My anxiety disorder has been an active part of my life for a long time….about twenty years or so.
Over the years I have visited a lot of anxiety-related message boards and forums, and one reason I find them so helpful is because you can have the seemingly “oddest” anxiety symptoms in the world, and almost always find somebody who has experienced the same thing or something very similar. You can develop a strange physical or mental symptom – and find yourself unsure if it is related to your anxiety or something else. So you go to a forum and send out a message and pretty soon you are talking to a couple of other people who are dealing with the same thing. It’s so reassuring.
One issue I see people bring up quite a bit in these anxiety forums, is the issue of guilt. When I see a post with “guilt” in the subject line, it always catches my attention because it is a topic that I have long dealt with in my own life, even before my anxiety disorder officially “erupted”.
I have always felt guilt so easily my entire life.
For some reason I seem to think that I am responsible for the happiness of any person that has ever come into contact with me. If a person is experiencing any kind of upset in their life and I can be linked to that within six degrees of separation, I will feel enormous guilt that I have a really hard time letting go of. I will rehash and replay my role in what happened. I will mentally beat myself up and blame myself and feel the heavy weight of dread in my chest.
It wouldn’t be so bad if I could just blame and beat myself up for a day or two and be done with it. But that is not the way it goes down with me. Not at all.
Once I open up a “Guilt File”, it stays open for life.
It may get buried under a pile of other files in my head for months at a time, but it always seems to find its way back to the top at some point in time, usually when I am least expecting it.
I can pretty much find something to feel guilty about on a daily basis.
I have kids and I am often thinking I have just said or done something to ensure them a lot of expensive therapy when they are adults, and I find myself apologizing all the time over things I probably shouldn’t apologize for.
I still feel guilty about things that happened when I was a child…..things that I have absolutely no reason to feel guilt over. I logically know that I cannot be held responsible for things I did when I was 6. But the guilt still lives on.
I analyze and over think what happened and I just can’t seem to find a way to mentally “right” what I feel I did “wrong” in my head. No way of looking at it or rationalizing it or “forgiving” myself will allow me to mentally close that file and put it away for good. Some of the things I feel guilt about are worse than others but when they pop into my mind they all feel equally awful. Every now and then I find myself thinking about these events for no reason at all. They just pop into my mind, and there it is again: my past is in my face, taunting me and tugging at me relentlessly.
And as I said before, I am not alone with this issue.
I see this topic in anxiety forums all the time. People are always asking “Why?” “Why do I feel so guilty?” “Why can’t I let go of this?” “Big things, small things…why do I feel guilty over EVERYTHING?”
And here is what I tell them….
I say, “I feel guilty…..you feel guilty……most people with anxiety feel guilty about a whole lot of something or another. Part of it is because most of us with anxiety are very sensitive people, with strong morals and ethics, and we generally care about doing what is considered to be “the right thing.” But the truth is that none of us really feel quite as guilty as we think we feel.”
That may not seem to make a lot of sense, but it is the truth.
While it’s true that there are bound to be some real issues in our life that we have genuine remorse over and feel terrible about and have a hard time letting go of, do you know what the bigger chunk of our guilt is?
It’s brain junk. It’s nonsense and fluff.
And more importantly, it’s a “fix”.
It’s another way for us to feed our compulsive need to worry about something.
Almost every person with an anxiety disorder that is unrelated to a medical issue or PTSD, is a worry addict.
We worry because we subconsciously WANT to worry. It is our comfort zone. It is what we have always done. We don’t really know how to NOT worry. It is a thinking pattern that started when we were very young, probably a product of the personality we were born with combined with the environment we grew up in, and this pattern has become a hardcore habit and addiction.
When we aren’t worrying…we don’t feel like ourselves and subconsciously we look for a “fix” to make us “feel better”. We may not necessarily “enjoy” the worrying process but most cigarette smokers don’t enjoy every cigarette either. In fact most of their cigarettes probably make them feel pretty crappy. But they do it anyway so they can get back to their “comfort zone”. Worry takes us back to our comfort zone, and when we don’t have anything to worry about………we don’t like it.
The thing about worry addiction is that it is very easily fed. It’s not a challenge at all to keep it alive.
We don’t have to do anything special….this addiction pretty much runs itself.
Our brains are SO efficient and are linked so tightly with our smart subconscious mind, that this whole addiction plays out inside our heads without us even really being aware that its going on. If we don’t have a real life problem suitable enough to occupy our thoughts and keep us in the negative mental place that we call “home”, then our subconscious will find one for us.
This is where guilt comes into play….
They often start rummaging through the cabinets until they find something else with alcohol in it. And they are going to keep looking until they find something, even if that means drinking the bottle of Peach Schnapps that Uncle Bob left after the Christmas party in 1993.
Your subconscious mind works the exact same way.
You might be having a perfectly fine day – nothing major going on – everything is calm – no drama – and your subconscious mind says “What’s this? No drama? No negativity? Well, we can’t have that. Let me see what I can do to fix this.” So your subconscious asks your brain to start rummaging through the memory files that are lying around up there, until it finds one that will fit the bill.
“Hmmmm, let’s see…” your brain says as it looks through a file…... “What’s this? She went to the neighbor’s house and asked her when her baby was due – and then found out she wasn’t even pregnant? This one will get her feeling guilty for sure!” Then it gives that file to your subconscious, which then throws that file in front of you to pick apart and read through until something real and juicier comes along.
You will know when your subconscious mind throws a “Guilt File” in front of you.
When you, out of the blue, start dwelling on something that happened two months ago or five years ago and you feel like you SHOULD be able to let it go, and logic is telling you to let it go, but you just CAN’T…..that is when you know it’s there. When it is something that you know you can’t possibly do anything about but you can’t stop torturing yourself over it……that is how you know. When you know its something that feels serious, but in the big scheme of things, it really doesn’t seem all that serious….that is how you know.
And when you know your subconscious is playing worry games with you, throwing “Guilt Files” your way and trying to tempt you to get a fix, you must refuse to take part.
Do not even open a corner up and take a peek in that file. Leave it where it is and ignore it. Do whatever you have to do to get your mind on something else. Do a puzzle, call a friend, use aromatherapy, read a book, turn on a TV show, think of a REAL problem that is actually worthy of your concern..do whatever you have to do but do NOT open that file.
The guilt you are feeling is not “real”. At least not to the dramatic degree that your subconscious is trying to convince you that it is real. You may feel bad about whatever happened in your past….but you don’t feel “I don’t deserve to live another day without punishing myself with guilt” bad. You don’t feel “I need to analyze this all day and replay it in my mind until I find a way to make it right with myself.” bad.
It’s just a bunch of brain junk.
Its genius of our subconscious to come up with this, really.
I mean…we are sensitive people who care about other people’s feelings. We are nice and kind and like to do the right thing. What better thing to give us to worry about, then the idea that we may be at fault for causing the pain of somebody else? And our well-meaning brains just play right along.
However, there is a third-party involved here. And that is YOU – your conscious self.
You can refuse to play this worry game and choose to NOT give in to this urge to dwell.
“But I can’t make the guilt stop coming”, you might say. “It just comes into my mind and it’s not within my control.”
Think about it this way: How many times have you heard somebody say “I can’t stop smoking….its too hard.”
Well of course they can stop…..they just have to go through the withdrawal and just keep saying “no”, no matter how many times the thought pops into their mind that says that they have GOT to have a cigarette right now. The smoker is not going to be able to give cigarettes up if he thinks all day about how much he wants to smoke. He has to LEARN TO DISTRACT HIMSELF from those thoughts about smoking. He has to distract himself from the urge to buy a pack of cigarettes. And if done consistently, those thoughts and urge will lessen. You have to learn to distract yourself from your urge to analyze your guilt.
You have to say no to the “fix” and sing the ABC song if that is what it takes to stop you from replaying the guilty episode in your mind. If you do that often enough…your subconscious will know that guilt is no longer an easy “fix” for you and it will stop bringing you “the files”.
It might feel like the guilt urges will play on in your mind all day but they won’t. The human mind is a flowing thing. Its natural tendency is to move from one thought to the next and the guilt WILL leave your mind. Something else WILL catch your brain’s attention, especially if you try healthy ways to distract yourself.
I want to make a point of saying that if you are feeling continuous or tremendous feelings of guilt over something from your past….over something that happened that you can’t let go of or don’t WANT to let go of, and it is interfering with the quality of your life or causing you distress, I would encourage you to talk to a professional for guidance and help working through it.
I believe most of our guilt is brain junk but certainly not ALL of it. We aren’t just our anxiety disorders. We are real people with very real pasts and memories and there might be some real issues that need to be addressed before you are able to start putting them behind you and feeling able to no longer dwell on them. I certainly have some very real guilt involving both of my parents and it is not something that just distracting myself will ever take away.
My advice is always, “When in doubt, ask a professional.” I am very much a self-reliant person when it comes to my mental health. I like to sort things out for myself. But even I know my limits, and I have had to get some help from professionals before. And I am glad I did.
But the rest of the guilt….just junk.
I still get guilt files thrown at me from time to time, even to this day, but I do not allow myself to bathe in my guilt and try to analyze it and come up with a solution to it.
Deep down, I DO know there is nothing I can do about it now. I DO know that I could analyze it all day and it wouldn’t change a thing. I DO know that I am full of remorse about what happened and would change it in a second if I could. I DO know that I don’t deserve to feel the need to punish myself for the rest of my life over what happened. And most importantly, I know that I learned something from what happened and won’t make the same mistake again. (Hopefully.) I repeat that to myself as necessary and that has to be enough. That is all it is getting from me from now on.
If you would like to check out my anxiety story you can find it here.
Have a wonderful, guilt free day.
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