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“Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt” —Plautus
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night swimming in yesterday’s guilt. Things that I have done that hurt others years ago and have forgotten. Now, I remember them as if I had done them the day before. I tell myself that I have already made amends to them for the destructive behavior but guilt lingers. Sometimes it was something I did that I never told anyone about. I am the only one who knows. Recovery and activity over the years buried the behavior way down deep and now it somehow has worked its way to the surface of memory, and I ponder what to do with it at 3 am! Do you ever have bouts with yesterday’s guilt?
Guilt is not a pleasant experience. It’s the hound dog that never loses its scent and always relentlessly pursues. There are overlays of guilt. You wake up each morning with the desire to do right. Yet, before noon you have already acted out with an addictive substance or process. Your heart descends from your chest to your stomach. There is a bitter taste of failure and guilt that seems to permeate every cell in your body. There is an overwhelming desire to be someone else, somewhere else. You feel sad, lonely, desperate, and guilty.
Guilt is a feeling experience that dominates most addicts. Even in recovery, guilt becomes a nemesis that is difficult to shake. Not only do addicts feel guilt about the destructive things they have done, but also the good things they never completed. Lying in bed replaying the things you did that were so hurtful. Like a nice warm glass of regret, depression, and self-loathing, guilt powerfully dominates the present with past memories of hurtful behavior.
How do you manage guilt when you are committed to a life in recovery? Yesterday you stumbled. Maybe you did worse and fell off the edge of the cliff. You got drunk and killed someone driving. You had a sexual affair with your brother’s partner. You molested a child. You broke your partner’s heart with addictive behavior that created unbelievable pain for people you really love. How do you deal with the guilt that dogs you every waking moment?
1. What happened yesterday belongs to yesterday. There is an old saying in recovery that “Yesterday ended last night.” This is true. Guilt is caused by too much past, and not enough present. Wallowing in the mud and memory of past destructive behavior will never help you live free and clean in the present moment. Every day is a new day. It takes discipline to wipe the slate clean and live in the here and now and not be dominated by yesterday’s failure.
2. Guilt never rectifies past behavior. Guilt serves to remind you that you did something that hurt you or others. Sociopaths often don’t feel guilt when they hurt others. You do. Let guilt do its work and then discard it. Upon becoming aware that your behavior was hurtful to another, recognize that guilt is no longer useful to you. Feel it and let go. This will take daily discipline. Each day guilt will visit you. Practice forgiving yourself which means that you choose to not hold past behaviors against yourself and are committed to walking in the opposite direction from destructive behavior. Recognize what you are doing to rectify hurtful behavior with healing action and then dismiss guilt by taking action that demonstrates guilt-free living. Practice letting go of guilt moment by moment.
3. Make amends. The 8th and 9th steps of the 12-Step program suggest that you make a list of the people you have harmed and make amends to them. These two steps pave the way to clarify and release guilt. Amends must be a daily practice. We hurt each other continually both intentionally and unintentionally. Amends create flexibility in relationships. It is unnecessary to defend your intentions, simply own the reality that your behavior hurt someone, and make it right with a simple apology. In this way, you eliminate the environment that breeds guilt.
4. Learn to love your enemy. People tend to alienate unwanted feelings because they are uncomfortable. Guilt is one of those feelings. Radically, when you embrace guilt and love it for its worth, it will help you become more sensitive to ways in which you hurt others and the environment you live in. While it is not meant that you brood with guilt, it is helpful to listen to the message that guilt is sending and take positive action toward resolution. Proper management of guilt produces compassion for self and others. Guilt feels like an enemy to the soul. However, learning to love your enemy (guilt) will cultivate deeper appreciation and love for yourself and others.
Guilt can be redemptive and can trigger love. Hating yourself and the feeling of guilt within intensifies the possibility of unwanted behavior. The power of self-love builds bridges to the destiny of future healing and positive actions.