A very old friend of mine used to say, “Guilt is a wasted emotion.” I’m not sure I can make a lot of sense out of the idea of any emotion being a waste, but she wasn’t entirely wrong. Guilt is certainly exhausting. It drives you to second guess yourself, and tie yourself in knots worrying about what other people think of you, and none of that does you a scrap of good.
Because the thing is, most of our guilt doesn’t come from within. It comes from the expectations we let other people lay upon us – sometimes the expectations that we project onto their entirely innocent selves. Guilt is heavily tied up with shame – the fear that other people will find out the terrible, secret truths about who we really are.
If your guilt is genuinely driven by the knowledge that you did a bad thing, then the best thing you can do for your own peace of mind is look for forgiveness – if you’re lucky, from the person you injured in the process. But really, whether that person exists, noticed, and is prepared to forgive you, or not, forgiving yourself is where the growth is going to be. To be able to say, “I did this thing. I should have done something else, or else done nothing at all, but I can’t go back and change it now. I choose to learn from my mistake, I choose to do my best to do better in future, and since I can do no more, I’m through beating myself up over it.” – that’s where freedom lies. Arguably, the entire theological idea of God’s forgiveness is a mechanism to allow people to forgive themselves. It’s a way of saying, “Look – God forgives you! And if it’s good enough for him, why not cut yourself some slack, too?”
But for most of the stuff we feel bad about, most of the pressures we put on ourselves, it’s really not as dramatic as that. It’s just about making your own choices about priorities – whether that’s prioritising how hard you will work, how thinly you’re prepared to spread yourself, what you want to eat at a given time, it’s your life. They are your choices. Only you can make them, and if someone is trying to make them for you, they’re wrong. Don’t let them. Your very freedom depends on it.