A friend and I had been chatting about guilt, shame and regret and we were talking about our earliest memories of these emotional states. We were recalling times when we were each about eight or nine years old – until I remembered a much older and long-forgotten memory that had come back to my attention at my silent Vipassana meditation retreat a few years ago (click here to read more about that retreat).
As I meditated during that retreat, images would pop up into my mind seemingly at random, but as I was to learn during the course of my stay, this was a way of my brain processing many of my long buried experiences, and I remember a particular Christmas morning scene being one of those random pop-ups. Now talking with my friend, this image once again came to my attention and along with it, some uncomfortable feelings and it got me wondering about how accurate our earliest memories and emotions are.
My friend and I had been focusing on our experiences in our respective primary schools which is not so unusual because once we start school that is normally the time when shame and guilt can begin to make an impression on us; but once I put my mind to it, I could pin my first recollection to a much younger age and that was the Christmas memory.
I must have been about four years old and I can remember sitting on the floor in the living room with my parents and my sister. I was excitedly looking inside the bag for the presents that had been left overnight by Father Christmas and I can even remember that I was wearing a blue fluffy dressing gown with ladybird buttons. One of my presents on that Christmas morning was a Sindy doll and even now, many years later just thinking about that doll raises some familiar feelings and I am transported back to that living room under the Christmas tree.
My Vipassana Retreat
After my friend and I had finished our coffees and returned to our respective homes, I continued to think about the process and my progression over the ten day at the Vipassana retreat; in particular relating to where my unconscious and subconscious mind had taken me. One of my big ‘revelations’ at the Vipassana centre had been an understanding and an acceptance about the events that had followed the break-up of my marriage and the subsequent estrangement by my children.
That meditative process had made me re-consider my own sense of identity, self belief and self worth; much of which, before starting the retreat I had believed I had already dealt with over the preceding years. At the retreat however there was a much deeper dive into my unconscious mind. As I meditated and as images from my past surfaced, I was able to make connections between my beliefs as an adult and I could understand how many of my actions and reactions were tied up with my past.
This introspection was taking things to the limit and I was curious to understand what did the doll have to do with anything? I believe that particular image surfaced at the retreat when I was working through guilt and shame. But why would a four year old feel guilty about receiving a present?
With reflection I now think that it was primarily tied up with disappointment. The doll wasn’t one that I had especially wanted but I know that I felt bad because I understood that my parents didn’t have much money to spare and they had chosen it especially for me (their choice of presents was usually spot on). Was it even possible that at such a tender age I could feel that I wasn’t worthy enough to receive gifts from others? (That was certainly a recurring theme through my life!) Could it be based on compassion for my parents’ financial situation? I certainly never doubted that I was loved.
How do you define your different emotions?
We have dictionary definitions to help us define our world and much like learning a language as a baby, there is something instinctive about growing up, understanding ourselves and intrinsically recognizing and naming our emotions.
The Cambridge Dictionary describes guilt as: a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person:
What if I was mis-labelling my sensation of guilt in this situation and I had instead been feeling pity, compassion or empathy for others? How would that change the narrative? Maybe, even at the age of four years old I felt responsible for my parents or at least for their happiness? Something that I certainly don’t remember is their reaction when I opened my present and I saw the doll. What if I had seen disappointment on their faces?
But how do we even know which of our emotions are which. Do we even attribute them the same descriptive words? Maybe my understanding of excitement would be your anxiety. My guilt could be your feeling of being responsible. Had I labeled some of my own emotions incorrectly all my life? This is complicated stuff!
In a nutshell, guilt is the feeling that we get from a sense of responsibility for a harmful attitude or behavior towards others and shame tends to be more introspective. Shame is directed towards oneself and is based upon a negative self evaluation according to one’s moral code.
Revisit the past….and then let it go
Guilt can be useful to keep your behaviour in check. It’s the conscience that demands you to treat people, yourselves, and situations with respect.
Guilt is bad when it doesn’t contribute anything to the situation and it takes you down a rabbit hole of over-thinking.
What I have learnt through my Mindfulness practice is that I have a choice about how to behave and how to react. I am also getting better at reducing my over-thinking time and accepting how things have been.
After writing this article I spoke to my parents and I asked them if they could remember that particular Christmas and the doll.
This was quite enlightening because although they didn’t remember too many details, my dad did remember that one year he had tried his best to buy me a Sindy doll because that was what everybody wanted at that time. Interestingly, he doesn’t remember that he actually managed to find one – and when I asked if it was possible that he had got another type of doll he admitted that he probably had done!
So I had attributed guilty feelings with receiving a Sindy doll, when in fact, it might have been disappointment and feeling upset on behalf of my father because he couldn’t get me one!
After speaking with my parents I then sat and meditated and I decided to show that four year old child some compassion. I visualised myself explaining to her that the joy from giving is not necessarily linked to the recipient’s reaction. She would learn this for herself when she was older, so she could therefore let go of any sense of responsibility. Yes, be grateful for the gift and express thanks; but it is not imperative to love something that somebody else chooses to gift to you.
At the end of the meditation I did a simple balloon release visualisation exercise and I allowed my feelings of ‘guilt’ to float away. I had renamed them and reframed them and whilst this single small experience had happened so many years ago and had only knowingly come to mind again recently, I would have been holding that emotional link deep in my unconscious.
Maybe it had even formed a part of my problem of finding it difficult to accept gifts. Who knows! But now, it is gone.
It is never too late to deal with anything from your past but you should recognise when it is time to let things go.
If you would like some support as you work through guilt, shame or maybe if you want help letting go of something, send me a message and we can have a chat about the best way forward. Every single revelation or understanding, every single acceptance that you have can only improve the way that you think, react and interact.