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Letting Go of Guilt

A couple years ago I began a contemplative practice of creating SoulCollage cards. Each small card is a collage of images that represent different parts of who I am. One of my SoulCollage cards is an image of a group of men on a lifeboat looking out onto the night sky watching a ship sinking in the distance.

In my mind I imagine the ship to be the Titanic with lots of people left behind, and I am the man on the lifeboat whose hand is outstretched. I painted a heart in that hand, an offering to those left to perish. I call this card “The Lifeboat”, a.k.a “My Guilt Card”.

This card represents the part of me that feels like I did not do enough, give enough, help enough, that I am not enough, that wonders if I even deserve to be happy when so many others are not. This part of me has quieted down a lot over the years, but it occasionally pops up and reminds me that it has not fully disappeared.

Countless conversations with numerous people have convinced me that my guilt feelings are more of the norm of our culture than the exception. I believe guilt was placed in us for a purpose, so that we would not be cruel or careless with our own lives and the lives of others. A small percentage of people in our world seem to have turned off their guilt gauge completely. But more and more I see people whose guilt gauge has been shifted into overdrive and it has become a habitual response to everyday life.

Sometimes this excessive guilt is about a specific situation, but often it is a dull aching inside that somehow they are to blame for all that is wrong in the world. Somehow they are not enough. I know for my own experience that this type of guilt is useless, worse than useless actually. It drains us of precious energy we could be using to create a life we love.

Long ago I determined that there are three irrational beliefs that cause almost all bouts of excessive guilt. Every time I feel the guilt creeping up in me, I ask myself which of these beliefs I am holding onto, so I can soothe it and let it go. Try it yourself if that aching arises in you.

The first irrational belief is that I can control others. How many of us feel excessive guilt because a family member is an addict, someone we love is sick, our child has a learning disability? Somehow we are convinced that if we had loved better, supported better, helped better, this problem wouldn’t exist.

What if we choose instead to believe that we are not the cause of someone’s struggle and we are not the cure? We can love them in the way we are prayerfully drawn to love them. It is not our job to fix anyone or take away every struggle someone experiences. We couldn’t do it even if it were our job. We are not the author of anyone else’s path. We can surrender them into God’s hands when we know nothing else to do.

The next irrational belief is that I must be perfect. First of all, whose standard of perfection are we using? So many people watch TV or scroll through Facebook to decide what perfect looks like. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” as Theodore Roosevelt stated. Our lives are simply not meant to look like anyone else’s life.

What if we choose to believe we are doing the best we can with the life we are meant to live? Sure, we could probably “do better” but at what cost? Our sanity. It’s not worth it. What if instead of striving for perfect lives (which are actually just illusions), we choose to experience messy lives full of love, full of joy, full of peace?

The last irrational belief is that I am not worthy of forgiveness. Let’s be honest, sometimes we make big mistakes, really really big ones. As humans we are meant to feel bad when we’ve caused pain in another or hurt ourselves in some way, but we are not meant to stay stuck there forever. We are meant to learn from those mistakes.

I believe each mistake is an opportunity to fine tune who we are, to make better choices in the future, to be more clear about who we want to be, to grow, to evolve as people. When we lose our sense of worthiness, we lose our power to change. We all carry the Divine within us. That alone gives us value. And no mistake can ever change that.

Max Ehrma said, “Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” I agree. You deserve to be here on this earth, taking up space, bumping into things once in awhile, trying the best you can without losing your sanity, living an imperfect, messy, beautiful life.

Why not let go of the guilt? Why not be the man in the lifeboat holding up a heart to the world, except in this case knowing that you deserve to live, that you deserve to be happy, that you are a human who makes mistakes along the way, that you’ve done the best you can, that you have a right to be here? You really really do have a right to be here.

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