As a recovering people pleasing perfectionist who is well-acquainted with the self-lacerations of guilt, I know well its sting and how it can leave us second guessing ourselves for hours or maybe even days.
Why is it that we so often feel guilty when standing up for ourselves?
What is guilt?
Guilt is the feeling that we’ve done something wrong. This may be something criminally or morally wrong, but sometimes we feel guilt from more innocent things, like telling someone no, eating chocolate when we’re trying to detox, or even enjoying luxuries that other people may not have access to.
Psychologists are divided on guilt. Some say it’s healthy and others say it’s a wasted emotion.
The difference between the two stances seems to boil down to guilt’s cause. Of course if we commit an immoral act and feel guilty, then guilt is actually a good thing. It means you have compassion for others and realize that you did something wrong.
But the other type of guilt is not useful and can indicate that you’re not fully in touch with your truth. Today, we’ll focus on this second type of guilt, the kind that creeps up when you honor your boundaries and individual code of conduct. This type of guilt is intertwined with self-love, self-esteem and the need to please others.
People pleasing: Proceed at your own risk
When we feel the need to please others, we often sacrifice our own wellbeing in order to prioritize the wellbeing of others. That may involve us breaking our own ground rules or doing something that doesn’t feel authentic.
For many of us, it takes a lot of work to stay in our truth, to stay centered. Nobody is fully sure of themselves, and we’re all making life up as we go along. And so we create our own guidelines for living — maybe that’s ground rules, like not taking phone calls or answering emails after 8 p.m., for example.
But then let’s say a co-worker or boss grows angry because you didn’t answer an email that went out at 9 p.m. So you feel guilty for not answering the email.
Here, we have two conflicting values. No. 1 is the value of caring for yourself, making sure you get enough sleep and time with your family, and No. 2 is the desire to succeed at your job and make your boss (or client) happy.
So we have our established value system, but then that value system gets called into question, and we’re not sure if we’re doing the right thing. Because none of us is sure; we all all make it up as we go along. You start to wonder whether your ground rules are flawed.
When we live our authentic selves, sometimes we do things that upset others. And it’s not that the things we do are immoral, it’s just that others get upset because we put ourselves first, and then we feel guilty because we feel responsible for making everyone else happy. Or, we believe we must always prioritize our job, in this scenario, in order to succeed.
We forget there’s a middle ground. Did the world end because we didn’t answer the email? Or did the world end because our spouse got upset with us because we put ourselves first on a particular issue? So in this way, guilt is very closely tied to people pleasing, and we need to learn to allow others to be upset.
Because when we create boundaries, we inevitably make some people unhappy. But they need to learn to deal with it, and we need to learn that if others value us, then they value our boundaries. And if someone isn’t willing to honor that, then it’s sometimes best to move on.
Ultimately, the more grounded we are in our truth, the less we look to others for validation. We know our boundaries are legitimate because they feel right in our hearts.
Here are a few ways to get firmer in your heart.
1. Harness anger
Notice how angry you feel at yourself when you lose out on sleep because you answered an email too late. Or when you say yes to another commitment that you didn’t have time for. Or when you feel sick because you violated your own personal system of ethics. Notice that anger or whatever emotion arises, really feeling it.
And then the next time you honor your boundaries and feel guilty, use the memory of that anger to dissolve any guilt. Realize that it’s better to honor yourself than violate yourself in the effort to make everybody happy.
2. Meditate or journal
Sit in silence and ask yourself, why do I feel guilty? Learn how to meditate here. You may also choose to journal. Ask the same question, and then begin to write whatever comes to mind.
Try to let go of conscious control and be open to whatever messages come through onto the paper. After a while, your pen may start to write things that surprise you.
This is called automatic writing, and many believe that this process, of writing until you release conscious control, allows us to connect to our higher truth or spiritual guides.
In meditation or while journaling, you may learn tidbits of information about the real reason you feel the need to people please or why you feel like someone else’s happiness is more important than honoring your own personal code of conduct.
When these messages come, they will likely give you goosebumps or you’ll just somehow feel a sense of “oh my God. That’s why.” And these moments of revelation, looking inside to find the deeper truth, are critically important for continued soul growth.
3. Eye gazing
A big piece of guilt and people pleasing are feelings of unworthiness. You feel like you have to be subservient to the needs of those around you, maybe because you feel like you don’t deserve the good things in your life. So another practice is to look in the mirror and tell yourself, “I love you.” Repeat that over and over for about three minutes.
Do this every day or however often you need to. Return to the practice whenever you need it.
4. Learn to feel uncomfortable
The thing about people pleasing is that it’s difficult to combat intellectually. It’s an emotional need, and so it’s difficult to think your way out of.
Even when we rationalize to ourselves about why we said no, we may still feel guilt. And so it’s a process of learning to live with the feeling of guilt while doing what we know is best for us. Over time, it gets easier. We become more firm in our truth, and see the positive results that come from setting boundaries.
When we violate our boundaries to please another, we violate ourselves. It’s a message from the conscious mind to the Self, saying Self, you don’t matter. You just need to put up and shut up and make people happy no matter what. That’s sad. Don’t treat yourself like that.
You learn to live with uncomfortable feelings by prioritizing your continued soul evolution over the need to make people happy. Once aware of this pattern, you can choose to feel the discomfort of change, knowing in your heart it’s the right thing to do. Value truth and spiritual growth more than feeling comfortable.
Eventually the people pleasing need goes away or diminishes, and you Know, capital K, in your heart, what actions honor your soul. When you honor your soul, you feed it. And the more you violate your soul, the more you lose touch with your inner truth. It doesn’t feel good.
It comes down to knowing that you are a beautifully deserving slice of the infinite. And the infinite that is streaming through you has needs. And your task is to honor those needs. It’s a form of self-care.
The other type of guilt
I’m not going into detail about when guilt informs you that you need to change behavior. That’s outside the scope of this article, and perhaps outside the scope of my soul work.
The task before us is to love ourselves. And even if we do something wrong, we still need to love ourselves because nobody is perfect. And if you build the love in your heart, then you will know how to treat people and how to treat yourself. It’s nearly impossible to hurt another person out of malice when your heart overflows with love.
So focus on building that love. Focus on building yourself up so you don’t feel bad if you honor your boundaries and self-code of conduct and someone else becomes upset. It’s not your job to make everybody happy. Your job is to be a good person. And to love. And to honor yourself. And sometimes when you honor yourself, other people grow upset. And that is their problem.
Love yourself enough to not take that problem on as your problem.
How do you handle guilt or people pleasing? Comment below.
Image by jintae kim via Flickr