A Coaching Power Tool By Juliana Landmann, Transition Coach, SWITZERLAND
Dealing With Guilt vs. Acceptance
As a career transition coach for mothers who took a family break, I have noticed guilt showing up as a problem that is making nearly every single client feel stuck. The reasons as to why they feel guilty vary; for stopping their careers, for not helping financially to the household, for not being enough time with their children, for being “just” a stay at home mother, for spending too much money, for blaming their family for not allowing them to follow their dreams, for feeling like they are not adding any value to their family… The list is endless.
Coaching gives these women the opportunity to first become aware of what they feel guilty about and then to be able to shift their perspective to a place of acceptance instead. With this new perspective they; live in the present moment, cultivate more self-compassion, embrace their past actions as the best choices they could have made in the given circumstances, and manage to move forward with their career and as a parent as they move to a world of possibilities of choices.
Differences Between Guilt vs. Acceptance
Throughout our lives, we have been told; how to behave, what is right and what is wrong, what we can or not say, and even how we should feel. Schools, teachers, family, friends, culture all of them shape us into who we are and how we perceive our actions. Some of us started already at a very early age to live by this set of “rules”, causing the brain to create a pattern and accept them as the very truth which means that for these people, anything else than that would simply be wrong or bad. During this process, we create our beliefs and carry them through our lives even if they don’t serve us any longer or aren’t even true. And without even knowing, we enter the world of guilt.
The dictionary has various entries to define guilt:
- the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating the law and involving a penalty.
- the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously.
- feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.
Feeling guilty, whether it is about something we did, said, or even simply felt, is something that we all do. Some of us daily even. Guilt is caused by knowing or thinking that we have done something wrong. It is a very uncomfortable feeling that keeps us stuck and out of reality.
It shows up in different ways for people, one of my clients described it as:
an emotional roller coaster, a sense of inadequacy that makes me start sweating, blushing, my heart beating fast, I have a pain in my chest that makes it difficult to swallow. It drains all my energy and all I can think of is to vanish. It is as if I am under a spell that paralyses me.
Guilt is that anger that we direct to ourselves for something that we did or did not do, said, or felt and a lot of times it is only imagined as we start judging ourselves against those set of rules that became ingrained in our belief system. Other people can make us feel guilty, but it is the guilt that we create for ourselves that is the most painful one and that causes us to feel miserable, unworthy, and powerless.
A part of me was hoping someone would wake up and hear, so I wouldn’t have to live with this lie anymore. But no one woke up and in the silence that followed, I understood the nature of my new curse: I was going to get away with it.-Khaled Hosseini
The writer Brené Brown explains in her book “The gifts of imperfection” how the feeling of guilt could be useful to us, given that guilt is a feeling that comes from an action or punctual behavior that we had and, behaviors can be worked on and changed. Different from the feeling of shame, which is more a feeling of being not good or having a bad character or personality that is simply much more difficult to be altered. It is the difference between “I did something bad” vs “I am bad”. Brené explains that when we apologize for something that we have done, when we make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator.
By becoming aware of how we talk to ourselves, of how these guilty thoughts might not even be true, and how we can transform our behavior right now, we can change the perspective of guilt into one of acceptance which allows us to accept ourselves in the present moment and move forward.
Acceptance, on the contrary to guilt, operates in the whelm of the present moment. It questions the past and makes it possible to reframe the current choices we have in the present, helping us replace old narratives that we tell ourselves with new ones which empower us and allow us to live in a world of possibilities.
According to the dictionary, acceptance in human psychology is a person’s assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it or protest it.
The Famous spiritual leader, Eckhart Tolle, beautifully defines acceptance as a “surrender to the Now” response to anything occurring in any moment of life. Tolle explains in his book “Stillness Speaks”, how we need to observe what is happening without telling a story about it, without confusing a story one tells for the facts of a situation. The facts don’t tell a story about the person or make a judgment about the situation. The facts are always neutral. When one observes what is happening there is an awareness brought in and then acceptance of the situation becomes an option that is available at any given moment. For Tolle, acceptance means allowing unwanted private experiences (thoughts, feelings, and urges) to come and go without struggling with them.
Acceptance is observation of life and suspension of judgement about whether what is happening is good or bad, right or wrong. –Ron Smotherman
In the world of acceptance, we become aware of the feelings of guilt, we allow ourselves to have those feeling but soon understand that they might not be based on facts, but rather on narratives and assumptions that we might be telling ourselves. It is when we understand and forgive ourselves for things that we originally assumed must be all our fault that we can practice self-compassion and live in the world of self-acceptance. This is when we can make a choice to cultivate more self-compassion, stop judging ourselves, let go of the guilt and embrace a perspective of acceptance of who we are, with all the imperfections that come with it.
Guilt vs. Acceptance Coach Therapy
As coaches, our job is to partner with our clients and help them move from a current limiting perspective of living in guilt that is causing them to feel stuck to another one of acceptance where they can move forward and flourish in their lives.
It is not our job to judge, to agree, or to soften their feeling of guilt. Our job is to hold their hand and invite them to view their world with a different pair of lenses. By asking powerful questions, we can help our clients become aware of their feelings of guilt and question themselves if the situation that caused them to have those feelings was true or if they are creating a story that was based on their assumptions and not on actual neutral facts.
By adopting an empathetic body language, facial, tone, verbal expression, and presence approach, we can as coaches immensely help our clients let go of the feelings of guilt when they are sharing their experiences, stories, and awareness. When we are present, listening, and questioning in an empathetic non-judgemental way, we help them shift their perspective into a deeper place of self-compassion and self-acceptance.
Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.- J.K. Rowling
In the case of my clients, women who took a career break to raise their families and now want to transition back to work, it is extremely important as a coach to remain judgment-free and allow them to understand these feelings of guilt and question themselves on the veracity of the story so that they can have more awareness of their previous assumptions and re-write their narratives.
You Are the Author of Your Own Story
We can help our clients shift from a perspective of guilt into one of acceptance by helping them cultivate self-compassion, become aware and let go of approval-seeking behaviors and learn how to forgive themselves for all the imperfections they have.
It is a deep work that requires the client to reconnect with themselves and to their feeling and question some of their limiting beliefs, judgmental and self-criticism behaviors that they might have carried from the past and that are not serving them any longer. And begin to tell themselves that given all of their negatively biased self-referencing beliefs, they’ve done the best they possibly could and, in this light, they can re-examine their feeling and shift it to a more empowering one.
Here are some powerful questions that can help clients shift from the perspective of guilt into acceptance:
- Are the facts of the situations that are causing you to feel guilty true?
- What assumptions are you making that you are not aware you are making that is giving you what you see?
- How is the feeling of guilt impacting your life?
- How would you feel when you are free from this feeling of guilt?
- What possibilities will open up for you when you are free from this feeling of guilt?
- What is another perspective that you could have about this situation that is causing you to feel guilty?
- What other feeling would you like to replace the feeling of guilt with?
We need to remember that we are all creative, resourceful, and whole and that there is no reason to believe that we can’t at any given moment transform our sense of who we are. We all have our weaknesses, imperfections, strengths, and talents and by accepting and taking pride in them we can start writing and telling the story of the life that we want to live in. Finally becoming the author of our own story.
Brown, Brené. Focus on guilt instead of shame.
Brown, Brené. TED 2012: Listening to shame.
Brown, Brené. The gifts of imperfection. Minneapolis, MN: Hazelden.
Hosseini, K., 2018. The Kite Runner. Bloomsbury Academic.
J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire, Bloomsbury Academic.
Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. 2011. The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance. How do you fully accept yourself when you don't know how?
Tolle, Eckhart. Practicing the Power of Now. Vancouver. Namaste Publishing.
Tolle, Eckhart. Teachings: Surrendering to the Present Moment.
Zander, R. and Zander, B. The Art of possibility. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin.