Three reasons to not feel guilty about anything

March 11, 2016, 9:28 am

The human dimension at work: It’s a business reality that people are human. Ultimately a business leader will succeed or fail on how they can resolve the human issues as how we think and feel totally affects how we perform at work. In her latest guest blog, Liz Lovius – State of Mind Leadership Coach – writes about the very human condition of guilt and how our performance is much better off without it…

You know the feeling. The heavy one in your heart, gut, head. The one that comes with an insistent voice that is basically saying: ‘you: have got it/did it/are ….wrong’. The shameful guilty feeling.

And then you feel bad. Really bad. Mad with yourself. Lots of self-blame and recrimination. You remember lots of other times when you have failed or did ‘bad’ things – like a long line of scientific evidence for your badness. All to be believed of course – how else is there to see it?

And anyone else who tries to convince you otherwise – just doesn’t get it – how things really are, how bad you really are. They’re just being nice. Or delusional.

On a bad day, I can feel like a bad professional, leader, colleague or learner. I can get caught up in some thinking along the lines of: ‘I need to do better, I am letting people and myself down, by not being more available, reliable, interested, caring, attentive, active, doing that thing I said I would do …. – ie not good enough in some way.’ And these thoughts are always followed by ‘the guilty-shame feeling’.

And thereafter, every article I read or person I compare myself to just points out to me my imperfections as a professional and things I should be striving to be better at (and failing). Which just makes me feel worse. I might try to get rid of these feelings by… (well lots of different things that help numb it) and any action I do end up taking rarely turns out well and so my performance suffers.

So here’s my perspective that I’ve found works better than all that and might just lift your (guilty) load and perhaps give you some understanding of what’s really going on when we feel guilty. Check out for yourself to see if it has the ring of truth.

What is guilt really?

Guilt is defined as the unhappy feelings caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something wrong’. By this very definition guilt is never happening in the present moment reality – it is only ever happening in our thoughts about a past reality. We are making a judgment that something was done wrong by us (in the past) and then relating to our present moment like that’s the truth by telling ourselves a very compelling story.

Guilty thoughts and feelings have a tendency to make us feel bad, and when we feel bad, we perceive a version of reality that is completely distorted and only see that which matches with our perceptions.

And here’s the problem with all of that. Our mind only works one way when it creates reality. Which is from the inside-out – we see things as we believe they are. And what we believe is completely influenced by our state of mind-feeling in that moment. Leading NASA Nuclear Physicist Tom Campbell says: ‘ Our reality is actually a virtual reality – your expectations (beliefs) totally define your limitations and your experience.’ When we feel guilty, we are the ones deluding ourselves. We are creating a version of reality in which there is an absolute right and wrong and we are the judge, jury and executioner.

Have you ever perceived something in a particular way and had an extremely strong emotional reaction to it that made complete sense at that moment in time (think being judgy, harsh or self-righteous with your colleagues), and then in a calmer moment seen the exact same situation differently with complete clarity and thought later ‘What was I thinking?!’

That is the human condition. To see things in reality as a function of whatever our personal state of mind is in that moment.

So if you look at what feeling guilty actually is – it is thinking about something and judging yourself and having the accompanying bad feelings (which is likely to bring on more judging thinking). And having your behaviour shaped by that thought/feeling combo. All of which are illusory and made up and can change in a moment with a fresh thought or perspective.

Yes, but – what about when it’s true

So what about, I hear you say – when you‘ve actually done something ‘wrong.’ Well here’s the thing about that. Wrong and Right can only ever live in our thinking, rationalising, intellectualising mind. We are always doing the best we can with the resources we have and we can only ever do what makes sense to us given our thinking in that moment. Which changes moment by moment.

Now I do have to say, sometimes it just makes sense to take an action on something that you have done that you would like to undo. Like if you spoke out of turn or tersely and you wish you hadn’t you can ask for forgiveness. Or if you took something that wasn’t yours you could give it back. Of if your actions impacted someone else and you regret that you can attempt to clear that up. But I’d say that this motivation isn’t coming from guilt (which is stultifying and keeps you inactive) instead this feels more like insightful ownership of what you did or didn’t do and acknowledging the impact of that in reality. Which is more like plain old common sense. One is laden with heaviness and weighs you down and leads to inaction or an action that comes from a heavy place – the other sets you free. It’s all in the feeling – is it heavy and laden or is it light and clear?

So to be honest it just doesn’t make sense to ruminate and dwell on guilty thoughts and feelings because when we do that, we don’t see things clearly and when we don’t see things clearly we are unlikely to act with a calm and clear and insightful wisdom – if at all.

Case Study
Sally the Sales Manager: Sally is in Food Retail and is personable, warm, enthusiastic and great with clients face to face. She inspires them to see new product possibilities and engages them in fresh thinking, helping them solve their challenges – all of which usually leads to good sales. Sally always gives her full and undivided attention to whoever she is with in that moment – making helpful promises and making them feel special Afterwards, well sometimes it can be a little bit, out of sight, out of mind. And at times she neglects to keep in touch with them consistently or follow-up on the promises made.

As Sally also has a perfectionistic streak, she would often have in the back of her mind an awareness that she should get in touch or keep a promise and every time that thought popped into her head, ‘I should have done that and I haven’t’ – a little guilty feeling popped in and when it did – it made her procrastinate because she felt bad and when she felt bad – she didn’t want to get in touch. In fact she made up lots of stories in her head about what a terrible supplier her clients must think she was, unreliable, not interested enough, flighty. And how they probably didn’t want to hear from her anyway. And this made her feel even less like contacting them. And this guilty habit was starting to affect her sales pipeline.

After realising that the guilty thoughts were creating guilty feelings that weren’t helping at all, Sally started to question the value of beating herself up and feeling bad. She accepted that she wasn’t perfect and that although she had some great strengths that customer’s valued, that consistent, regular check-in and follow-up communication wasn’t one of them. She knew that once in front of a client, she created a great rapport and could convert that to sales. But she also knew that consistent communication with clients was important. In a calm, clear moment Sally got the insightful idea that she could play to her strengths and keep in touch with her clients if she used her PA Lisa to help her manage herself with a simple process that played to Lisa’s strengths: organisation and reliability. So she handed the check-in and promise keeping process to Lisa – and discovered a system that worked for everyone. Communication improved (her customers always loved hearing from her), pipeline increased and sales automatically followed.

Listen in to your innate wisdom

It is always there to guide us – and we are most in contact with it when our state of mind is clear (we experience this all the time when we are in the zone, the flow, just being in the moment – that place where there isn’t a lot of thinking or judging going on) and it’s in this place of peaceful presence that we can see exactly in each moment what there might be to do or not do. Not from a feeling of guilt – which is on some level driven by the ego’s fear of not being enough – but from a place of who we really are – a kind of formless awareness that just knows what’s right for us from a deep place inside of us.

So here’s three reasons to let go of that guilt:

  1. Guilt can only exist when you think about the past

‘there is nothing in this world that can trouble you more than your own thoughts.’

Guilt comes from a lot of thinking that is created (made-up) in our own head about what is right or wrong. Right or wrong judgments come from our intellect and are learned patterns of thinking – they are driven by our ego’s desire to live up to an ideal of ourselves that we have created in our heads. They do not represent our true nature and who we really are. There is a deeper knowing we can trust to guide our lives that comes from a calmer clearer place and is more of a deeper feeling of intuitive knowing versus a thought/belief. And that knowing can be trusted.

  1. Guilt is a habit you can break.

Always feeling guilty is a symptom of a habitual way of thinking you have got yourself into by innocently believing your conditioned thinking and cultural context – after all what else could you think given all that? When you can catch yourself in the act of guilt (your feelings are a good barometer) you can give yourself permission to look in another direction (whatever makes sense and helps you feel better) then you’ve got the best chance of seeing a situation with perspective and taking action on what makes sense vs wallowing in guilt (cause we now know where that leads….).

  1. Guilt makes you feel bad, and when we feel bad we just don’t do our best work.

Think about when you had the most insight, wisdom, resourcefulness and solved that business problem, created the best connection with someone or created a great business result. I’m going to take a punt here and suggest that feeling really guilty inside did not play much of a part. That’s because when we feel laden and troubled in our thinking that has a correlate effect on how we see to act. Like a snowglobe, when guilty thoughts get shaken up in our thinking it’s hard to see clearly through all of them. But when the mind is clear – we get better insight and can hear our wisdom speaking in a soft, neutral voice. To act from an inner knowing of clarity and peace v guilt-laden heaviness – what do you think works out best for you?

Here’s what I’ve noticed about my own guilty feelings. When I dwell on being a bad leader/team player whatever – it NEVER makes me a better one. I just feel burdened with judgment and I don’t see all the places where I am a good one. But when I see that it’s MY thinking about myself that is creating my experience in the moment – I get a calmer feeling and after a time I usually have an insight that leads me to take effortless action to move in the direction of my intentions (to be a good leader/team player/whatever – and that effortless action works better and simpler than anything my guilt comes up with.

In summary – be your own best friend

Actually, all we ever need when we feel guilty is a little empathy, love and understanding and we need that most of all from ourselves. So next time you find yourself with that old familiar guilty-shame thoughts and feelings about anything at all – ask yourself what would you say to your best friend if they shared that with you? Chances are that response will be the kind of response worth paying some real attention to.

For over 20 years Elizabeth Lovius as a State of Mind Leadership Coach, Elizabeth has helped business leaders discover the source of leadership wisdom and be real, more human and true to who they are. Elizabeth facilitates real relationships that lead to real business results. Get in touch for a chat.

Elizabeth’s clients include: HP, IBM, itsu, ITV, Charlie Bighams, CookFood, Harrods, Pret a Manger, the English RFU and WPP.

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