Guilt is one of the worst feelings ever, and none of us likes it! I mean, who would?
It’s an emotion that feels like a straight jacket and yet, ironically, drives us to insanity. Many of us find ourselves paralyzed by its spell and then feel deprived of the love, joy, and peace that we desire.
Women, especially, seem to “attract” guilty emotions about a variety of relationship-related issues. Perhaps it’s because women have an innate desire to nurture, and anything that may “cause” pain and turmoil for another individual feels like the opposite of nurturing.
In reality, we cannot be responsible for another person’s feelings (it’s literally impossible), but that’s another blog post topic altogether.
“How do I deal with guilt?” is a common question I hear from women who are struggling in their relationship and trying to decide whether to stay or to go. Even when they know they’re not happy, they often feel obligated to nurture and love (stay) instead of the possibility of triggering emotional pain in their partner (go).
Using Guilt as a Teacher
A lot of my clients say things like, “Sometimes I feel guilty [or bad] for wanting to leave.” Or, “I’m feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied in my marriage, but guilt and obligation motivate me to stay.” Staying with a partner out of guilt or obligation can easily lead to resentment.
And, as you probably already know, when you live your life through the lens of resentment, every decision you make… every conversation you have… every non-verbal gesture you show will be made from a resentful perspective. This limits you from living life to its fullest.
But the good news is, you can actually use guilt to your advantage, rather than to your detriment. And if you’re willing to learn how, something good can come from these not-so-fun guilt trips!
A wise person once said, “Guilt can either hold you back from growing, or it can show you what you need to shift in your life.” ~ Author unknown
I’m guessing you’re already aware of how guilt holds you back from growing and keeps you stuck in unwanted patterns. But are you aware of how it can show you what you need to shift in your life?
Maybe feelings of guilt are sometimes necessary to help you learn more about yourself and improve your quality of life, but holding on to guilt as a form of self-punishment is completely unnecessary.
There is no better teacher than experience itself, and there are always valuable lessons to be learned along the way from such an instructor. For illustrative purposes, I’ll share one of my own personal experiences and lessons…
When I was in my early 20’s, I met and eventually married a man who I ended up staying with for 13 years. Even though part of me knew from the very beginning that it was an unhealthy relationship (he started lying to me before our 2nd date!), I felt bad/guilty whenever I thought about leaving him.
I was very insecure back then, and didn’t yet know my own value. So I was afraid I might not find someone better, and that fear had me thinking that I better make the most of what I did have.
We fell for each other fast and moved in together within months of meeting. The lying continued, the fights escalated, and we kept fueling the fire of unhealthy patterns.
By this time, I had already been taught – like many of us have – that relationships are hard and you have to do what it takes to make them work. (Thank God I later learned that that doesn’t mean I have to abandon myself in the process!)
So I took the few things we did have in common, and the moments of fun we did have, and latched onto them in the hopes of somehow making the relationship better.
I kept telling myself things like, “Maybe if I could help him feel more loved, he wouldn’t feel the need to lie to me. He says he lies because he doesn’t want me to be upset… maybe that’s a good thing. If I leave him, doesn’t that mean I’m a bad person for giving up on him and our relationship?”
Those were some of the self-sabotaging and guilt-ridden thoughts I had going through my head on a regular basis, and they kept me stuck in a relationship I didn’t want to be in for a long time. Those feelings of guilt kept me from growing.
Now here’s the good part. What I learned from that experience is that feelings of guilt are showing me what I need to shift in my life. And I still apply this wisdom to this day.
If I’m feeling bad about something that I’m doing (or not doing) – or how I’m feeling about a certain situation – that means I’m somehow out of integrity with myself. I’m most likely either saying one thing, but doing another… or I’m not following through on what I know I need to do in order to make my situation better.
Examples of Guilt and How to Use It to Your Advantage
So let’s use some examples of how guilt might be showing up in your relationship, and what it may be trying to show you.
I’m unhappy, but…
Maybe you say you’re unhappy, and you know you need to talk with your partner about it, but you continue to avoid the conversations.
You might be feeling guilty because you’re not being honest with your partner about how you truly feel. Or you might be feeling guilty because you’re not following through on something you know you need to do. You’re avoiding it because it makes you uncomfortable.
What this may be showing you – the shift that needs to be made – is that you need to be willing to have momentary discomfort (the difficult conversation) in order to break through your cycle of unhappiness. You may not know what the results of the conversation are going to be, but isn’t your happiness worth finding out?
I’m bored so I think I’ll find fun elsewhere…
Maybe you’re feeling unfulfilled or bored in your marriage, so instead of working on that “problem”, you create another problem by having an affair.
That affair might have its moments of fun and excitement, but it always leaves you with a feeling of guilt because that’s not really what you stand for… it’s not who you want to be. If loyalty is one of your main core values, yet you’re being unfaithful, that will surely leave you with feelings of emptiness and guilt.
What this may be showing you – the shift that needs to be made – is that you need to be honest with yourself and your partner about the lack of connection in your marriage (or whatever is causing you to seek fulfillment elsewhere)… and either do something to change that, or be willing to gracefully let go of a relationship that no longer serves its purpose.
Sometimes, in order to stay in integrity with your values, and true to your heart, you have to leave a relationship that’s no longer right for you. And, of course, you’ll want to do your best to be authentic and respectful in your conversations before leaving so you don’t feel guilty about it later!
I made a commitment to God, so…
And my third and final example is one I’ve heard from a number of women about what God thinks.
Maybe you went into your relationship with feelings of mutual love, honesty, and respect, but that somehow shifted as time went on. Now you and your partner don’t treat each other so well – or maybe it’s one-sided – but you made a commitment to God that you’d stay married no matter what. “Until death do us part.”
So now you feel guilty for even thinking about leaving because “that’s just wrong!” (This is what I hear, not what I think). Now, I can’t speak for God (none of us can), but I feel more than confident that God wants our relationships to be loving.
And a loving relationship includes mutual honesty and respect. A loving relationship does not mean that you sacrifice yourself and the quality of your life in the name of love. That doesn’t make sense, and if that’s your belief, I respectfully challenge you to re-examine it.
What this form of guilt may be showing you – the shift that needs to be made – is that you need to look at your beliefs and see if they feel right for you. Your beliefs shouldn’t be based on what someone else believes and what they told you to believe. Your beliefs should be created by you and add quality to your life, not take it away!
You get to create your own set of moral or core values. No one else. You get to set the standards for what is true for you. And when you stay in integrity with those values and standards – both in how you treat others and how you allow others to treat you – you get to live a life that feels aligned with your heart and soul, and that is a beautiful thing!
If You’re Feeling Guilty, Ask Yourself These Questions
There are many other examples I could share, but I believe those three do a good job of providing scenarios and lessons to learn from.
So now let’s talk about how this might relate to you. Even if none of the examples I shared applies to your relationship experience, if you’re feeling guilty about something, ask yourself, “Why do I feel guilty about this?” And then ask yourself if the reason is influenced by personal belief or by societal conditioning.
If it’s influenced by personal belief, what can you do to change your behavior and/or actions? What can you do to stay in integrity with your core values and choices so that guilt won’t even have a chance of creeping in? If, in your opinion, you’re not doing anything “wrong”, there will be no real reason to feel guilty.
If the reason for feeling guilt is influenced by what other people think, I strongly encourage you to stop letting other people dictate how you live.
You are in the driver’s seat of your life, but if you’re looking in the rear-view mirror the whole time (your past) – or letting someone else drive for you – your life will feel like a series of crash-and-burns.
If You Want More Joy and Peace of Mind
Guilt is the antithesis to joy and peace of mind, and that’s why it feels so shitty. We’re not meant to feel guilty, so when we do, it’s a clear sign that something needs to change!
After so many weeks, months, or years of feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied in a relationship (or a job, or a home, etc.), it’s perfectly natural to start thinking about the idea of leaving.
And if you continue to stay in a relationship you don’t want to be in and you feel guilty for wanting to leave, of course this is going to cause pain! It’s a double-whammy of damned if I stay, damned if I go.
So what can you do to change this painful pattern? You can turn it into a powerful perception and use that power to transform the pattern into something good!
You can either improve the dynamics of your relationship and make it a relationship you love being in. Or, if after trying your best, it’s just not working, you can learn how to gracefully let go of a relationship that no longer serves its purpose.
You will be living with yourself for the rest of your life. So be true to your heart, and always remember that you and the quality of your life matter.
If you’re having a hard time with guilt and want to break free from this vicious cycle, a Relationship Breakthrough Session can help. Just click here for more details and to schedule a time to talk, and you’ll soon be on your way to feeling better.
Stay tuned for more mindful messages and other valuable resources – giving you helpful insights, tips and exercises to improve the quality of your life and relationships!
With love and support,
Healthy Relationship Coach
Licensed Heal Your Life® Coach