While stress gets a lot of press because of its harmful effects on your health, guilt is usually overlooked as being equally destructive. Whether someone tries to make you feel guilty or you succumb to it yourself, what good comes from feeling guilty? Remorse for hurting somebody is one thing, but oftentimes we feel guilty because we ate cake, or because we think we’re not doing something well enough. What if we turned guilt around and practiced loving kindness toward ourselves, accepting that we are good enough and that we’re all doing the best we can? We might finally experience a new level of well-being and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
One of the worst things we can do during a meal is to feel guilty about what we’re eating. Think of the mental stress we create if we’re not enjoying our food, but rather feeling stressed about it? I’m not advocating that you eat junk food and feel good about it, but that you choose food consciously and then savor it. One of the explanations I like regarding why French people are generally thin is that they take time to really enjoy their food. In my blog post about learning this lesson with donuts, I share how I had to confront my desire for donuts so I could then let go of it and move beyond the guilt I had created around it.
According to Chinese medicine, the Spleen is the primary organ of digestion and also of overthinking and worry. If you’re thinking “Oh I really shouldn’t be eating this. I feel awful that I’m eating this,” the Spleen cannot properly digest food. Who hasn’t experienced indigestion after eating while they were really upset about something? This is why I often tell my patients that it is better to eat a little of their “forbidden” food with joy and acceptance than to feel bad about it. It actually is worse for you to feel guilty while indulging!
Once a month I get together with a group of amazing women in Santa Fe who are mothers that own their own businesses. Last night we were discussing time management, and how we balance running a business with spending time with our kids. A common experience that came up for many of us was feeling guilty about taking time away from our family to fulfill our personal career goals. We realized that, as mothers today, we can feel guilty for doing anything for ourselves, whether it’s going to a yoga class or building a business. This sense of guilt creates stress that really takes its toll. It doesn’t help anyone actually become a better parent. It would be one thing if there was genuine neglect happening, but that’s simply not the case here. These moms mostly practice attachment parenting and make their kids’ needs a priority, even over their own.
One mom helped change the general mood when she said, “Hey, if mama isn’t happy, then nobody’s happy!” We realized that sacrificing one’s self to the kids isn’t serving anybody. These women who love their work and get great joy out of the creative process of running a business have every right to do that, but face the challenge of finding balance so that everyone’s needs are met in the family. You could hear the collective sigh of relief as we all settled in to feeling ok about the path we’ve chosen, and accepting that we’re all good enough.
Buddhism places great emphasis on compassion, and describes compassion toward oneself as loving kindness. This is very different from the Judeo-Christian concept of sin and judgment. I believe that feeling guilty places undue stress on the entire nervous system and on many physiological functions. I think that if there is something you’re doing that you feel guilty about, look at that openly and see if it’s something that is actually harmful and needs to change, or if it’s unnecessary guilt. I advocate acceptance and loving kindness toward oneself as a healing practice to balance out all of the guilt that has run amok in our society. I don’t see any good that’s come of all this guilt tripping and feeling bad about oneself. Practicing kindness to yourself grows into extending kindness toward others. Let’s overthrow the guilt complex and replace it with compassion and watch a lot of healing happen.