By: Noelle Sterne
“Guilt can be a good thing. It’s the soul’s call to action. The indication that… something is wrong. The only way… to rid your heart of it… is to correct your mistakes and keep going… until amends are made.” ― Father Lantom, Daredevil
How Do I Deal with the Guilt?
Many of us carry guilt and hang onto self-condemnation for feelings, relationships, and events we have the power to set right. Our heavy emotions may live just under the surface, and we think they’re gone, but they taint our lives and sap our energy for other activities.
To make amends may take effort and gulping down some pride, mustering some courage, and taking an action we’ve been too embarrassed or uncomfortable to take. These feelings are exactly why we should act. We’ll feel lighter and freer and will grow and gain strength from the dread action.
Prepare and Act
If you think you absolutely can’t do It—whatever it is—prepare. Talk to a neutral person about it. Start writing down what you want to do or say. Rehearse. For example, you can start by saying, “This call is long overdue. I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time, but haven’t had the courage. I’ve always felt embarrassed and regretted the way I treated you when _______.” So, call and apologize.
It’s never too late to:
- Write the letter.
- Explain why you did/said/didn’t do/didn’t say it.
- Return the book to the library.
- Send the thank-you gift.
- Make the date you’ve been avoiding.
- Repay the debt. Arrange a payment plan.
When Guilt Motivates an Action
A family friend taught me this lesson. He visited my husband and me to explore avenues to raise funds for a new business he wanted to start. After my nice dinner (only semi-homemade), as we discussed his financial circumstances, Gardner became so anxious and agitated that he shouted and left abruptly. Fifteen minutes later, he called from his car in a rage. He said he couldn’t find his good pen and accused the valet of stealing it.
I spoke to the valet manager, who assured me his people did not steal from the residents’ or guests’ cars.
Later that night, Gardner phoned again and said simply, “I found my pen wedged between the car seat and the door. I apologize for my inappropriate behavior.”
I admired Gardner’s dignity and courage, and especially his language. He didn’t berate himself, but labeled his actions as simply “inappropriate.” I thanked him and complimented his action, promising another brainstorming session for the funds he needed.
What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
When you face up, as Gardner did, what’s the worst that can happen? I could have told him he acted like an idiot. Or accused him of an insulting accusation. Or retorted, “It’s about time, you &+X**#!” I didn’t. Nor did I say, possibly with great relish, “I told you so.” I accepted Gardner’s apology, and our good relationship resumed.
In other situations, when you apologize, the other person may say, “It’s about time! You were wrong all along.” Swallow your pride. At worst the other person may reply, “I hear you, but it’s been too long and the hurt is too deep. I never want to speak to you again.”
If you get such a response, what’s more important is your action: you took the risk for yourself. You are not in charge of how and if the other has changed or softened. If he or she remains intractable, you can then say, “I wanted you to know and I wish you only the best.”
Even if the person harumpfs and hangs up on you, you’ve done what you needed to—faced your guilt and taken the risk.
Most of the Time . . .
Most of the time, though, none of the negative responses you fear will take place. My friend Susan told of a family situation many of us can relate to. For years, she’d been estranged from her sister, who now lived across the country. Growing up, they’d been very close, and Susan could hardly recall why they’d stopped talking, knowing only that they’d had harsh words. Year followed year, and, especially as the holidays neared, Susan always thought of her sister but could never bring herself to call.
Susan talked to me about how she could make amends, and her voice became husky. “I really want to heal this rift. It’s been so long. But when my sister knows it’s me, she’ll probably slam down the phone.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” I said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
She smiled. “She’ll slam down the phone.”
We rehearsed what Susan would say, and she promised to make the call the next Sunday.
Sunday night, she called me, ecstatic. When her sister heard her voice, she started crying with joy. Her sister confessed she’d wanted to call Susan many times, but had stopped herself, saying, “I thought you would slam down the phone.”
They spoke for an hour comparing versions of the misunderstandings, mistakes, family myths, and misconceptions that had kept them apart for so long. Now they phone, write, email, exchange photos of expanding families and new pets, and have resumed the kind of wonderful relationship they had before.
Rely on your Courage
To make amends takes courage and the willingness to make the leap, as Susan did. Whenever I’ve jumped, often holding my breath, but daring to expose the egg on my face, the other person, like Susan’s sister, has responded in one or more of these ways:
- Gracious acceptance of what I had to say
Sometimes we’ve rehashed the past, like Susan and her sister—the stereotyped labels, perceived insults and rebuffs, rivaled childhood, stolen lovers, etc., etc., etc. Other times, we’ve found none of this necessary.
Making Absent Amends
- Set a quiet time alone.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Then visualize the ideal setting and sit down with each person involved.
- Say or write the words you really want to say clearly in your mind or out loud. Listen for the other’s response. You will hear.
- Allow the dialogue to flow, until you feel complete.
- Then thank the other and consider the matter done, resolved, closed.
If you need a little more help, Louise Hay in her Love Yourself, Heal Your Life Workbook (p. 97) offers some wonderful affirmations for forgiving that apply to making amends:
- I forgive whether I/they deserve it or not.
- I take responsibility for my life.
- I release myself from this prison.
- It is strong to forgive and let go.
- I refuse to limit myself.
- I am always willing to take the next step.
Another powerful pair of affirmations hones right in. You can say these aloud to the other person or silently (and frequently) to yourself while visualizing the other:
- Whatever you’ve done to offend me, I forgive you.
- Whatever I’ve done to offend you, please forgive me.
Each time I’ve used any of these techniques to make amends and take the action I’m guided to take, I’ve immediately felt better. Then I can apologize and say what I need to quickly and succinctly, without waiting days, months, or years.
So, practice these steps or your own variations to remedy situations or relationships that have been pulling you down. You may discover new solutions to problems, find unsuspected creativity and depths of courage, or reclaim and regain a missed and cherished relationship. You’ll certainly feel lighter, happier, and more energetic. And you’ll realize that you have the power and strength to make amends.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart.
Author, editor, mainstream and academic writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, poems, essays, and short stories in print and online publications and anthologies.
Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Ruminate, Story Monsters Ink, Textbook and Academic Authors Association, The Write Place At the Write Time, Two Drops of Ink, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. She also contributes monthly articles to several online literary blogs.
With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) has examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Noelle’s book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees.
In addition to her own expression in writing, Noelle’s mission is to help others create the lives they truly desire. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com/
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/