In my first blog, which appeared in the April 18 edition of The Huffington Post, I posed this question: Can the “habit of guilt,” an attitude of making decisions based on obedience to church rules and the self judgment inflicted of not meeting others expectations, ingrained for years ever be shaken off to find one’s own happiness? I introduced you to my book, “A Change of Habit; A Spiritual Journey from Sister Mary Kateri to Sister Mary Vodka” sharing the “7 Secrets to Guilt Free Living” that I discovered along my path.” I briefly looked at three of the secrets and was amazed at how many people took the time to write expressing the need to relieve the stranglehold of stress from pains of guilt.
In this blog I’d like to explore the seventh secret that answers that question and suggest a few practical ideas to move to living guilt free enjoying a lifetime of happiness. I will explain four simple (maybe not easy) practices you can do to reduce the guilt that bombards you in your daily lives.
It’s all about the happiness! That happiness must be protected and can easily slip away eroded by pangs of guilt. I grew up as a “guilt sponge,” living my life to please others, my family, the Church and those in authority. (This is in no means intended to take swipes or be offensive to the Catholic Church. With each decision I wove the fabric of my life, taking full responsibility.)
As a “guilt sponge” I absorbed the call to perfection and obeyed all the rules. I tried to make others happy at my own expense. I now know that I cannot make anyone happy other than myself. Each of us is responsible for our own joy. Happiness is an inside job.
With this new understanding I am still trying to make people happy but rather than trying to please them with my own complicit actions, I work to empower others to develop the skills for happiness. I write as a call to action; moving people to honestly and continuously reflect on their own situations and bravely act promoting and protecting their own happiness.
This seventh secret states “Happiness is not a gift, but a skill.” This powerful concept shifts the burden of guilt. It takes the onus of making others happy off me thus lifting the heavy weight of guilt.
Happiness is not bestowed from above for good behavior or because God has blessed someone with His special gift of happiness. As humans, we are endowed with the ability to gain the skill of happiness. But how do we develop these skills of making ourselves happy without casting blame on ourselves for not measuring up to the expectation of others? Where do we start and what can be done?
First: Know where guilt comes from and be cognizant of its presence. Guilt can come from many places oftentimes unknowingly. Family upbringing, rules of religion, and expectations of society all play a role. Cultural pressures, norms, standards, etc., are constantly throwing the “perfect marriage,” the “ideal man,” the “top 10 of everything” in front of our faces and mental rating curves.
As we move through the days we have to be aware of how these standards, words and situations can use the emotion of guilt to pressure us into action.
Second: Learn to say “no” without feeling guilty. This takes practice! I’m sure you can recall a situation when you felt pressured into something and you complied hesitatingly.
Recently I was reading an article written in praise of a woman that had passed over to her heavenly reward. The piece stated, “She didn’t know how to say ‘no,’ she was so full of energy.” Doing a little reflection I was taken aback at how the “never saying ‘no'” is some kind of ideal that we should all aspire to. How do you say “no” nicely? How do you protect your own time and happiness without feeling guilty about not meeting others expectations? I offer you a quick, easy and polite way out.
When asked to do something that your “little gut feeling” is tugging at your stomach, wanting to decline, listen to that reluctance and merely say: “I think I’ll have to pass.” Stop. No further explanation is needed. We often think that we need to go on further with our excuses, sounding like the queen of endless droning, giving our feeble excuses more substance. Just that simple, “I think I’ll have to pass.” Relax. Take a deep breath and rest assured that you will protect your own happiness.
Third: Watch words. Be mindful of the words that others use when talking to you. Listen to the words you use when talking to others or talking to yourself.
Words such as “ought” and “should” can sometimes throw a pang of guilt someone’s way, even getting in the way of our own thought process forcing a poor decision. “I know I should do this” or “You ought to do that.” Try to avoid using those incriminating words to others also when talking to yourself.
Change the word “should” to “could.” Just changing the one letter opens up more options for personal choice without casting guilt. Don’t let others drag you into their net of guilt. Silently offer them a blessing and go on your merry way.
Fourth: Shift your thinking. Often we just have to live life making our own mistakes and learning from them to move on. This is difficult to do and difficult to watch in others. Perceived failure is really a learning opportunity. Instead of wallowing in guilt over a past poor decision, redirect your thinking and celebrate the growth in looking at the “big picture” in the “School of Life.” Every situation is an opportunity; an opportunity for joy or an opportunity for growth. We need to shift our paradigm to see so-called mistakes as opportunities for growth. These “setbacks” that we feel guilty about missing the expectation, are merely part of the plan. Don’t wallow in guilt over a bad decision that didn’t work but redirect your vision and if you can “relish” the mishap as a learning experience. Become a student of life lessons.
I hope and pray that by incorporating these ideas you will begin to heed the wisdom within and will be on your way to living a life of happiness — guilt free.