This article is dedicated to those who find themselves drowning in feelings of guilt and regret. May these words inspire you to feel better about yourself and heal the wounds deep within your soul.
A road to sustained happiness
During the 31 years that I have been roaming around this planet, I have not met a single person who has never experienced shame or guilt at one point or another. As human beings, we have a tendency to beat ourselves up for the smallest, most trivial things. I know I have done it, probably more than I would care to admit. While some would argue that guilt is necessary for comprehending our inadequacies, I have learnt that the opposite is in fact true.
When we drown ourselves in feelings of guilt or regret, we bar ourselves from making progress. This is because guilt can only arise as a result of past experiences. And, if that’s true, then—by definition—you too are living in the past from the moment you feel guilty. Inevitably, living in the past will block you from everything that you are supposed to be doing to get on with your life. But, no worries, I got you! In the next paragraphs I will elaborate on how you can tackle this constantly nagging emotion and replace it with more self-appreciation that will eventually lead to more happiness and sustained self-love.
The self-forgiveness paradox
In order for us to truly understand the concept of self-forgiveness, we must understand its intriguing, yet confusing paradox. On the one hand, we should hold ourselves to high standards, both in terms of our personal achievements and our relationships, and do our very best to live up to those standards. On the other hand, we also need to understand that beating ourselves up with feelings of guilt every time we screw up will do us no good.
So, if neither feeling guilty nor feeling guiltless is the right approach to sustained self-love, then what is? Imagine a world in which no one ever feels guilty about anything; people committing the worse crimes against themselves and against others without any shame or resentment. Now ask yourself: would such a world be better off or worse off? Now, imagine the opposite for a moment: a world in which everyone is drowning in guilt and sorrow for the smallest mistake they make. Ask yourself again: would such a world be better off or worse off?
The obvious answer to these questions is that in both cases the world would be worse off, which leaves us precisely in the middle. This means that, yes, you should feel guilty or remorseful when you knowingly hurt someone, and, yes, you should feel guilty when you are continuously wasting your time on futile activities that are not aligned with your higher purpose. However, the key is to not hold any of these feelings longer than is necessary. What is in the past can no longer be undone, so what remains is either here or has yet to come. I know, even I have to admit, that was pretty smooth…
You are a work in progress
Being able to separate your past actions from your current state is difficult, and yet it is crucial to moving forward and learning to turn your pain into something uplifting and positive. In the previous paragraph, I emphasized (in a rather poetic manner) that you should either focus on the present or on the future. However, to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes again, it is wise to look back for a brief moment, take inventory of your screw-ups, and analyze where precisely things went wrong. You don’t want to fall back in past behavior, and, in order to prevent that from happening, it is a good idea to learn from your experiences.
Having said that, pay attention to how I have used the word “analyze” in the previous passage. It means that you don’t want to look back at your shortcomings with emotions. Rather, you want to be as objective as humanly possible. When you’re analyzing, you are by definition analytical in that brief moment and thus more likely to be rational in your findings. Trust me, the best way is always to come from a place where you can objectively look at yourself and know that the person who made those mistakes yesterday is not the person that is here today. This is the optimal path to self-forgiveness.
Self-criticism vs. self-acceptance
It is no secret that even the most resilient people are at time prone to self-criticism. The more I tap into the human psyche, the more fascinated I become with the driving forces behind our behaviors. What I’ve come to learn over the years is that life is pretty binary. It’s either left or right, black or white, and, yes, occasionally the grey area in the middle. It is as the old adage goes: “life is simple, but it ain’t easy.” Deep inside, we usually know what we are supposed to be doing or not doing. The problem, however, is that, more often than not, our emotions are in conflict with our convictions for a myriad of reasons.
For example, let’s just say you want to become more efficient with your time and finally go after that goal you always dreamed of. But, for whatever reason, you are unable to actually get off your butt and start taking action, which in return leaves you with feelings of guilt and remorse. What is worse is that we often fail to understand that our deep-seated urge to procrastinate comes from a discrepancy between our desires and our innate convictions. Maybe you just don’t believe that you could actually pull it off, or maybe you’re just too afraid of the unknown to take action. Whichever it is, it doesn’t really matter for now.
Contrarily, what does matter is that it is precisely these types of conflicts that lead to self-criticism. Once again, an interesting paradox can be found here. See, when it comes to concepts such as self-forgiveness or, in the broader sense, self-love, the solutions are predominantly counter-intuitive. For instance, when we make assumptions of how we should be feeling in any particular moment, we are probably already heading towards the opposite side of that spectrum, as we become more aware of the perception that something is missing in the first place. Similarly, when we accept our shortcomings for what they are, we often find ourselves unburdened and more likely to quickly outgrow them. In other words, self-criticism often leads to self-neglect, whereas self-acceptance often leads to self-respect.
Perspective is always effective
I have so often talked about the importance of having the right perspective, and yet somehow I can’t seem to stress it sufficiently enough. Having that right frame of mind is the solution to your mental pollution. A simple trick that I often recommend is that of writing. I bet that if you take five minutes out of your day to write down all the good things that you are doing (or all the bad things that you are currently not doing), you would realize that your slip-ups are just a tiny fraction of the total sum of your actions.
Most people, most of the time, and in most situations, are inherently good. If this weren’t so, the world would be a total disaster. Knowing that, I think it’s safe to assume that you too are inherently good, most of the time, and in most situations. After all, what really matters at the end of the day are your intentions (inner world) and their direct results (outer world). Alternatively stated, your intentions strongly influence, and most likely determine, the course of your actions, which in turn is reflected in the quality of your life and circumstances. This is why most successful people visualize. It allows them to focus all their thoughts on their intentions and consequently increase the intensity and efficiency of their actions. So, next time you catch yourself feeling guilty again, just remember: the quality of your life is always determined by the quality of your perspective on life.
Self-forgiveness is an essential component to happiness, and one that needs more attention than it is currently given. It may sound reasonable to think that feelings of guilt will lead to more progressive actions, but I hope that after reading this article you will have a better understanding of this rather counterintuitive solution. You are either your own best friend or your own worst enemy, but you can’t be both. I most certainly hope you will pick the first one, but the choice is yours….