The other day, my good friend, the Poodle, and I had an animated discussion on time. We go back a long way – since 2000 – and we were reminiscing about some of those times in the way that only old friends can do. “Those worry-free days,” we called it. “Would you turn back the clock?” Poodle asked. I said I may not. There are things I regret. Things I wish I could have done better, but longing for a time in the past will only make me unhappy, so I replied that I wouldn’t want to turn back the clock. Poodle said she might. “If I turn back the clock, I may not make the mistakes I did. I think I may turn back the clock.”
Time. One of my favorite symbols in life. Time, as we know of it, doesn’t exist. Our pasts, presents, and futures merge in one glorious moment. Yet, we carry so much from every one of these “times.” And one of the things we specialize in carrying are the twin burdens of shame and guilt. To that mix, let me also add regrets. The dog Mamma Extraordinaire, SR, also keeps asking me about dealing with guilt, and I thought it’s time for me to reflect on these three emotions when I went for my 10k run in the morning.
This is probably the lighter emotion of the three. How do we distinguish regret from shame or guilt? They feel very similar in our gut, don’t they? But regret need not be tinged by shame or guilt. For example, so many times, I have regretted lashing out at people. I have regretted the times I allowed my temper to get the better of me. I may even be ashamed of it. But guilt is often externally derived. Our guilt can come up many times only in the effects our actions have had on other people.
Or in another example, you may regret not having taken that job, but you need not be ashamed of exercising that choice. Regrets, the way I look at them, are the light, feather dust coating of life on our back. We brush them away every now and then when we think we shed new skin. But the layers they form remind us gently of the choices we make in our life from moment to moment.
Here’s my take: If you have had many regrets in life, I feel that contrary to popular belief, you have led a rich, meaningful, curious, soul-stimulating life. If you regret something, it means you are learning from a mistake. To me, a mistake is not a mistake if you learn from it. Then, it’s just experience. And what’s life but experience? Rich, butter-cream pecan pies of wonderful experiences.
Now, the bigger Mama. Shame is a deep, corrosive emotion as is guilt. At their worst, shame and guilt can paralyze us, working in tandem as Evil Twins who can decimate the tender prickling feelings of regret.
From my little understanding of life, I have realized that most of our feelings come from two basic emotions: love or fear. Almost everything we feel can be traced back to those two. And if you have a lot of shame and guilt, I can almost guarantee my next paycheck that you are a predominantly fear-based person in life. Deep down, that shame and guilt can stop us from being loving human beings. Because of one simple reason. You can’t love yourself.
But as with everything, if you do feel ashamed of something, it means that life is trying to tell you something. It has given you the insight to analyze your action. How beautiful is that! What stops you from changing that shame to love? Fear.
Fear of seeing yourself in the mirror. And so, we take pills, watch Netflix marathons, develop unhealthy relationships and obsess over them or go to the other extreme and retreat into our den of solitude, read mindlessly, gorge on food, pursue material acquisitions – all of it to just avoid facing that nagging monster of shame. Forget what you did. What you said. Forget it all. Who you hurt. Who hurt you. Just forget. Move on. Move on. Move on. Like Alfred Prufrock in that famous TS Eliot poem, you want to tell yourself, “Hurry up, please! It’s time!”
Wait, though. Stop a while and breathe with me. Shame can be debilitating. But it can also be instructive if you allow it to be. Shame is that self-awareness button. Think of shame as your friend. It’s a bully, yes. But like all bullies, facing them makes it turn away. Welcome shame as a friend who looks after you. Ask yourself what is it that you are ashamed about. And then, go ahead, and make amends for it. Yes, you can. There is nothing in life that we can’t amend but death. Wake up in the morning and talk to that monster-turned-friend. At heart, all our friends can become monsters. And those we consider monsters are just our best friends in disguise. Trust me on this, I know. I have been called a monster.
Shame is just a little light that only you can extinguish – be grateful for it – and then gently transform that shame to love. Miracles happen when you do that.
Now comes the biggest Mama. You can feel ashamed about your actions, but you may not feel guilty about it at all. How so? Oh yes. If you lack empathy, then you may lack the insight to feel guilty about how your actions or words have hurt the other. Guilt is dependent on your ability to intuit the extent to which you may have damaged somebody. Not all of us have it, sadly. If you are a fear-dominant person instead of a love-dominant person, then your feelings of guilt will be crowded amidst your instinct for self-preservation. All you would want to do is survive life. And who cares who you hurt in that process? Your mind might tell you that you don’t care. After all, don’t all psycho mumble jumble self-help books tell you that you need to take care of yourself first? Absolutely.
That’s why I said that it’s impossible to love another deeply unless you can give of that love to yourself. But I also believe that the longer we deny the interconnectedness of human beings, the more we suffer. Even though guilt may be painful, when we understand and recognize that we have hurt others, you are on the path of emotional development and progress. But there is the thing – you can feel guilty about something, but not do a thing about it. Why? Because we love to suffer. Yes, we do.
We have a capacity to heal and a capacity to wound ourselves in equal measure. We thrive on guilt. Being guilty strengthens our perception that we are awful – “Of course, SM, you should be ashamed. For that, you need to suffer. Carry this in your heart till the day you kiss death goodbye.” End of chapter.
But remember what I have said about interconnectedness? The Universe has a strange way of having your back. Whenever I have behaved meanly, spitefully, awfully, in some way or the other, I have suffered. I might write a vindictive email in anger and feel very pleased about it for a while. “He got what he deserved!” I think. But later, I find that I have a nagging cold. Or maybe, I lose a client. Are these actions connected? Is it Karma? No. Karma is not some vindictive force out to get you. But I think when we act from love and compassion, we generate that energy out. And when we act from guilt, fear, shame, we generate that out too. And we get it back.
These days, my meditation helps me understand that the person who is angry with me or hurts me is also hurting. Because if you have compassion and love, you wouldn’t. But if you carry guilt, shame, fear, and all these supplements, it’s like wrapping 10kg ankle weights around your legs and going for a marathon!
So, what do we do? I was once shocked to have been informed that the mindfulness master, Thich Nhat Thanh encourages you to focus on your self and not reconcile with compassion to those you have hurt. Do some mumbo-jumbo in your head, send “loving vibes” out and voila! You are fine! Who cares about that other person? I sent them good vibes!
Later, when I read his latest book, I realized I was wrongly informed. “Reach out. Call them. Speak. Write. Bless. Forgive,” that wonderful monk writes.
So – my suggestion. Forgive. Forgive yourself. Don’t just utter glib words that “you are only human.” I have no idea what that means, and it just says to me that you spend too much time on social media! But spend time with yourself, speaking to those emotions. Look at them with love. Understand the lessons they are giving you. Love the self in you that is aware of your mistakes in life. Love. Love. Love. Use that love you have. Love the fear too.
And turn that love to the ones you have hurt. Heal yourself. Heal the other too.
It’s your responsibility to heal and be healed.
Ask for forgiveness. Don’t be shy with your sorries. I have reached out to people in my past who I have hurt, and never have had cause to regret it. Some have welcomed me reaching out to them. Some have stonewalled me. But. Make. That. Effort.
Don’t just make some story in your mind asking for forgiveness and believe that you have some super cosmic wave that will reach them. Use all the tools you have. Forgiveness is not just for you. Asking for forgiveness is also about the other. And the moment you start thinking of the other, you are growing. You are healing because you want to heal the other.
And you know what happens then? Your heart feels lighter because shame and guilt are not just dank objects in your cave of darkness, but tools that you use to elevate yourself and others.
More practical tips:
- Talk. Talk to someone. Anyone. A therapist. Or your friend. Mama. Appa. Whoever. Don’t wallow in your pity. Use it.
- Meditate. I have personally experienced the immense benefits of meditation.
- Bury that ego. Don’t ask me how. Make a grave and dig that ego. Then, go around and do that apologizing thing I told you. It’s not enough that someone says, “Yes, yes I forgive you.” I know that I have said that in the past without realizing I haven’t been able to forgive. But the relationship mattered to me, so I would have uttered words of forgiveness. But internally, I was desperate – to be healed of the anger.
- Indulge in activities that promote feelings of compassion. Promote animal welfare. Or volunteer at a school. Do something that helps bring out that latent feeling of kindness. And yes. You have it. You.Can.Be.Super.Kind.
- Look at the stars. Often. With love. And realize how much you are loved.
- Pray. (I am an atheist, but I think prayer is beneficial). Don’t pray asking for a promotion. Pray for qualities of love, joy, compassion, healing.
- Exercise often. Treat your body with love. Give it food that nourishes your mind and soul.
- Welcome often. Every time you feel guilty or ashamed, don’t run away from it. Go to it. Walk hand-in-hand with me, if you must. But go towards it. And meet them. They are small creatures wanting your love. Won’t you give them that?
- Visualize. If you are struck with fear, imagine meeting that person you are scared of. Or that scenario you dread. Imagine yourself also being the kind, amazing person you are. Imagine the rifts melting. Imagine the layers of guilt fading as you heal. Work through those feelings. And then welcome them to yourself. You will often find that what you imagine comes true. So, imagine well! And then, take action!