If I asked you to list them right now, how many things would you say you feel guilty about?
Before I learnt to manage these feelings, I would have immediately identified a strong sense of guilt linked to my family (missed mum’s birthday, again!), my work (forever feeling the need to apologise for being so busy and running over schedule) and personal relationships (we’ll just leave this one here ..)
I could even feel a sense of guilt about the order I listed these in, because the order implies priority. Do I put work before relationships? To be honest, given my schedule and being a working parent, I am forever feeling guilty for being where I am, instead of where I feel I should be.
Is it helpful to talk about guilt?
It’s not a typically inspiring subject, but as with much emotional baggage, talking about it can considerably lighten the load. Most of us will experience guilt at multiple points in our lives – but is it an emotion we have to ‘suffer through’, or can we redefine how we experience it?
My Three Bowls
The need to create a more fulfilling life – and one less driven by feelings of guilt – accelerated into overdrive when I moved to Hong Kong. The process of investigating various positive, proactive strategies to take control of my guilt led me to the develop my Three (metaphorical) Bowls.
I visualise my Three Bowls as transparent goldfish bowls that all sit submerged in a pool. Only three ‘guilts’ can fit in any one bowl. I visualise my guilt associations – a short mental video, something to represent a person, significant items, etc – and they are contained within one of the Bowls and submerged in water. The ‘guilts’ have no power over me unless I choose to remove the Bowl from the water to confront them.
For me, it works to classify the Bowls as:
- Major guilts – serious transgressions that can cause me serious and enduring painful emotions
- Guilts that undermine my mental wellbeing and sap my energy on a daily basis. Mine invariably relate to my parenting skills and my own expectations of my personal and professional development
- Guilts that do not impact on my sense of self (personally or professionally)
Funnily enough, the physical sensations generated for me by any sense of guilt is invariably one or more of:
- A tightness in the stomach
- A distracted mind
- Disturbed sleep
When to confront, and when to let go
Many of the parents among us will know the ‘name that emotion’ technique to help children identify and process their feelings. This can be helpful here too. Putting a name to a sensation allows us to express it. And letting ourselves (or others) know we feel guilty about something can go a long way to lessen the emotion’s power over us and our reactions.
To return to the Three Bowls, start by identifying your most pressing three guilts for each bowl. This can be by yourself or with someone you trust – some guilts simply lessen through sharing them.
The Three Bowls will help you to recognise which guilts need to be acknowledged, where you need to hold yourself to account and what positive changes you can make in your everyday life.
Some guiding principles
Self-care is vital in your role as a care-giver. Prioritise your mental and physical wellbeing through good basic nutrition, sleep, exercise and social practises. Don’t feel guilty for this!
Be systematic. Address each identified guilt. Be honest with yourself and hold yourself to account. The guilts in the first Bowl that are more than 5 years old – acknowledge them and give yourself permission to release yourself from them.
What to do when guilt creeps in – my top 10
Rationalise thoughts through conversation or journaling
Assign guilt to one of the Three Bowls
Act if you need to, acknowledge and release if you don’t; ignoring the emotional baggage will only make it a heavier to bear
If more than one person is impacted, decide who has the most need and prioritise them (I find this is mainly of use with my children)
Go for a walk / hike / jog / cycle. You will be amazed at the clarity that can come with exercise
Ask yourself – can I really affect change here? If not, breathe deeply and let it go. Give yourself 10mins to sulk or worry if you need, but don’t let it ruin your day
Where possible, maintain your routine – this is a key part of good self-care
Make time to listen to a good podcast or audio book; the world is bigger than any of us or our own issues. We are all important, but the world will keep turning regardless
Breathe. Stretch. Be present
Regularly visit your Three Bowls. They are your allies! Control your guilt, so it does not control you.
Written exclusively for WELL, Magazine Asia by Sarah Keates