Come Clean With Yourself: Releasing Guilt and Regret

Much of our career potential is cut off by an invisible force. It exists in a place where shame, embarrassment, lack of confidence and a fear of failing flourish. Ironically, we have control of this force, but often dupe ourselves into conforming to its limiting powers. This force is called The Past— a time when we’ve all done silly things, but a time which we can make the choice to learn from instead of live in. In my recent introductory article Reframe, Move On and Grow: Releasing The Past, I shared how it’s wisest to reframe and leverage our regrets of the past to inspire ourselves to live our best lives, take chances and grow, instead of dwelling on our negative past experiences— many of which we’re not even remembering accurately.

My hope is that you’ve been inspired by this outlook, and are ready to join me in effectively releasing two limiting states of mind from your life and career, both of which are directly associated with the past: Guilt and Regret.

Got Guilt?

We can all recognize feelings of Guilt within ourselves. It’s that general sense that “I did something bad, or didn’t do something that I could have”. The topic is also primed for cultural reflection, namely the “Catholic guilt” and “Jewish guilt” which motivates some of us to devote an day each week (and a full day each year for those who observe Yom Kippur) to purging our pent-up wrongdoings and seeking forgiveness for being mere mortals. But while we intellectually release the deeds of the past, we still hold onto them emotionally in our daily career interactions. So how are we supposed to expect forgiveness from others when we can’t even forgive ourselves? All of this prompts us to take a good, hard look what’s really going on when we feel guilty. Now of course, guilt is too broad a topic to cover in one blog post, but let’s take a look at the guilt so many parents face.

If you’ve experienced the guilt of parenthood during your career, you’re not alone. This is a common, societally derived phenomenon. It’s natural to feel remorseful when you’re at work instead of with your children. Inversely, and oddly, some of us also feel guilty when we’re spending time with family instead of working. This is especially the case when the kids are sick, and the team is picking up the slack for you. This type of situation can lead to a coworker asking for a returned favor, and that task shooting right to the top of your to-do list, since you now “owe them”.

Here’s a powerful re-lease of this thinking; Whereas, it’s inappropriate to shirk your responsibilities in lieu of your colleagues requests, you do owe that colleague your gratitude, respect and the willingness to help. When you express and feel gratitude, as opposed to guilt, your amygdala actually simmers down, and you are rewarded with a hit of oxytocin. Once you’ve taken that breath of gratitude, assess how you’ll respond to your colleague. Instead of saying “Yes” out of guilt, get some guidance from them. “When do you need this?” Recognize that the guilt is truly in your mind, and at times, what feels monumentally important to you is not urgent or crucial to them.

You Are Not A Machine

Everyday emotions of the job are a challenge to handle, and life becomes cyclical— where we all have good days followed by bad days, and productive streaks followed by burnout. While you want to show up 100% focused, life just gets in the way. You’re worried about your kids, you’re recovering from a cold, and you had a fight with your best friend. Compartmentalize all you like— you can’t fully closet your emotions. It’s times like these that you need to come clean to yourself about the realities you face and the boundaries you must set, acknowledging that you are not a machine. Once again, a re-lease of this thinking is accepting that you’re not perfect, but perfectly human. Uncover the reasons for your guilt (some of which might be truly guilt-worthy), and declare them to yourself:

“I was lazy.”
“I was near-sighted.”
“I was rushed.”
“I was distracted.”
“I thought it best at the time.”
“I didn’t realize the long-term effects.”
“I was weak/felt threatened/coerced.”
“I was unrealistic with expectations on myself and others.”

Don’t Forget Regret

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

How often have you looked back in regret on something you did (or didn’t do) at work? Since we make 35,000 decisions each day, we will clearly have some regrets before bedtime. But for some of us, there are far too many regrets, as we forget to appropriately distinguish between big-picture items and small-time occurrences. As with discerning M.C. Escher’s optical illusions, it’s all a matter of perspective. We can better manage regret going forward by employing such perspective and making intentional choices. This describes the purity of the Growth Mindset.

For instance, at a decision-making juncture in my past, I was doing my best, not knowing another way. In a later phase, deep shame, desperation and feelings of failure set in. I was regretting that I hadn’t taken more chances, and that I wasn’t brave or tougher or more resilient. But looking back, my past decisions, no matter how flimsy, have informed my cherished life of today. I can’t imagine being anyplace but where I am right now. Looking forward, I know that life is a lesson, and that the decisions that I make are the best I can do at the time, and are informing an even better future! As Brene Brown declares in her book Dare To Lead, “When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending. And when we don’t own our stories of failure, setbacks, and hurt– they own us.”

In my follow-up article, it will be time to look at Shame and Embarrassment from a similarly insightful perspective.

If you enjoy what you’re reading and are considering living life more fully, schedule a complimentary consultative session with DRIVEN HERE.