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How to Let Go of Guilt

Griffin in the 7th gradeLast week Griffin started seventh grade! He keeps saying that each day gets better and better – don’t you just love that?

One of the things I work with my clients on most intensely is getting them to look forward to their days with the same enthusiasm. Often, though, one of the things they have to learn first is how to let go of guilt.

Just the other day one of my clients shared with me an awesome quote from Geshe Michael Roache: “There’s no word in Tibetan for ‘guilty.’ The closest thing is ‘intelligent regret that decides to do things differently.’”

I think the Tibetans are on to something! Guilt is another form of violence against ourselves. We simply need to learn from our mistakes and MOVE ON. I know this sounds “easier said then done,” but read on to learn one of the greatest tricks I know to do it—to move past guilt—and do it every time.

“There is no way to happiness…happiness is the way.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

So often our happiness seems dependent on people doing what we want them to do or circumstances working out the way we want them to.

When they do: Great! Nothing succeeds like success!

But what if people don’t do what you want and things don’t go your way?

You’ll probably decide those circumstances are challenging your happiness and peace of mind. You may be filled with guilt and regret. But those emotions are really actions. They’re choices. Whatever the circumstances or people around you do, how you respond is your choice.

That’s not to say that when unexpected negative events happen, you have to make them better. You can’t. But I am saying—asking—pleading—that you don’t make them worse.

And the easiest way to make them worse is to say to yourself, “This shouldn’t be happening!” Maybe you could have avoided whatever you’re dealing with by identifying possible pitfalls and planning ahead, but the time to figure all that out is not in the moment of the crisis. When done in the moment of crisis, that kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking just leads to guilt and resentment.

Instead, as we deal with whatever the universe has put on our plate, we need to accept that what is happening in this moment is reality, and therefore unavoidable. The good news, however, is that reality – this very moment – is the kindest, most perfect teacher you’ll ever have.

letting go of guiltGetting to the point where you can hear that teacher is the hard part. But I’ve got a story I think will help. It was told by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who had a stroke when she was 37 years old.

The stroke created significant damage in her left hemisphere, the part of our brain that is responsible for organizing information and language, remembering the past, and projecting into the future. (The right brain is all about being right here, right now and feeling joyful in the present moment.)

Ultimately she recovered and documented her experience in her memoir My Stroke of Insight—essential reading for anyone who’s looking for an owner’s manual for the human brain.

One of Taylor’s best insights provides us with a scientific basis for the age-old advice to “take a deep breath and count to ten.” Taylor calls her version the “90 second rule.”

Something happens in the external world and all of a sudden we experience a physiological response by our body that our mind would define as fear. So in my brain some circuit is saying something isn’t safe and I need to go on full alert, those chemicals flush through my body to put my body on full alert, and for that to totally flush out of my body, it takes less than 90 seconds.

So, whether it’s my fear circuitry or my anger circuitry or even my joy circuitry – it’s really hard to hold a good belly laugh for more than 90 seconds naturally. The 90 second rule is totally empowering. That means for 90 seconds, I can watch this happen, I can feel this happen, and I can watch it go away. After that, if I continue to feel that fear or feel that anger, I need to look at the thoughts I’m thinking that are re-stimulating that circuitry that is resulting in me having this physiology over and over again.

When you stay stuck in an emotional response, you’re choosing it by choosing to continue thinking the same thoughts that retrigger it. We have this incredible ability in our minds to replay but as soon as you replay, you’re not here; you’re not in the present moment.

In some ways, this just a new approach to “take a deep breath and count to ten,” but I like Taylor’s version better. For one thing, she’s got science on her side. For another, as anyone who has tried the old saying can tell you, it takes longer than you can count to ten before your body is ready to resume a calm state.

But the essential information is the same: whatever happens, if you can ride out your body’s pre-programmed response, you will get to a place where you—the best part of you—can respond to a crisis on its own terms and learn what reality is trying to teach you.

Obviously riding out your body’s chemistry is key, and if you’re a regular reader, you know we’ve already gone over a few strategies for accomplishing this feat. I hope by this point you have the ability to choose a thought, and hopefully you are learning to choose thoughts that will allow a positive feeling.

Certainly by this point you know that you can always choose to tell a different story. You can always bring your thoughts back to the present moment where all of your power is.

The great thing about the “90 Second Rule” is that it’s there to let you know how long you have to keep up those strategies. If you give yourself 90 seconds, you’ll find yourself thinking those better-feeling thoughts or telling yourself a new story about how you got here and what the present crisis means. But there’s one other strategy that will make all the others much more dependable.

Your Take-Action Challenge:

Today, try to be aware when you are triggered (hint: you will be feeling negative emotion!) and try to breathe through it for 90 seconds. Just breathe. Don’t try to master the situation: just observe what happens in your body. Use a timer, use your cell phone, let a favorite song run in your head. But breathe for a full 90 seconds.

See if you can make it through that minute and a half without reacting. See if you can feel the hormones dissolve in your bloodstream. Does observing and waiting change the outcome of the situation? If so, keep at it. Keep watching for that minute and a half. As you grow familiar with that space, you will find it much easier to let go of feelings of resentment, regret and guilt. And you’ll be open to what the moment has to teach you.

morning run on the beachDoug took the photo of me running along the beach at dawn one morning last week when we were at Folly Beach, and it helps me remember the incredibly powerful feeling I always have as I run with the surf crashing beside me.

Every morning Doug, Griffin, and I woke early so that we could watch the sun rise and compose haikus – “Sunrise Haikus” are one of my absolute favorite family traditions! – and then I would take off for a run while Doug and Griffin made breakfast.

The days were filled with swimming in the ocean, long walks (one day we logged over 30,000 steps – or almost 15 miles!) and yummy food.

Griffin goes back to school tomorrow, so our beach trip was the perfect way to wrap the summer.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always associated this time of year with new beginnings – when everything feels fresh, exciting and possible.

Today I want to focus on helping you take this energy and take brave and decisive action in the direction of your dreams!

Helen Keller once said, “We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”

If we try, we can remember our own past bravery as a way to help us feel more courageous today. Sometimes, though, when we look back on our life, we can only remember the times things didn’t work out. And those memories can get in the way of choosing to be brave today.

We say to ourselves: Things went wrong in the past, what if things go wrong again?

Things haven’t always worked out great for me. When I returned from Mexico after working with Doctors Without Borders, I had no job waiting for me. My husband wasn’t working and we had used up all of our savings.

As soon as I got back to the States I applied for every job in the nursing field I could find – even jobs that were way below my level of expertise (and former earnings). I went 2 months before I received a job offer.

The job was as a community health nurse. It would have required working 5 days a week, and because it involved a lot of travel and paperwork, very little of that time would be devoted to actual patient care.

I knew I needed the income, but when offered the position, I just couldn’t accept it. Every fiber of my being knew that I would be miserable at that job. I thanked the nurse manager but declined the offer, hung up the phone, and BURST into tears.

I felt cursed by the warnings of my father and so many well-meaning others who had told me that I was foolish for quitting my good job to take a volunteer position in Mexico, and that I was crazy to think that I could find an even better job on my return.

All that is to say that I am familiar with the demons of grief, anxiety, self-doubt and despair. Very familiar.

My leaps of faith and acts of bravery haven’t always worked out exactly the way I had hoped. In fact they’ve often found me down on my knees in despair asking God how I could have been brought this far to fail.

Another month after that “down on my knees” dark place, I did get my dream job, working as a nurse-midwife for a busy hospital-based birthing center that cared for predominantly Latina patients – working 24 hours a week for more pay than I made working 50-60 hours a week in my former midwifery position.

I worked that job happily for 11 years before I decided that it was time to leave it for my next leap – where you find me today.

And, yes, one year after quitting that job, this particular leap hasn’t worked out exactly the way I hoped either.

My experience has not always been filled with bright sunshine and walks on the beach. And yet, when I finally stopped fighting the questions and the doubts and the fears and allowed myself to simply be sad or confused, I realized that everything actually was okay.

Even when things are not at all the way I want and expect them to be, they are still okay.

“Things are still okay”? What does that mean?

What could that possibly mean when, every day, people all over the world die because of poverty, disease, drugs and violence?

It doesn’t mean that I accept that suffering is unavoidable or acceptable. It doesn’t mean that I stop doing all that I can do to bring more justice, more kindness, and more peace to the world.

What it means to me is that I can focus on what I am doing and – most importantly – how I am doing it, and then I can let go of needing to control, or even worry about, the outcome.

I have survived failures before, and I will survive them again.

And I practice remembering that things always get better, eventually.

possibilitiesFor example, the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho has said, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not, then it’s not the end. I’ve contemplated that quote enough in good times that it helps me keep putting one foot in front of the other when things get tough.

It also helps to take note of exactly what we’re afraid of. Have you noticed that fear almost always comes up when, confronted with a present challenge, we remember something bad from our past? Have you noticed that it also comes up when we imagine something bad that could take place in the future?

Don’t get me wrong – some things should evoke fear. Driving too fast on a twisty road should make you afraid enough to slow down.

Getting bitten by a possibly rabid raccoon (that happened to my husband once!) should elicit a fear response, enough so that you decide to consult a doctor about what to do.

As a character says in Kate DiCamillo’s children’s story, The Tale of Despereux, there are many wonderful things out there to be afraid of. But your regrets about the past or worries about the future probably don’t make the grade.

In these instances, recognizing your fears for what they are – stories about the past that might not now apply, or stories about the future that might never come true – will help.

So will bringing your attention back to what is actually happening right now. How cool would it be if you could just stop thinking about all the memorable and impressive ways you could screw up? You can – it’s a skill you can develop through ten minutes of mindful breathing every day.

One last thing: You know how I told two stories about quitting the 2 different jobs? One had me down on my knees in despair and the other didn’t. Do you want to know what made the difference?

The fact that, when I quit the second time, I had quit once before. Having quit once and survived and succeeded, I had that first success as a model of the good things that could happen. And that’s what I want to leave you with – the things you gain by succeeding in the face of risk.

I’m SO much more comfortable with uncertainty now. I just don’t get that worked up by a lack of (so called) security.

These days, I just BELIEVE IN MYSELF that much more than I believe in the fears and the doubts. And that makes all the difference.

How to Change Your Brain (for the better!) in One Easy Step

August 16, 2016

The picture to the right shows Griffin having fun with some of his buddies by the pool. The summer was mostly filled with low-key, happy moments like the one above, but I’m thrilled to share that we’re enjoying a highly anticipated vacation at the beach this week! Griffin will start 7th grade next week, and

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How to Change Your Focus – and Your Mood – in Record Time

August 9, 2016

The picture to the right was taken after the game-winning, adult-beating goal for the kids’ team during a soccer playdate Griffin had recently with a boy who will be joining Griffin’s class this year. (Thanks in part to their shared victory, they’re now fast friends.) I’m the “Parent Mentor” to help new families make a

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How to Get Lucky

August 2, 2016

The photo to the right was taken at our local park after a fruitful day of Pokemon catching. If you haven’t heard of the PokemonGo craze, I encourage you to go to your local park and check it out. One of the very cool things about PokemonGo is that there are no published instructions, so

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Stephen King’s 5 Killer Life Lessons

July 26, 2016

The photo to the right was taken during a sweet moment cuddling on the couch during our family vacation. It was a blissfully low-key, fun-filled week after what seems like months of one crisis after another. My husband Doug professes that his favorite vacations are all about “reading and eating,” and although I love vacations

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What’s really bothering you?

July 19, 2016

The photos below show Griffin with his BFF – yesterday and 5 years ago. They became fast friends in first grade when Will’s family moved to Asheville, but then they moved away two years later. (Long-time readers may remember that we visited them on their yacht in Greece two years ago!) Even though the family now lives

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What’s Your Love Language?

July 12, 2016

That’s a pic of me enjoying some quality time with my brother a few days ago. I went up to Cincinnati last week to help take care of him after his heart surgery. (In my ezine last week, I talked about how Randy, my older brother – who is a 48 year-old super fit, vegan

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How Stress Signals That Your Life Is at Risk

July 5, 2016

I consider my body my most-trusted advisor. I think it assimilates information from the Universe that I can’t understand fully at first. You see, I know the Universe wants me to live my best life, but sometimes I don’t heed its advice – I’m convinced that sometimes I don’t even hear it. It’s like Oprah

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How to trust yourself to make the right decisions

June 28, 2016

The photo to the right shows me and Griffin eating some campfire guacamole and generally having a blast during our annual “off the grid” camping adventure. We were at the gorgeous Lake Santeelah. The spring-fed lake features the most beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, and the pristine water made for VERY refreshing dips, given

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