I’ve spent most of my life feeling guilty about, well, everything.
When relaxing, I feel guilty about not being productive. When I’m spending my free time being productive, I feel guilty for not relaxing. When I eat “bad” foods, I feel guilty, and then I feel guilty for feeling guilty. I feel guilty for spending money. I feel guilty for saying things I feel like I shouldn’t have said, not saying things I feel like I shouldn’t have said…the list goes on ad nauseum (and I mean that literally since my anxiety makes me nauseous).
As someone who feels perpetually guilty, one thing that I really appreciate is when someone else mentions one of their qualities (that I also have and feel guilty about) in a factual way. It really opened my eyes when one of my friends at college said that she was just more comfortable around women.
What? You mean I’m allowed to feel more comfortable around women without feeling ashamed? The way that she said it made it clear that she felt absolutely no shame about this quality. It was just a fact for her. “I feel more comfortable around women.” Shrug.
Every time a friend makes a similar comment in passing, I notice again how guilty I feel on a regular basis for seemingly regular things. I think much of this is related to my aforementioned addiction to making goals — goals are meant to be achieved, and when they’re not achieved, it is due to a lack of dedication, discipline, ambition, etc, and I should therefore feel ashamed. I see many tendencies that I have as a failure of some kind, one which clearly requires the penance of my constant and unnecessary guilt. Whether or not it makes sense, I attribute a positive or negative quality to all of my thoughts and feelings…and usually, it is negative.
What it comes down to is that I have a lot of feelings, even about things that don’t deserve feelings. Like I’m looking at the sentence I just wrote thinking, “Did I really need those italics? Should I hate myself for those italics?”
More and more frequently as I face these feelings head-on, I’m realizing that the real issue is this need to classify every single thought that I have. For some reason, I’ve decided that every thought I have must be labeled as either positive or negative.
Wouldn’t it be nice to not assign judgment to each thought and feeling? Wouldn’t it be nice if thoughts and feelings could just…be?
Where have we heard this before?
As it turns out, this is actually one of the main pillars of meditation: allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go without attachment or judgement. Wanting to play a video game doesn’t make me lazy or unambitious; it just means that I want to play a video game! Wanting to hang out with other people doesn’t make me uncomfortable with myself or too needy, it just means that I want to socialize!
Then, of course, there’s always guilt for past things, whether they were actually bad things that I did or just awkward moments that I replay in my head over and over. Having regrets is pretty pointless since we can’t change the past, but we all remember cringeworthy things from our past just the same. When things like this come up, I like to remind myself that past Renata was just doing the best she could with the information she was given. She tried her best, and whether or not it was good enough doesn’t really matter now, all that matters is the future.
I also like Jen Sincero’s advice on this topic from her book You are a Badass. Jen suggests that, whenever something from your past comes back to haunt you, just keep repeating to yourself “this is no longer serving me” until you can let it go. Because, let’s be honest, it really isn’t serving you. Guilt rarely does. Allowing trivial things to make you feel guilty serves no purpose other than needless suffering.
I’ve really been able to start practicing this “no judgment” technique with my eating habits since working with my dietitian, Kelsey. If you haven’t read already, Kelsey works with her clients on “Intuitive Eating,” which is literally just about listening to what your body wants and approaching food without judgment. Sweet foods are just sweet foods. Greasy foods are just greasy foods. Salty foods are just salty foods. None of these foods are “good” or “bad,” they’re just different types of food that your body can want at any particular time.
Since working with Kelsey, I’ve actually come to realize that my feelings of guilt around food are hurting me more physically and mentally than my eating habits ever have. Seriously, spending mental energy worrying about eating “good” vs “bad” foods always gives me an anxious stomach ache, where listening to my body when it wants to eat fries and ice cream does not. Huh. It’s almost like everything diet culture told us is a lie…
The practice of intuitive eating stresses that your body knows what it needs and that foods should not be labelled according to their relative “morality,” so in order to correctly practice intuitive eating, you really have to learn how to eat without judging foods or yourself. Even now, trying to listen to my body and eat what I want, I judge myself for how well I’m doing. Am I listening to my body enough? The answer is almost always “no” that sends me into a guilt spiral.
However, the goal isn’t to be perfect or to eat a certain thing, it’s legitimately to approach food and myself without judgement. While I’m not there yet, putting this into practice with food has helped me to practice non-judgment in other areas of my life.
Back when I was practicing yoga regularly, I found my competitive nature often getting the better of me. When the yoga instructor would tell the class to come out of downward-facing dog whenever we were ready, I wasn’t sure what they meant. I had always attributed my lack of stamina while working out to lack of willpower, so in my mind, I could probably hold a downward-facing dog for several hours if I kept my mind to it.
Obviously this way of thinking was flawed for several reasons, not the least of which is that I wasn’t listening to my body. Since I didn’t trust my body’s intuitive wisdom, I just “powered through” and tried to hold poses as long as possible. Once I started practicing intuitive eating and trusting that my body knew what was best, I started coming out of poses earlier without judging myself. I haven’t perfected this, but just shifting perspective to listening without judgment is helpful. And then, hopefully, as I practice non-judgement more and more, it will continue to spread to other facets of my life.
I really hope that you couldn’t relate to this post. I hope that guilt doesn’t plague you like it does me. But if it does, I hope that the way that I write unapologetically about my quirks might help you to accept yours, too. I don’t need to feel guilty for my feelings, and you shouldn’t either.