Putting Guilt Into Perspective
Irrational guilt isn't necessary. There are ways to conquer it.
Posted January 29, 2010
When I first heard about the earthquake in Haiti, I felt sad. Worried. Angry. I didn't, however, feel guilty, which is a huge improvement.
For some reason or reasons, when growing up, I felt guilty about a lot of things, many of which weren't in my control. One of those things was slavery. I'd read about it or think about it and break into tears. Why did my people have to go through that? They suffered so much. Why couldn't I do anything to stop it? I knew logically there was nothing I could do about those atrocities that occurred centuries before my time, but I felt as though somehow, I should have been able to do something to ease the pain of my ancestors. Rationally, it didn't make sense, but that didn't stop me from internalizing and in some ways accepting it. I felt a sense of responsibility for making things a little better and since I obviously couldn't do that, the feelings turned to guilt.
A couple years ago, I learned an exciting addition to my family history: one side of my family had come from Haiti. They immigrated to America in the mid-1800's, established themselves in Louisiana, and a few generations later, here I am.
Considering my guilty feelings toward Africa's past, it would seem that Haiti's current crisis would trigger a wave of guilt. But as I first mentioned, that's not the case. The reason is because that incredible sense of guilt that I used to feel regarding Africa isn't there anymore. I didn't have an epiphany that erased those feelings. I think this guilt-easing process is just like everything else that's improved: with a lot of work, time and grace, it got better.
Here are some things that helped me process and move past these guilt issues:
• Wrote about it.
I often write to get my thoughts and feelings out of my head or to bring them to mind, and this situation was no different. Writing helps me see things of which I am not consciously aware.
Likewise, if you're feeling misplaced guilt, process it in whatever way works best for you. If you like to create art, then draw, paint or sculpt what you feel guilty about and how that excess guilt is affecting you. If exercising does the trick, take a walk or swim laps and listen to what comes up for you. If meditating helps you process, take some time to be by yourself and observe what you think and feel.
• Talked about it.
I've talked, and talked, and talked about this issue. I talked to friends and people in support groups. I spoke about this and other internalized guilt issues with my therapist. Talking with people helped me process the guilt I was feeling and really understand that it wasn't my responsibility.
Think of a person - or persons - you trust. Share the guilt you're dealing with. Let the person know what you need from them - maybe you just want an open ear or perhaps you'd appreciate feedback. By voicing these thoughts, it can help you process some of the guilt you're experiencing.
• Used sarcasm.
I've found that sarcasm can be an effective way for me to develop a more accurate perspective. For instance, when I was feeling guilty about slavery, I might say something like, Of course you should've saved them! After all, you are Superwoman. You should've created a time travel machine. Then you could've hopped back to the 17th century and used your super Adia powers to fight off the captors and direct the ships back to Africa. I'd make the scenarios outlandish enough that I'd usually laugh and see it was ridiculous to think I had so much control over something that I clearly couldn't have prevented. It would help me give myself a break.
Gauge your situation. Some people find that sarcasm just reinforces the guilt and sets them back. Others have mentioned that, like me, it helps them lighten up on themselves and can be very effective.
• Was proactive.
Sarcasm helped me see what I wasn't responsible for and couldn't do, but I looked to see if there was anything I could do in the present. Okay, I can't stop America's slavery from centuries ago. Is there anything I can do now? Years ago I started sponsoring a little girl, now a teenager, from Africa. I knew it wouldn't change history and potentially only positively affect one African person, but I figured every little bit helps. Likewise with Haiti, I couldn't change the country's past struggles and obviously couldn't stop an earthquake, but there were things, are things - such as donate resources for the current crisis - that I could do to help in the aftermath.
If you're feeling misplaced guilt, what are some ways to proactively counter it? For instance, if you were in an accident where someone died and you feel guilty that you lived, you can donate some time to a driving awareness program. If you feel guilty about a pet that died, you can volunteer at a vet hospital. Doing something in the area that you are experiencing guilt can help you process it.
Guilt isn't fun. Irrational guilt isn't necessary. There are ways you can deal with it and lessen - or eliminate - its impact in your life.