“Live your life for you not for anyone else. Don’t let the fear of being judged, rejected, or disliked stop you from being yourself.” ~Sonya Parker
For years I struggled with a nagging feeling of guilt. This was not for actual things I did, but just a feeling that anytime something went wrong in my life, it was somehow my fault.
I came from a religious family of eleven kids. My dear mom, bless her heart, occasionally punished us all because she just didn’t have the time in her busy day to find the perpetrator.
My older brother, the perpetrator of most of our punishments, found this all to be quite humorous. The rest of us did not.
Was it our desperate appeals to him to be better behaved, or our mom’s reaction whenever she learned of his latest subterfuge that he found humorous? Such are the trials of growing up in a big family.
It didn’t help that the nuns in school reinforced the necessity of admitting guilt and the importance of being in need of exoneration. If something bad happened to you, like skinning your knee, well it was just God punishing you for something you hadn’t been caught at.
One would normally think that guilt stemmed from believing you might have hurt someone. It took me some time to figure out the reasons for my feelings I hadn’t hurt anyone, but I felt guilty.
How Do We Untangle This Web of Guilty Feelings?
I wanted to know why I was hanging on to these guilty feelings. Self-awareness is about setting aside things that others have said about you and paying attention instead to what you know about yourself to be true.
I figured my guilt was very much attached to what I believed others might think of me.
I was using guilt as a defense mechanism. I would blame myself first, hoping to find and correct my mistakes before anyone else found out. I hoped that extra alertness might allow me to avoid criticism and judgments from others.
My true nemesis was the fear of being criticized. Keeping a ledger of past mistakes was my way of being vigilant to crush any mistakes before anyone found out.
My ledger of mistakes: the things that I did or said because it was easy and convenient, what I did not do or say when I could have, blaming others in my thoughts or not showing kindness when I could have. I even kept track of my embarrassing moments so I would never do them again.
I worried that if my mistakes were exposed, I would be judged, rejected, or disliked for them. And so I punished myself for them before anyone else could.
This fear of being exposed led me to walk through life feeling guilty for who I was and for all the mistakes I’d made. These fears were controlling my life.
I believed and feared that these mistakes were who I was, and if they were exposed, I would be exposed.
So How Did We Conquer Those Fears?
Fears are challenges that put us out of our comfort zone, and they are opportunities for real growth.
I found my growth happening when I mustered up the courage to experiment. What would happen if I lived my day the way I wanted? What if I stopped worrying about others judging me?
I started just doing my best.
I sought out new skills when I wanted my work to be better, just to make it pleasing to me. I stopped trying to impress others and hide my faults. I let them see me so I could understand and get to know them better and learn from their experiences.
Most of the time, I wasn’t judged or disapproved by others. Guess who was the biggest judge? Me!
By facing my fears, I reduced them significantly and could live with them. Knowing that others didn’t criticize me was not enough. I still had to resolve the negative self-judgments I still thought about myself if I was going to really accept myself and be free of the guilt.
So How Does One Get to Self-Acceptance?
Accepting ourselves is about recognizing that we’ve done things that we are not proud of, and this is part of being human. There is a process for dealing with regrets: sorrow with compassion, remorse, then leading to forgiveness.
That same process works for resolving those nagging guilty feelings for doing or not doing things that don’t have apparent negative impact on others. I’m talking about those times when I had negative thoughts or opinions about others, yet didn’t express them, or when I didn’t take a higher road when I could have.
Our guilt becomes this reservoir of mistakes we made in life. Mistakes are part of being human. Sometimes we are just not prepared for situations.
Having compassion for my humanity, I forgave myself for my mistakes. This opened me up to genuine acceptance for the human that I am, and that we all are.
I got to know my real self. The real me was that person who took the risk of being judged by others.
I was not my mistakes. I started getting to like me.
Then something unexpected….
I can still remember this moment. I had this feeling of love for me—faults and all. I am talking about the kind of love that you feel for someone you love deeply. I had never before felt this way about myself.
You can do this too.
Time to Be Done With Feeling Guilty
If guilty feelings are nagging at you, there is a way out. Be self-aware by knowing what is true about you. Get out of your comfort zone and face those fears of exposure.
You can change and make it better. Forgive and accept yourself inside, for who you really are. Be free of guilt and be yourself. One day you’ll find yourself loving you.
Sad woman image via Shutterstock