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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.