Healing Our Guilt Wound

By Krista Resnick, Master LifeCoach/Boundary Expert.

We all experience guilt from time to time.  However, for someone who struggles with codependency, there is a level of deep internalized shame which can often leave someone with something I call a guilt wound.  

Many codependents are or were victims of abuse or neglect so it becomes almost normal to take on the role of victim-feeling as though they are to blame for most everything.  This makes it hard to access a feeling of self worth and sovereignty.   Rather than standing for themselves, it’s normal to hear a codependent person over-explaining and over apologizing as a way to soothe any threads of conflict or keep the peace.  

If you have codependent traits-you probably live on someone else’s side of the street -taking responsibility for things you didn’t do, problems you didn’t cause, and situations or people that you can’t control. And as a result, if you can’t fix, manage or control-you may feel guilty,  even when you haven’t done anything wrong.

Guilt is debilitating and will leave us feeling stuck and powerless.  It keeps us riding around on the drama triangle bouncing from victim to rescuer to martyr.  As someone who has personally struggled with codependency, I know how much  value and safety we receive from stepping in and being useful to others.  But we owe it to ourselves to heal the guilt wound and reclaim our power by beginning to take care of ourselves FIRST.  

What is Guilt?

First of all, if you feel guilty all the time, please know you’re not alone. A constant sense of guilt is one of the most common challenging emotions I come across in people. Sometimes guilt is a subtle feeling—a nagging sense of all the things you’ve done wrong. Sometimes it’s not so subtle—a sense of guilt might weigh you down like a heavy ball and chain.  

The lingering voice of guilt can often sound like:

  • You’re not giving your kids enough attention.
  • You’re late. Now, your colleague will have to pick up your slack.
  • You’re neglecting your friends.  You should spend more time with them.  
  • I shouldn’t have eaten those cookies.
  • I should call my sister more.
  • What about your mom? Dad? Sister? Grandparent? They need you.

This list could go on and on.  I invite you to pay attention to all of the messages and thoughts that come up for you during the day that cause you to feel guilt (more on this in a bit).  Overcoming guilt can feel impossible, but I want to encourage you through this article, because there’s a little secret about guilt that I want to fill you in on.  

Guilt can be and is a very healthy feeling when it’s used in it’s original manner.  Guilt’s purpose in our lives is to re-route our behavior.  When we’ve done something wrong, guilt is there, tapping us on the shoulder, inviting us to apologize, make amends and clean up our side of the street.  

If I’ve had a night where I haven’t gotten much sleep, my mood can quickly go south.  When my husband gets home from work and I snap at him because he forgot to pick up the  milk I had asked (and because MY window of tolerance was low due to lack of sleep), guilt is right there around the corner, reminding me to make it right with my husband. 

However, due to our childhood conditioning and culture, many times we douse ourselves down with guilt when we have actually done nothing wrong.  

Just because you are experiencing guilty feelings, doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong.  

This is what I refer to as unhealthy or unhelpful guilt.  It’s when we are experiencing the feeling of guilt when we’ve in fact done nothing wrong.  Remember, if you struggle with people pleasing and codependent tendencies, you are prone to this unhealthy or false guilt because of high expectations (perfectionism), you want to avoid conflict, base your self-worth on being liked and helping others, or you’re  afraid of rejection.

Unhealthy or unhelpful guilt harms us because it prevents us from setting boundaries, and honoring our own personal desires and needs.  You may find that you feel guilty when you sit down with a cup of tea in the afternoon to read a good book, or  you carve out an hour to head to the gym or take a much needed day off .  

If you find yourself feeling guilty in these situations, more than likely you are giving yourself a douse of unhealthy guilt that stems from a belief that it’s wrong to set boundaries or honor your personal needs.  

So how do we work with and heal this type of unhelpful guilt?

#1.  We need to understand that feelings and emotions are all feedback.  

Let’s use fear as an example.  Fear is designed to keep us safe. We wouldn’t swim in a swamp in Florida would we?  We would be terrified or at least thinking incessently about alligators.  Fear has a very specific purpose. 

We already are beginning to understand that  the same is true for guilt. It shows up in our life to help us reroute poor behavior.  It’s that small tap on the shoulder that says “hey… that’s not okay- you gotta go clean up your mess.”

In many instances however, I find that we are not actually feeling guilt.  What we are usually experiencing is a level of  discomfort with someone else’s response to us.  And our society, our conditioning,  has taught us to take that on as our responsibility and we call that guilt. 

But guilt is warranted only when you’ve behaved in ways that you’re not proud of. 

 For example, I might do something that I am totally proud of, and my friend might say… “oh my goodness… I can’t believe you did that. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?”

In that instance, I could take on the responsibility of how she feels. 

Here’s what is so important to understand, in that moment, I was proud of myself and my choices. Until said friend piped up.  What I’m actually feeling is not guilt.  I am uncomfortable AND I am NOT responsible for her response to me.

Allow yourself to feel the emotion whether it’s actually guilt or something else that you may discover.  Take a nice deep breath.  Notice where in your body you feel guilt.  Does this feeling have a shape or color?  Is there a particular sensation? Make space for it-meet it with tenderness and compassion. 

#2.  Affirm Yourself

If you’ve determined that you are experiencing unhelpful guilt, remind yourself that you are allowed to have needs, desires and preferences.  This is what makes you special and uniquely you.  Remind yourself that you are not too much and that you can handle your big feelings and emotions.  You are safe to feel and ask for what you need.

I love this particular step because here is where you get to begin to separate out who YOU are from your relationships.  You get to decide if your behavior was poor according to YOU. Not according to them.   

You do not have to see yourself through the view of your mom’s filter, dad’s filter, church’s filter, friend’s perspective.  You are responsible for what YOU think. Not for what anyone else thinks. 

This is where you get to spend time building a really solid stance about what you stand for,  what you value and your belief system.   You have to build a solid belief system. Otherwise you will be always looking externally for approval and validation, and rooted in what everyone else thinks. This is a great way to begin to build self worth, self respect and a healthy sense of self trust.  

#3. Identify your biggest triggers for guilt. 

Is it certain people or particular relationships that you find triggering?  Is it mom always saying things that make me feel guilty? Is it people from church?  Is it my best friend since I was 12?

Is it around circumstances? Things like asking to have your shift at work covered.  Asking for help to move on Saturday,  saying no to teaching Sunday school?  

Is it a category? Perhaps it’s anything to do with parenting? Is it all things career related?

What are the triggers for you?   Identifying  the triggers can help you prepare a bit better so that you’re not taken so off guard while you’re building your new muscle of identifying and noticing.  

Once you’ve done the above steps, you’re ready to step into this quick and simple 3 step process.

NOTICE-NAME:  Notice that you are having some discomfort.   Allow yourself to feel the emotion whether it’s actually guilt or something else that you may discover. Take a nice deep breath.  Notice where in your body you feel guilt.  Does this feeling have a shape or color?  Is there a particular sensation? Make space for it-meet it with tenderness and compassion.  

Say it aloud if possible. “I am having a guilt response.” (or whatever emotion it is if it isn’t guilt). Give it a voice,  put it out into the ether. I notice every time I speak it outloud, the emotion tends to lose a little of its grip on me.  (and side note you may not notice when you are in the thick of guilt so YES you certainly can do this work in hindsight AND it’s strongly recommended). 

ASK:  Have I done anything wrong here ACCORDING TO ME?  You have to ask according to me. Because according to your mom, mother in law, long lost uncle, boss, cubicle neighbor, high school bestie…yes, they probably do think you did something wrong.  (This ties into apologizing as well. Please don’t apologize if I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong). 

If it’s helpful, ask yourself-am I proud of myself in this situation?

Communicate:  Here’s where we get to tangibly honor ourselves through the words we speak by stepping into what might be an uncomfortable conversation.  I love to say, “My intention is not to hurt you… OR my intention is not to put you out.” This type of conversation helps you to get grounded in who you are but  also helps the other person to know exactly what your intention is.  So whatever the situation is, state your intention.  It may sounds like, “My intention is not to hurt you, it’s just that I really need to  stand in some serious  self care right now.  Or, my intention is not to let you down but I just really need to take care of myself, OR my intention is not to upset you  but I really value my family and I need to be there for them right now. 

You don’t have to let guilty feelings drive your behavior.  My hope is that the tools in this article help  anchor you when you feel guilt moving you forward.  

Join Krista on May 16 for Live Group Coaching -3 ways to Overcome Guilt. Krista will open up the call for questions and coaching on the topic of guilt. Join this amazing experience: https://kristaresnick.lpages.co/group-coaching-2023/

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