Saturday, September 10, 2011

GUILT: It's a verdict, not a feeling.

I'd like to introduce you to my dog, Cooper. Sadly, my handsome yellow boy died suddenly on Halloween 2009 forever taking a piece of my heart with him.

While there are many things I miss about Coop on a daily basis: The way his eyebrows shifted when he listened to me talk to him. How silky his ears felt beneath my fingers. His eternal hopefulness that one day I'd actually give him a scrap from the table *sigh*, there is one thing I definitely do not miss...the suffocating guilt he freely handed-out while sitting at my side and staring at me until I played ball with him. (He could go for hours folks. It was torturous.)

Aside from the handsome guy above the only other person on the planet whose guilt distribution has any affect on me is my husband. (His guilt trips are slightly different than that of the dog's and reserved for an entirely different kind of post. *wink*)


I nearly forgot. There actually is one more person who can make me crumble at the knees with unrelenting guilt. She's blue-eyed, types 90 wpm and has hair the size of a small village. Her name is Bethany and she is a gold medal winner at self-inflicted guilt.

Until I got serious about my writing, I had no idea how hard I was on myself. The expectations I hold myself accountable to are not only unattainable, but completely ridiculous considering my life. (Full-time job, 2 kids, know the drill). I can go from having a great, 1,000 word writing day to feeling like a useless turd on the doorstep in the matter minutes. All because I let my own guilt trip me up.

I know I'm not alone in this self-defeating behavior. It seems most of my writerly friends share in this neurotic behavior. (Aren't we the lucky ones?!) But I did receive some advice a few years ago that I've been trying hard to incorporate into my life in hopes to ease the guilt.

Here it is: (Put on your waders--we're about to get deep).

After the birth of my first daughter, I went through a period of some very low-lows. It wasn't exactly postpartum depression, but what a therapist diagnosed as postpartum anxiety. Like a lot of creatives, I'm a control freak--having my world turned on it's head by this 8lb. person who did little more than cry, poop and literally suck the life out of me, definitely did not fall into my list of familiar and scheduled activities. (Fear not! The child in question is now nearly nine and I no longer want to run away from her (most of the time)) When I learned I was pregnant with baby girl #2, I quickly sought guidance from a therapist so I would understand how to deal with the feelings that still frightened me when I thought about bringing another new person into my world.

Therapy taught me that not only am I a control freak, but I'm also an emotional responder. (duh) Rather than deal with things rationally...I blow them out of proportion. I know...shocking! But, and here's where it gets interesting and back to the point, the best thing I learned was that there are really only 4 true feelings when it comes to our emotions. They are:


Lorie, my therapist, suggested that anytime I start having feelings of guilt, which was my biggie, that I stop and break it down to an actual feeling. Because guilt wasn't a feeling. It was a verdict.

Here's what I mean:

I'm a horrible mother = GUILT

The Breakdown:

I am afraid that I'm going to do this wrong.
I am mad because my life has changed in ways I never expected.
I am sad because I don't feel like the same person anymore. I miss her.

This little formula was a lifesaver. I didn't suffer any of the same symptoms with #2 as I did with #1. AND, the best part, I've been able to translate this little process over to my writing life. For example:

I didn't write all weekend = GUILT
The Breakdown:

I am mad that I had to go to Costco to buy husband Cliff bars instead of spending an hour writing.

I am afraid that if I don't commit every free moment to writing God won't think I'm serious about it and I will never "make it."

I am sad that I know my friends made time to write this weekend and I didn't.

You can break it down for days--and believe me, I have. But the bottom line is--GUILT IS NOT A FEELING. It's a culmination of other feelings that you just haven't stripped down to the roots yet. Most of my guilt actually comes from fear. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but at least I've diagnosed the source.

Perhaps my therapist was a bit more "enlightened" than some folks (I'm pretty sure she went to Berkeley) but, either way, this little tool has helped me a lot. Maybe it can help you, too.