Guilt is the worst kind of vengeance, a punishment exacted by you for betraying yourself.
We have all had an intimate relationship with guilt at some time or another. We all know that it pulls us in, envelops us, and keeps us warm even though we know we should be running the other way. Guilt is something we could all live without, but we often struggle to turn away.
I have felt guilt many, many times. I still do, but I can get it under control fairly quickly thanks to years of therapy. Therapy helped me realize that feeling guilt has always been my own doing and not someone else’s. Only I can put it on and only I can take it off.
I used to feel guilty that I wasn’t married with kids; that was because I was disappointing my mother. The truth is that it was her issue, not mine. If she wanted to be disappointed in me for not being married with kids on her timetable, well, that was her problem. Feeling guilty for not meeting her expectations? That was my own doing. I should not have felt guilty and for that, I feel, well, guilty foolish.
I believe we have free will. I believe we can choose how we view things (half-empty or half-full?) and how we want to feel on most given days. I saw a bumper sticker once that said “Choose Happiness.” I make a conscious effort when I wake up in the morning to be happy. I used to choose not to and that made me, and everyone around me, pretty miserable. For me, recognizing that feeling guilty is just another choice about whether or not to be happy has been a life-changing revelation.
I have a couple of friends who feel tremendous amounts of guilt. Guilt that their birth experience didn’t go according to plan. Guilt that they are not breastfeeding. Guilt that they are working moms. The list goes on and I think it is a bunch of crap. We all make choices and we should embrace them loudly and proudly. To hell with anyone who wants to judge us! I think that most of these mommy wars would simply disappear if people rejected feeling guilty about their choices as a mother. If we just stopped trying to avoid, deflect, and defend from guilt, I don’t think anyone would feel the need to rattle sabers instead of baby toys.
Let’s talk about birth plans for a moment. When I gave birth to my son I had a birth plan. Nothing went according to that plan. I wanted a “natural birth” and I ended up with every intervention in the book. Each time a doctor wanted to perform some new procedure, I kicked everyone out of the room. My husband and I kept three people on speed dial (a doctor, birth class instructor, and birth advocate) to help walk us through the decisions and advise us of any alternative options. Although nothing went according to plan, the goal remained the same— to have a healthy baby. I never lost sight of that. Sure, some medical staff didn’t agree with me and one of them even tried to defy me. But not once did I surrender to them the power to make me feel a certain way. I may not have been in control of my destiny, but I had the power over my choices. It doesn’t bother me one bit what the nurses thought of me or how I ended up on an operating table because the end result was the same either way: a healthy baby and the knowledge that I did the best that I could given the circumstances. No regrets and certainly no guilt.
I have had a long relationship with guilt and I have seen it take many forms. It can manifest itself as self-pity. It can appear as regret and remorse. Guilt is toxic and it can camouflage itself as resentment. We all know resentment is a poison you drink and expect the other person to die.
Feeling guilty is a cop out. You feel guilty so you don’t have to take responsibility. Instead of actually taking action and fixing the situation, you choose to just feel “guilty” about it. It appears as “Shoulda coulda woulda,” but the point is, you didn’t. Instead of moving on, guilt lets you live in the past and avoid the present.
Guilt is also narcissism in disguise. Guilt is self-indulgent. When you feel guilty about something, you can wallow in it and convince yourself of your powerlessness. It somehow justifies your decision when you have a pity party for yourself.
Guilt is passive-aggressive. When others try to lay it on you they are trying to dominate you through mind games. And when you let them, when you let others become your puppeteer, you’re still the one holding the weapon. Guilt is always a self-inflicted wound.
At its core, guilt is the result of an unresolved inner conflict. When outside expectations collide with your personal desires and beliefs, you make a choice. You can either choose to act in a way that is true to yourself or you can satisfy everyone else. When you don’t like your choice, when you feel like you didn’t have control, you try to take it all back through guilt. That doesn’t resolve anything. Guilt is the worst kind of vengeance, a punishment exacted by you for betraying yourself.
No one can make you feel guilty unless you let them. Sure, I’ve received plenty of guilt trips from friends and foes alike. But whether or not I accepted it was my choice. Guilt is simply a manifestation of lack of self-confidence in your choices. You either say to hell with everyone else or you enter the hell of self-doubt.
So, how can you rid yourself of this toxic emotion? How can you save yourself from drowning in it? Tell it to f* off. I am woman hear me roar. I am strong and confident and worthy. I can make decisions and stand by them. Do not succumb to feelings of guilt. You absolutely have control over it. You only have one life to live, so live it, live it large and loud and don’t let the naysayers, the ones who judge you and give you dirty looks, a second thought. You are too busy living, right?
I broke up with guilt. And you should too.
Cara Paiuk is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and many other publications. She is also an entrepreneur, photographer, future book author (stay tuned, folks!), and of course, proud mother to a gaggle of ragamuffin redheads. You can follow her on Twitter @carapaiuk
This originally appeared on Medium. Republished here with permission.