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How Do You Manage Guilt and Chronic Illness?

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Editor's Note

If you’re struggling with self-judgment, check out The Mighty’s No Shame group. It’s a safe space to share how you’re feeling with other people who get it.

As I discussed in my last post, “Do you have a lot of guilt with chronic illness?” guilt and chronic illness are good friends. They circle one another and are familiar traveling companions. If you experience chronic illness, you likely know your way around some guilt. Guilt about not getting things done, guilt about not showing up in the ways you’d like to, guilt over who you once were, who you’d like to be, etc.

Guilt, like so many of our shame-based emotions, doesn’t serve. Guilt doesn’t serve me; it doesn’t serve those for whom I’m feeling guilty. However, much like a hollow point bullet, once it pierces the body, it can ricochet around, tearing things up and generally making a mess of our insides.

So, what can be done? How can we handle guilt? We’re human, we feel this whole messy array of emotions. When the waves of guilt threaten to swallow us up, what can we do to stay afloat? Here are some of my best techniques for managing this tough pain.

First and foremost, I have to see and acknowledge it for what it is. Guilt can be sneaky and slide in with other tough feelings like sadness, fear and shame. In order to counteract the guilt, I first have to see it as guilt. When I surface and name it, I am already taking away some of its power. As Brene Brown tells us, shame doesn’t like to be exposed to the light of day — the same is true of guilt. As we start to discuss it, talk about it, tell someone else about what we’re feeling, it often doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Or we ourselves can see the holes in the shame-blanket we’re covering ourselves with and it starts to lose its grip on us. When we talk about the guilt we’re having, it is easier to notice the ways the things we’re saying are out of our control, not things we’d blame others for, or things we know our loved ones don’t hold against us.

I can also choose to just be with the guilt. Perhaps this sounds a bit surprising as a way to manage guilt. But just as bathwater starts to get tepid and then cold, the longer we sit in it, so too does guilt start to lose some of its heat and sting. By sit with it, I mean just acknowledge what I’m feeling, close my eyes, and take some time alone to really just feel what I’m feeling. I’m often in such a hurry to escape, ignore, or resolve my uncomfortable emotions that it’s counterintuitive to just give them space and take time to be with them.

Perhaps the guilt is trying to lead me somewhere, maybe there is a change I’m ready to make or some new information I can discover if I’ll just take some time to get quiet, tune in, and sit still with the guilt. Being with the guilt also gives me the chance to practice having self-compassion for my experience and what I’m going through. I always need more opportunities to get better at this.

Other than talking with someone about my guilt, I can also write about it. Exploring my guilt alone by writing in a journal, on paper, or on my phone or computer gives my mind a chance to wander and explore places I might not have gone if I were in conversation. Not only does this allow me the possibility to unlock new information, it also gives me a chance to fully express the guilt in a way I might have held back if I were telling someone else.

Sometimes it’s also nice to physically destroy this writing when I’m done. I find release in the destruction — working to allow myself to really let it go. For some this might be burning up the paper you wrote on or burying it. I sometimes write a word or phrase on a scrap of paper and flush it. Do whatever signifies transformation and allowing yourself to leave this guilt behind.

What about you? What has worked in your guilt showdowns? Have you tried any of these techniques or do you have others that have worked for you? We’d love to learn from your experience! Leave a comment and let us know. One thing is always true, guilt is a part of this path of persistent illness. I know I don’t benefit from denying its existence. Instead, I’m working to acknowledge guilt and trying to make sure it isn’t in the driver’s seat.

Getty image by Kateryna Kovarzh.

Originally published: June 2, 2020
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