Eating sunscreen like pudding...
As humans, we are gifted with an endless spectrum of emotions. While some leave us feeling euphoric or joyful, others are just plain uncomfortable. Guilt is one such emotion. When my daughter was just under a year old, she was on the move. Like all little people, she couldn't grasp the concept of safety, or danger. I found myself using the word "no" frequently, so she would stop climbing something- or to curb her futile attempts at eating sunscreen like pudding. I remember the look of utter despair on her face, as she was noticeably showered with a wave of guilt before the inevitable eruption of tears. She hated to disappoint me. She has since gotten over that.
Tender heart that easily breaks for the underdog...
For better or worse, I was born with the desire to please people. To boot, I was horribly bullied in grade school, and have a tender heart that easily breaks for the underdog. In the rare event that I fumble in my perfectionism, and facilitate wrongdoing of sorts, guilt is likely to eat me alive for years to come. But what can you do with all that emotion when resolution is unlikely, or even impossible? We do all sorts of things to feel better. Some efforts are more healthy than others.
My ability to juggle bowling pins while doing the running man...
1) Project blame: This is the first reaction many people have to the feeling of guilt. If I point the finger at you, I don't have to feel so horrible with myself. Let's say that John cheated on his wife Lisa. When he is found out, John immediately retorts with, "If you hadn't pushed me away for so long, I wouldn't need attention from someone else!" Thanks John. You're a great guy. You're right. It's all Lisa's fault (barf). You get my meaning.
2) Denial: Perhaps you don't believe that what you did was even wrong. This is where people try to explain why their slight wasn't really that bad. Say someone cheated on a test and got caught. "What do these archaic measurements of intellect even mean in today's society? Your bubble sheet can't measure my knowledge of anatomy, any more than it can measure my ability to juggle bowling pins while doing the running man!"
3) Hide: If you disappear, you won't have to face the person you wronged, or the situation you botched. People will use avoidance to get out of consequences (for sure), but I believe that it is primarily driven by guilt, or even shame. Your rent check bounced, and your landlord won't stop calling to collect. If you never answer the phone, consequences are not a reality just yet. Guilt can be totally dodged for a short time, and this provides comfort- however temporary.
4) Numb: Some people become so upset by the feelings of guilt that they try to escape through numbing tactics. This can be drinking, drugs, shopping, sex, gaming...any dopamine reward center activity. While this doesn't provide any long-term solution, feelings can be forgotten for brief periods of time. Historically, I have had a deep interest and voyeuristic curiosity with the show Intervention. It could be the social worker in me, or the understanding that a few different choices could have landed me on the show. Whatever it is, it's not uncommon to see a drug addict briefly interact with the child they lost custody of, and immediately go use. Of course they do! The guilt of losing their child is killing them, and "numbing" is the only relief.
Take responsibility and say you're sorry...
There is a final option. It is uncomfortable and possibly draped in futility. It seems radical to some, but brings with it possible, and total relief from the sinking monster in your gut we call guilt. Take responsibility, and say you're sorry. WHAT- you say? That's uncomfortable and I will have to admit I did something wrong! That feels horrible! Not nearly as horrible as you feel at this moment drowning in your own shmutz. Depending on the severity of the wrong, this can be pretty tricky. There are some cases in which you can't say you're sorry. If there has been a death, or if apologizing would cause greater harm to other parties. These are very rare circumstances. I find that 99.9% of the time, a simple and sincere apology can heal any number of wounds. I remember every heartfelt apology I have ever received- after horrible wrongs. Wrongs, that by all accounts- should have been held on to as sticky resentments until my grave. Apologies are gifts we can choose to accept with gratitude, or deny ourselves peace by rejecting the humbled villain.
What happens if they don't accept your sincere and heartfelt apology? This is the worst. You screwed up, you took responsibility, apologized with genuine expressions of deep remorse. Nothing. When this has happened in my universe, it's like my soul dies a little. I'm not even being dramatic about it. I feel actual pain. What can be done? This is an opportunity to shift your perspective and do the following:
1) Understand that it isn't always about you. Other people have all sorts of stuff going on in their history, or present circumstances that impact their reaction to you.
2) They may not be ready yet. There is that saying that suggests- if you shatter a plate and say you're sorry to it, things will always be a little broken. Some people need time to process, because they are hurt. Understandably so. Maybe things can never be the same. If that's the case, you must move on to #3.
3) Forgive yourself. We do stupid things for all sorts of reasons. Don't spend a lifetime in regret. Once you offer an apology, it's out of your hands, and in theirs to do with what they choose. Perhaps your chapter is over, or not. It's not yours to own anymore. Show yourself some compassion for the humanness you have been learning to navigate in this lifetime. It's not easy.
Newer and shinier choices...
Guilt is a yucky but necessary emotion. If we didn't feel remorse, we would be capable of all sorts nasty things. It's a gift to experience a conscience that helps us make better choices after the really bad ones. Give it a thought or two next time. Have you hurt some feelers? Made a mess of things? Try sincerity, instead of hiding out in your batcave. Clearing the air makes breathing easier for everyone. Oh, and cut yourself some slack. None of us are perfect. Every day is an opportunity for newer and shinier choices.