When I was at my 20th High School Reunion, a woman named Peggy came up to me and apologized profusely and with great and sincere emotion for what she had done to me when we were 16 years old. She stood before me with her shoulders held high. (She had been bracing herself for this moment for a long time.) She gripped and ground her fists together. She looked into my eyes. Then, with her lids filled with tears and her quivering lower lip, she confessed her sin.
I accepted her apology.
I had to. It would have been too awkward to say, “Huh?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. No idea.
Thank God I had not yet sipped the reunion’s high-school-throwback-spiked-fruit-punch. I might have lost my compassion and started to laugh at the ridiculous amount of pain she was apparently overcoming to speak to me. Seriously, honey, twenty years carrying this weight of guilt…then suffering the dread and anxiety about what to say to me? …about something I can’t even remember? Are you sure it was me?
I can’t be the only one who has been falsely approached as wounded. Has this ever happened to you?
Or…um…I guess the more important question is:
What about the reverse of it? Have you ever been the one to feel a twinge or a beating of guilt for something you did to someone? …twenty years ago? …yesterday?
What Peggy did to me (so many moons ago)…was real. To her. Though I had no idea whaaaat she was talking about, she sure did. There was a whoooooole stoooooory….
It makes you wonder: What is real about guilt?
…Or what is guilt really about?
Let’s start with the best definition in the world. So clear. So accurate. Here it is:
Guilt is the perception that, in the past, you have caused someone more pain than pleasure. Or, you could fill in the blanks with other contrasting outcomes. It could be that you believe you have harmed more than helped; rejected more than accepted; taken more than given; abandoned more than included; criticized more than praised…
You get the picture.
Peggy believed that she did something to me – when we were 16 years old – that caused me to suffer more bad than good. It’s as simple as that.
Who knows how she came to that conclusion? Maybe, 20 years ago, at the exact moment she was concerned about something she had said to me, she happened to see my face all twisted up in sneezal distortion…at the tail-end of a grand hatchoo…and assumed the bizarre expression was directed at her self-assessed carelessness?
The curious thing about guilt is that it exists..and it persists…in the person who has it. It existed in Peggy. It persisted in Peggy. She had it. As for me, I was as free as a bird. I had not even thought about her in…well…since we were 16, I guess.
So, well, here we are using Peggy as an example for something to think about. Ahh, Peggy, where ever you are, I wish you well…
If there ever was a detox that had your name on it, this may be it: Detox yourself from guilt.
You can (a) wait 20 years and then apologize at the reunion. Or (b), get rid of it, now.
The Detox: Get the guilt out of your inbox. Talk about freeing up some space! (How many kazillions of MBs of guilt are sitting in the inbox you call your brain?)
The next time you feel guilt, ask yourself exactly why you feel it.
There is only one answer: It is because you imagine you caused a more negative (than positive) experience for another person in the immediate or distant past.
(Yeah, you can also feel guilt if you believe your current actions are causing, or will cause, a negative experience for someone in the future. It’s just that, if it happened in the past, you believe you are not imagining it because it has already happened.)
The truth is, the whole thing is your imagination.
You will never know what another person has experienced.
All you know is what you imagine. Even if it is based on what you have observed, most of what you believe is based on what you have filled in the blanks with.
I proclaim this as a fact: Anything you have observed is just the tip of the iceberg of another human being’s experience.
Think about it. There is so much more to any event than what you imagined has ‘happened’.
Here is an example from my life:
When I was first in business, I used to give my sister, Suzannah, money to help her and her little family. Her husband was just becoming a chef. She was working full-time. My nephew, Zak, was only three years old. There were things they wanted to have and to do, but they could not afford. “They need my help,” rang in my brain. At the same time, I felt like I was financially successful enough to say “yes” when they asked and, also, to offer things if they didn’t. Contributing money to their lives in any way was the most natural thing in the world. I felt they needed it more than I did.
Then, something changed. I couldn’t give them money anymore. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I could not do it.
According to their imagination, I had money to burn. I had my business and it was growing.
According to the facts, however, I was in financial trouble. I had not managed my expenses well. Even though I was making a pile of money, I was spending two. I got myself into a pickle and was not sure if my business would survive.
As it turns out, I could not give her any money. Even when she really needed it, I had to say ‘No’.
Her fury and disappointment sandwiched my own heavy guilt. How could I let her down?
As dramas unfold, so did this one: They moved away and stopped talking to me. For three years.
For three years, I carried around a heavy load of guilt. Day after day, I beat myself up…bad sister, bad sister, bad sister…
Then, three years later, when my sister called me, here is what she said: “You know, if you had never said no, we wouldn’t even own our own home. We cleaned up our credit, got an HSA loan, and now we are financially free…”
That is a real example of a mass that lies below the iceburg’s tip. There was so much more to the story than the one event of my having said ‘No’.
There is so much more to every story.
So, what do you think? Did I cause her and her family harm? Or did I help?
Should I feel guilty? Or should I feel like I contributed to their family in a different way? Did I deprive them of what they needed? Or did I provide resources other than money…that were maybe even more valuable for them than the dollar bills I had to withhold?
So, here is the first step of detoxing the inbox of guilt: Consider something crazy. How has whatever-negative-experience you caused someone, turned out to be a benefit for that person?
Just consider it. It is not meant to be a tool for justification of harming someone. No. It is meant to be a way for you to make space for possibilities other than those feelings of guilt that are cemented into your brain, creating so much weight….
You don’t really need another burden, do you?
Try it. You might be surprised what you find.