and breathe. It is also helpful to have prepared an alternative. A simple example would be someone who wants to give up smoking – every time she feels the urge to smoke; she pauses, calms her feelings with a few deep breaths, and reaches for a pack of gum instead.

Out of the hundreds of books on this topic, I would recommend two: Self-Defeating Behaviors, a purely psychological tome with information on the deepest and most common patterns. The second is Emotional Alchemy, a mixture of Buddhist and modern psychology, with a slightly different approach and categorisation.

Combine this with some emotional work, and burn up the pattern before it has the chance to arise.

Making Reparations

Being free of guilt does not mean that suffering and pain was not caused. Very often, some form of reparation is needed. You might have hurt someone; do your very best to fix things and make amends.

Byron Katie told a story once; I forget the exact details. A man had stolen from a retail shop in his past, but he was never caught. How was he to make amends? He tried going back and simply paying for the items he had stolen, but they said the accounting system would show an error for such a strange action. And so he came up with a brilliant solution – he returned to the store, and made several purchases. But after he made payment, he placed the items back on the shelves, walking out empty handed.

True courage is living your change completely.

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