Between a Rock and a Hard Place
When was the last time you really paid attention to the main motivation behind everything you do? The thoughts you have, the actions you take, the decisions you make?
Do you suspect that guilt might have something to do with it? Or perhaps that guilty feeling or sensation is so prevalent that it’s present all the time, just under the surface, and you don’t even notice or know it’s there anymore. You might be running on autopilot with guilt as a continuously renewable source of motivation, while glossing it over with positive feelings generated by higher inspiration.
If you resonate with this feeling of latent guilt, chances are you grew up in an environment where one or more authority figures instilled beliefs in you that made you feel bad about yourself, and consequently guilty about not doing enough, not being enough, not getting it right, not turning out the way you should have (according to their expectations), and so forth.
Now you’re caught between a rock and a hard place: On one hand, you may be highly self-critical and critical of others, having high expectations about life in general and people in particular. On the other hand, you feel that you have to do and be and give and achieve and help and fix and save to the point of exhaustion, as any less might cause you to feel guilty and ashamed. You have to do it all perfectly, too; after all, what will others think or say if you don’t get it right all the time?
Consequently, you also attract the kind of relationships that tend to fulfill your prophecy about yourself and life in general, to one degree or another. Catch 22.
Example: Really, Why Do I Rescue Cats?
Drawing from a personal example about being motivated by guilt: I unwittingly got involved with cat rescue when I decided to feed one hungry, skinny, stray black cat. After a few days my husband and I noticed he had a companion, a tuxedo cat that seemed to be hanging around with him. We thought they were both males. The tuxedo cat turned out to be a female who, one fine day, showed up with four kittens! We did our best to feed and care for them, but after she got pregnant again and had another litter in our backyard, which was followed by one of her older babies also having a litter, we realized we needed help to catch, spay/neuter and release them, and started working with local rescue organizations. After several adoptions and a few losses, we’re still taking care of 9 rescue cats, in addition to our three original animal companions.
Our colony of cats has become part of our lives and we have become part of theirs, for better or for worse. This has been an emotionally, physically and financially draining process for us, but it also gave us many rewards. There's no better feeling than finding good homes or caring for kitties that otherwise would have had a hard and possibly short life on the streets.
Although rescue work can be rewarding, I’ve also learned the hard way that it can become an all-consuming activity that tears down healthy boundaries and takes over our lives, especially if I allow my motivation to be taken over by guilt. Since I got involved in this work, I’ve realized that many of my decisions have been driven by guilt stemming from a time when I didn’t do as much as I could have for some of my former animal companions and other animals that crossed my path, due to ignorance or lack of awareness about their needs. Going deeper down the rabbit (or cat) hole, some of the guilt relates to the times in my life when I felt neglected or I didn’t see to my own needs.
What to Do If You’re Caught Inside The Guilt Spinning Wheel
Having had plenty of experience being caught in this loop myself, I’ve realized that sometimes it’s not about trying to fix or change it; it’s a matter of becoming more aware of the issue and simply asking yourself questions about your motivation, observing yourself and catching yourself in guilt-ridden action. Once you do, at that moment you can always make a different choice.
Even if the choice you make is still the same one, you can still choose to explore and focus on the more positive feelings behind why we’re making that choice, so that there’s less emphasis on the guilt. For instance, with the animal rescue example, I love animals and it makes me happy when I’m able to find good homes for stray cats, or care for them. The more emphasis you manage to give to positive feelings, the less emphasis is left over for the guilt. This process, along with the simple awareness that guilt is in the back burner, can give you a much better chance to make your choices and decisions for guilt-free reasons.
FINAL THOUGHT: Self-exploration about why we make certain choices and decisions is an opportunity to lessen the influence of guilt and discover what truly motivates us. Which aspects of your life are running on guilt?
© Gisele Marasca-Vargas; 10/26/21
Photo by Tolga Ulkan on Unsplash
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