Having to deal with guilt can be a major barrier to trying or continuing with many self care practices. So how can we make it go away?
I’m going to be honest with you, the guilt isn’t going to disappear by me telling you that you shouldn’t feel guilty or that you deserve to look after yourself as much as you look after others. Both of those are true, and yet, that guilty feeling is unlikely to respond to those logical arguments in the short term. They can help if you use those statements to encourage yourself to do more helpful / fewer unhelpful things and then keep doing what matters but if you take the re-emergence of guilt as a sign that you have done something wrong or try to control it, it is likely to lead to you avoiding helpful behaviours and leave you in the same place in the long term. The same exhausted place you have probably been in for a long time, only now it’s worse because you’ve been through a pandemic and the world is telling you to keep going with all of the extras that you have been doing. But what if you allowed the guilt to be there? What could you do (or not do) then?
Feeling guilty for not doing things for others or focusing on your own needs and desires is an indication of the kind, compassionate person you are. This is a wonderful thing but the balance has likely never been there between what you need and what others need, and this is going to mean constant overwhelm and an inability to enjoy what little down time you have as you’ll be focusing on all the things you should or could be doing instead. It will also seem selfish to do something for you. But what is so bad about the guilt? Can it hurt you? Is it really worse than how you feel when you have spent all your time and energy and have nothing left to take care of your own needs? Is it worse than the resentment that creeps in later? Have you asked yourself what guilt feels like? I don’t mean all the thoughts that pop into your head when guilt shows up but how it feels, in your body. Where is it located? What are the sensations like? Clenching, tugging, tingly, pulsing or a general sense of discomfort? Can you be curious about this experience and return to it whenever your tricky mind tries to distract you again with all of the reasons you shouldn’t be pausing? And where is your body gripping? Your hips and stomach, your eyebrows and jaw, your shoulders and fists? When you notice where guilt is taking space in your body, can you allow that gripping to ease? This may feel frightening because it is so unfamiliar to you but you can become more familiar with this by practising noticing bodily sensations, in small doses, especially at times when your mind is playing that same old record that you have been trying to run away from for years, maybe decades.
And what then? You still have all of the things to do. But do you? Do you really have to say yes? Is it really so bad if things don’t get done so quickly or to the exacting standards you’ve been used to? Is it fair that you are continuing to take all the responsibility to get things done? It might feel like it at first but after a while of practising, it is likely to feel less important. And the benefits to your physical and mental health are likely to outweigh the short term negative experiences you may have whilst you practise. For some people, maybe they will stop feeling guilty after a while. But if you don’t, that doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong, especially if it is something you would encourage others to do for their health and wellbeing.
If that feels a bit too much too soon, sitting with discomfort and allowing sensation to come and go whilst muscles settle down and relax can be practised in yoga, especially very gentle forms, such as restorative or yin yoga. And if you’re ready to get started with something in your day to day life, maybe start with the things that you know matter the least and work your way up to the harder ones. Learning to make space for guilt might just become one of your biggest powers that makes living a balanced life that bit more possible.