It’s a five-letter word that everyone feels but no one likes to talk about. With just five letters, Guilt can quickly take ahold of you, manipulating your thoughts. Guilt is when we do something “bad.”
Guilt strikes us for a variety of reasons and in a spectrum of degrees. For example, you may feel guilty for buying that $98 pair of leggings from Lululemon, but that seems minimal compared to the guilt you feel for lying to you mother about why you aren’t coming to visit for her birthday this year. As a recovering anorexic, I can assure you that the guilt I feel over eating a cupcake is far worse than any lie that I’ve ever told my mother. Maybe you can relate to that, or maybe you can’t. Either way, we all feel guilty at some point in our lives.
As a sexual abuse survivor, the guilt that I feel on a daily basis can be so intense. I don’t know if this is what it is like for everyone with PTSD, but for me I’m not really sure what it’s like to not feel guilty. My marriage counselor regularly tells me to quit apologizing for everything. And when my flashbacks get in the way of my everyday routine, I feel incredibly guilty. I feel guilt about the things that happened to me, about my physiological responses to those things, about the fact that I didn’t tell anyone when it was happening, and about how I sometimes don’t have control over my PTSD symptoms.
For me, guilt inevitably leads to shame. Shame is when you are “bad.” And shame is what triggers the negative self-talk in my head that I fight on a daily basis. Shame is what I feel when I think about suicide or self-injury; it’s what happens in my head when I decide to stop eating for the day; shame is when I think that I must have deserved the abuse that I endured. Brené Brown is an author who writes a lot about guilt, shame, and vulnerability. My therapist (not my marriage counselor…yes, I have a lot of therapists – three to be exact) recommended I read her books prior to us beginning our trauma work. I would say her books The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly made me REALLY want to open up to someone about the abuse that I went through. Prior to reading those, I really didn’t understand the point of telling anyone. Turns out, it isn’t about fixing the past; it’s about letting go of the guilt and shame; it’s about being vulnerable with someone we trust so that they can validate our feelings, so we don’t have to be ashamed of who we are or what we’ve been through.
I still struggle with guilt and shame (obviously). Today in my restorative yoga class, we were in a restorative pigeon pose. This pose is a deep stretch for the muscles in the upper thighs and hips. The teacher said that we store guilt in these muscles and that the pose is intended to help us let go of that guilt. As I settled into the pose, I felt the very familiar uncomfortable stretch that comes with first starting out. My mind instantly paired my teacher’s use of the word “guilt” with my trauma experiences. I felt my body tense up more and my breathing become shallow. I could feel myself starting to slip into a flashback. I often wonder if my yoga teachers notice things like this because within a few seconds she directed us to focus on our breathing if our mind was wandering. So I did. I counted inhales and exhales (in for 5 counts, out for 7 counts – my personal favorite) and I focused on making sure I was using a three-part breath (belly, ribs, and collarbone expanding). It’s hard to think about guilt when you’re busy focusing on your breath. Which I guess is why yoga is so effective for me – it forces my mind to shut the fuck up 🙂
For more on how to get into restorative pigeon, click here.
Image from Matt Rainey – view here.