I grew up with a guy whose mom used to tuck him in at night and say, “Goodnight, honey. I hope I see you in the morning.” This was especially difficult because his dad overdosed and died when my friend, (I’ll call him Rick), was eight years old, so he had a real and understandable fear that he could lose his mother, too. As he hit his teenage years and wanted to hang out with his friends instead of staying home with his mom, she’d say, “Okay, let’s hope this isn’t my last day on God’s green earth!” as he walked out the door. My friend started doing drugs at thirteen, I think mostly to numb out the guilt and underneath that, the rage. Sometimes he’d get drunk and end up crying about all of it. Other times he’d stay home, locked in his room, headphones blaring, because it feels awful when another person tries to make us feel responsible for their happiness or their ability to be okay. It’s too heavy a burden to bear.
Rick went to college in the city, and although he moved out of the house and lived on campus, he went to visit his mom every week and often stayed home on the weekends. He rarely brought a girl home to meet her because no one was ever good enough for him in her eyes, and because she wasn’t especially kind to the girls she did meet. Eventually he met a really lovely woman and they fell in love and decided to get married. At the wedding, his mother stood up and gave a toast, wishing Rick and her daughter-in-law well, even though she and her son’s wife had, “had their struggles”, and she also reminded everyone that she loved her Rick, “first, and best.” It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
One day not too long ago, I got a call from Rick telling me he was losing it. He and his wife have two children, eight and four. Rick’s mom and his wife have had a rough time over the years, but I have to say his wife has been incredibly patient and kind with his mom, and tried every way humanly possible to reassure her that she isn’t “taking Rick away.” They live nearby and see her every weekend, and she comes over at least once a week for dinner. But it seems it’s never enough. Rick called because his mother started saying things to the kids like, “I hope I see you tomorrow”, and both his kids have cried themselves breathless after grandma leaves, asking why she can’t just move in with them so they can keep her safe. So the cycle continues.
Guilt attacks us in two ways. Either we engage with someone who wishes to manipulate us through guilt and we allow that to happen, or we take it on ourselves. Either way, it can be crushing. Rationally speaking, it’s normal to feel guilt if you’ve done something you really wish you hadn’t that ended up hurting someone else. But we all have choices we’d love to make over again, and times when we didn’t act from our highest selves. Just like worry (another very human emotion), guilt won’t get you anywhere, and it won’t help the injured party, either. It’s not a feeling that leads to growth, it’s a feeling that keeps us stuck. It’s draining. Where joy lightens us and makes us feel we could fly, guilt is heavy and it weighs us down like an anchor. Here’s Rick, going home every weekend for years, spending tons of energy trying to be enough for his mom. Trying to hold up the load. You can’t save other people and it’s not reasonable to demand that other people try to save us.
When you experience feelings of guilt, it’s really good to examine what’s happened. Have you actually done something wrong, or are you allowing yourself to be manipulated? If you’ve hurt someone, intentionally or thoughtlessly, own it and apologize with honesty and kindness. That’s all you can do. You’ll be forgiven or you won’t. But you do have to forgive yourself. If you’re participating in a manipulative and controlling relationship, it’s probably time for some healthy boundaries and compassionate conversation. Otherwise the rage builds, and if you push it down, you’ll end up feeling depressed. It’s exhausting to repress those heavy feelings; you won’t have much energy for anything else. Somewhere inside you know you can’t make another person happy. They are or they aren’t, and if they aren’t, they need to get busy. You can be supportive, but you can’t solve it for anyone else.
Vacations are fun, but guilt trips are a waste of time, and even if you pack a bag, you won’t be going anywhere. Anchors aweigh!
Wishing you love, joy, and liberation,