By Sonya Jensen
Of all the hard emotions –anxiety, anger, regret, etc.– guilt can be one of the most difficult to overcome.
Guilt tells us that what we think, want to do or have done is wrong.
We’ve hurt someone or we’ve screwed up a chance at something. We just plain blew it! That’s what guilt tells us but does that really mean we’ve screwed up?
Our emotions can be what we define them to be. For many of us when we first ask for what we need or set boundaries we often feel guilt…but it could also be growth.
When we ask for what we need or say no to something, we’re outgrowing our fear of being too needy. We may be outgrowing our fear of setting boundaries. We may be outgrowing everything we’ve done our whole lives to keep us feeling included, liked or even loved.
Guilt is a healthy emotion to experience when we’ve done something wrong that’s hurt other people. It’s not that we’re bad and will never recover like shame wants us to believe.
However, guilt can be both a sign you’re growing and an opportunity to step back and reflect. If we always assume that guilt is right and we’ve done something wrong we’re likely to repeat old patterns of behavior that keep us locked in cycles that aren’t healthy for us anymore.
To know the difference, we have to ask ourselves:
Is what I did –asking for what I need or setting a boundary– really wrong?
Or does it feel wrong because it’s different from what I usually do?
The hard truth is, people around us benefit from us having no boundaries and no needs.
We need to learn to question what guilt is saying and change the meaning to be a sign of growth.
Guilt may never go away but you can lessen its intensity and even meet yourself on the other side.
But your needs are important and sharing them clearly and positively helps teach people how to love you and be in a healthy relationship with you.
What does it mean to state your needs positively?
It means sharing them from the perspective of what you would like to see instead of what you don’t want to see.
For example, let’s say you have a need for more time together with your partner.
You could say, “We don’t spend any time together because we’re so busy and I want you to plan date nights, too.”
You could also say, “I feel really close, connected and important to you when we each plan date nights and surprise one another.”
Guilt is an emotion that you’ll have to deal with as you continue to evolve, grow and change.
Guilt is our body’s way of keeping us safe and sometimes “safe” means staying in patterns of behavior you know, whether or not you like it.
You have to decide that having needs and sharing those needs are important and should be important to the people in your life who love you. There will be adjustments and feelings from others as you change and it’s important to validate those feelings without necessarily making you feel like your change was wrong.
Here is an example of validation vs agreeing with someone:
Here’s what it looks like when we validate someone else’s feelings:
“I can see that me saying no to this activity hurt your feelings.”
On the flipside, here’s what it looks like to simply agree with someone (and bypass your own needs or boundaries):
“I feel so bad! I’ve hurt your feelings. If it makes you feel better I’ll do this activity with you because I hate to see you upset.”
Validation doesn’t mean I agree but that I’m a human being who understands that when something doesn’t go the way I want it to, that feelings get involved.
You can overcome guilt by remembering that everyone deserves to have needs but that not all people can or should meet all of my needs. We’re each responsible for communicating our needs effectively.
By stating your needs and boundaries while still validating others feelings, the people in your life will work with you in honoring your needs– and vice versa.
Sonya Jensen is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Gottman Method Couples and Sex Therapist. In addition to working on the ground with couples for nearly 10 years Sonya is an author, speaker and sought-after trainer. A candid voice for relationship health, Sonya believes all people are worthy of a healthy, loving partnership and she’s here to be their guide.
How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.