Do you ever take on a task and not perform to your expectations? When you do, do you feel you’ve let not just yourself, but others down? Do you feel guilty?
This kind of guilt or remorse is worth examining because the odds are it’s misplaced. And since it’s a pattern that can become habitual, it causes us a lot of suffering, so anything we can do to alleviate it has to be worthwhile! This came up for me today while contemplating my weekly email: having taken on writing a blog that began as a weekly exercise and slipped to (mostly) biweekly, I feel guilty when the gap slips to three or occasionally (as in this case) four weeks. This week I decided to stop and reflect, and came up with five lessons that are pretty universal. I will try to remind myself of them next time I move to self-judgment and criticism and hope that you also find them helpful.
Talk To Yourself Like You Were Your Own Child
Even as they move into young adulthood, my children can make mistakes (imagine that!). When they do, my daughter in particular will often reach out to talk. If you have children, I’m sure you’ve had the same experience; if not maybe you have a sister or a close friend or a lover who brings their mistakes and self-judgment to you. Whoever it is, when someone you love brings their guilt to you, unless they’ve done something really, really bad (this does happen, but only a small minority of the time!), you are generally going to see that it is not anywhere near as bad as they think it is, and can usually help them to see that too. Two of my favorite approaches are “Will It Matter In Five Years?” and “Do They REALLY Care?”, each of which is considered separately below:
Will It Matter In Five Years?
If you imagine where you are and what you will be doing in five years, will this thing that just happened have any impact on your life? Will it really matter? It might take a minute or two to slow down and really examine this, but it is time worth taking. If you can do this and examine the situation honestly, the answer is usually a resounding, “No!”. And if it won’t matter in five years, then it really doesn’t matter now. None of the current reactions and complications and emotional spin-offs are worth the energy that you are investing in them. (Even if what you’re looking at is one of those minority of “big ones” that really will matter in five years, the nature of the potential impact suggests what you should do now, and this perspective will give some focus and direction and in doing so lower the current emotional energy.)
Do They REALLY Care?
Frequently we imagine what others must think of us: that we have let them down, or that they must think us a fool. But for the most part these are stories we are making up: others generally don’t really notice…and they certainly don’t care as much as we do! One of my favorite analogies is the story of business professional who spent days right before going on vacation preparing a wonderful presentation, and when their boss took it and delivered it to their management without attributing credit, felt disrespected. This person spent days stewing over the incident, thinking about what to say and how to say it to their boss when they returned to work, and in doing so ruined a vacation. All this while the boss had not given it a second thought, and would likely not even recall the matter if the employee brought it up! Why would you let your boss ruin your vacation like this?
Is This What The People Who Matter To Me REALLY Want
All too often we create a role for ourselves and imagine what we mean to other people, particularly those we love. But most of the time these identities we create are completely wrong. Most of the time the people we love don’t really want anything FROM us, they just want US! In my own life I recall one transformational incident when I discussed my reflections on a change of livelihood (from a well-paying corporate job to what I imagined would be a considerably-less-well-paying independent livelihood) with my young kids. I honestly expected them to tell me that extravagant vacations and nice Christmas presents were important, sending me back into the corporate world, and I was blown away when they independently told me (my daughter immediately, and my son a couple of days later) that they wanted me to take the path that would lead to me spending more time at home and being less stressed. Wow! That was a huge gift, one that completely transformed the way I saw the world and my relationships. Since then I’ve realized more and more that the people I really care about want more of me, not more of what I can do. We create such complicated imaginary stories for ourselves, and if we took the time to examine and verify them, all too often we would find them completely wrong.
Find Time To Meditate…And Stick To It!
When you feel you’ve messed up and the guilt is spiraling, it can be really hard to meditate. Not only do you not have the time – it seems far more important to be putting out fires and running around “making things better” – but if you do make yourself sit down, your mind is racing, your adrenalin levels sky-high, and it’s a such an uncomfortable experience that you just want to get up and do something, anything! But it’s precisely at these times that meditation is most important. If you have well-stretched meditation muscles (as in a well-established meditation practice) it is much easier – and this is a good reason to try to build such muscles. When we meditate, we let the dust settle, and this has two profound and very practical consequences:
- underneath the reactive noise is our deep mind which works slowly, but profoundly. If we allow this to emerge, it will generally find solutions to problems that our frantic thinking cannot. How many times have you heard of people waking up in the morning having solved in their sleep problems that have been bugging them for days, weeks, even months? Many of the greatest scientific discoveries emerged in this kind of completely unexpected way. It is only by intentionally slowing down that we can stop feeding the noise, and only by not feeding the noise that it can subside and our deeper mind be allowed to emerge;
- as we sit with the turbulence and chaos of our guilt and our fears, we have no choice but to look at them. Well, we’ll get caught up in them, and then look at them, and then get caught up in them again, and because of the intensity, the getting caught up in it can seem unbearable. But if you can make yourself focus on the times when you look at the mental chaos, you will find it really instructive and helpful. You’ll start to see how ridiculous a lot of the stories you’re making up are. Eventually spaces will open up where the frantic thoughts subside, and in these spaces you can start to notice that what seemed so important really isn’t what matters. Once this starts to happen, you have created a window for those spaces to grow, and pretty quickly you will find that the dark and oppressive clouds under which you first sat, and which quickly became heavier and heavier as you started to meditate, have cleared and you are sitting under a wonderful blue sky.
If you are not strong enough in your meditation practice, or the turbulence is just to great for you (and at times this has certainly been the case for me), then you can instead of trying sitting meditation move in the same direction by making yourself go for a slow meditative walk.