Virtually everyone is plagued by guilt at times in their life, including the kind that can seem crippling if we let it. In talks I have given to parents of special needs children, invariably there would be someone in the audience who brings up the word “guilt” or “guilty” as a way of signaling how they feel about their role and helplessness to change their situation. Guiltaholism is an epidemic. For many, it’s what gets them out of bed in the morning and drives them to unsustainable levels; but it comes with all of the complications that any addiction brings.
At yet one more presentation where the audience fell into a conversation about guilt overwhelming them, I was filled with their sadness, and determined to identify the attributes of guilt that lead to despair in the effort to form a way forward…without guilt as a companion.
Universally we are searching for a way to forgive ourselves for daily misgivings over deeds undone, or neglectfully handled (in our eyes). At one talk the audience members in the respectfully listened to each other but it was apparent they were searching for validation. They desired more than anything a release of the guilt that now consumed their lives, reminding them of their apparent failures to handle all of the concerns in front of them.
How could I reach out to them in awkward agreement, without discovering my own solutions? If I had found the answers for me to release the guilt, then why could I not offer them a definitive solution in some form? As I drove home from this presentation the answers began to roll through my mind with a sense of purpose. Remembering the anxiety in their faces, I vowed to articulate a method to begin releasing the grip of guilt in our lives. And, in turn, I would hopefully permanently release my own.
The 12-step program for guiltaholism
I put together a 12-step program modeled after the vernacular in the 12-step program for those with substance addiction. It was obvious that the words I chose not to use, in the development of this 12-step program were the very ones that seemed to cause us the most guilt. Gone from the vernacular were do, don’t, should and must.
In place came empowering thoughts focusing a would-be guilt-ridden parent, encouraging them to throw away their anxieties that led to guilt. Clichés and rhetoric had to come with a sense of doable action steps, or the ideas would be tossed out. If it didn’t make sense, or in any way was not realistic, then the idea was eliminated.
Further, as I began writing the 12-step program, it became apparent that the message was worldwide. Step into the shoes of any parent and you will see that they are stepping into guilt every day in some form. It is just that for some of us, we have become addicted to the narcotic effect as our sense of motivation. That is when guilt’s effects begin to suffocate the family.
To that end I formed ideas coherent and transferable to everyone, even a parent who is dealing with everyday stresses, but yet completely applicable to those of us enduring the biggest levels of stress as the primary caregivers.
Step 1 – Acknowledge that guilt is a “drug” of choice, and as such, we are in charge of the thoughts we choose to accept about ourselves.
Step 2 – Acknowledge to ourselves and to others that we cannot do everything. If our expectations are unreasonable then our thoughts of what is doable needs to shift.
Step 3 – Acknowledge that part of our guilt is associated with our need to control all of the circumstances in our lives. We need to release ourselves from the responsibility of the demands that our need to control brings.
Step 4 – Acknowledge that we are not responsible for the happiness of anyone but ourselves, including our immediate family members. Take full responsibility for formulating and cultivating care of you first.
Step 5 – Limit opportunities that can produce guilt: say no to volunteer opportunities without regret, choose friendly thoughts about yourself and others, and walk away from negative conversations that provoke anxiety about your choices.
Step 6 – Accept yourself for who you are, in all ways, creating boundaries for how you will allow yourself to be treated. Release yourself from all self-imposed pretense.
Step 7 – Accept others for who they are, respecting and honoring their boundaries. Release them from any unrealistic expectations of behavior.
Step 8 – Accept that guilt is born from our fear of being perceived inadequate, especially in our own eyes, and the eyes of others. Release the attachment to fear of inadequacy.
Step 9 – Accept that guilt’s only purpose is to temporarily motivate us to change direction from the path we may now be choosing. It is when guilt becomes a daily motivator that we have become addicted to its effect.
Step 10 – Accept help humbly, and without regret.
Step 11 – Listen carefully to your own inner voice of wisdom, and honor its call. It is in the whisper of our own inner voice that we understand the truth about ourselves.
Step 12 – Turn over our fears and our sense of limitations to our God, however defined in our lives. As we accept a higher power our greater good is fulfilled. And when that happens, the paralyzing effect of guilt is permanently removed.