This week I watched a documentary, Feelings of Invisibility, about a remarkable artist, Anne K. Abbot, who was born with severe Cerebral Palsy.
Anne’s yearning to express and be herself deeply moved me. At one point in the film, she speaks about ‘the guilt she feels over the lack of control she has over her disability’ and the ‘guilt she feels over the lack of control she has over her grief.’
This is when my eyes filled with tears. She put into words the story I’ve felt in my own body and the story I hear over and over from people who are healing from trauma, relational harm, and shame.
When we hear the truth of our lives being spoken aloud or mirrored back to us, we feel relief. As neuroscience educator Sarah Peyton reminds us, ‘there’s nothing more soothing to the brain than being understood.’
Movies, films, and listening to other people’s stories can help us see and know our own experience more clearly.
As we heal, it’s helpful to face the truth about the ways we feel guilty about our suffering. Underneath our relational difficulties, addictions, depression or anxiety, we often find a deep rooted, subtle form of guilt for ‘not being able to do or cope better.’
I hear the rumblings of this guilt when I sit with people.
In their words and gestures, they tell me how burdened they feel. They tell me how they feel guilty. They tell me how they ‘should be’ in better control over their illnesses, bodies, grief, addictions, depression, anxiety, and pain.
When we feel guilty, we feel responsible. And when we feel guilty and responsible for our suffering, we develop all sorts of coping strategies to manage this pain.
You may do as I’ve done, which is become hyper conscientious, overcompensate, and work really, really hard to heal. You may feel responsible for everything and everyone and become bossy or the one in charge. You may feel collapsed and hopeless.
You may feel like you have to put your best foot forward, be endlessly positive, and present a ‘healed’ or ‘cured’ self to the world.
You may feel like you have to hide how hard you’re working to regulate your nervous system or hide how hard you’re trying to be self compassionate and compensate for the difficulties in your life.
Guilt, shame, and hiding often dance together, leaving us feeling isolated and separate from the connection and warmth that would be so helpful to us.
What we all long for is to be seen and known, to be met exactly where we are. My beloved mentor, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, says what we all need is ‘an unconditional invitation to exist in another’s presence.’
For many of us, this idea may bring up tears of longing, sadness or frustration – we may have very few or no places in our lives where we feel such an invitation. A beloved pet, a favorite tree or your spiritual practices may be the only places where you feel this safe and held.
Our feelings of guilt point to a powerful question – what’s in our control and that we have the power to change? And what’s not in our control, and that needs mourning and self acceptance?
In the Growing Humankindness community, we’ve been exploring our relationship to frustration and this powerful question of what we can change.
There’s so much relief when we accept what can’t be changed. And we feel empowered when we move forward to change what we can.
We can soften our guilt and frustration by letting go of the images we hold of ourselves, of the ways we ‘think we should be doing better’ and instead, inviting in the person we are today.
(If you want to understand the neurobiology behind this, when we soften these images and move into self acceptance, we move our nervous systems out of fight or flight and into the parasympathetic nervous system of rest and ease.)
Whether it’s internally with ourselves or externally we others, we need places where we can let down, where we can drop our strategies and reveal the ways we’ve been working so hard, and where we can be met, exactly where we are.
We need places where we can lay down all that’s on our hearts. I love how therapist Bonnie Badenoch says this: ‘There’s no requirement to perform here.’
And we heal when we connect with others, and we feel, not in our heads, but in our bodies and in our bones: I’m not alone. My suffering isn’t just my suffering but our human suffering. Other people feel this too. I make sense.
When we eat to comfort ourselves, often what we’re doing and what we’re looking for is this understanding and holding: someone to mirror back to us, Yes! I get it. You make sense. I understand how you feel. But that’s a longer story and one I’ll write another day.
As I watched Anne’s story, I cried, because she awakened me to how much guilt I’ve carried about not being more in control over the long covid I’ve cared for these past 3 1/2 years. It was such a relief to cry these tears and to soften this guilt.
That is my wish for all of us: that our guilt can soften, and that, in our tears, we can let go of the ways we feel responsible for things we had no power to change … and so we can change the things we can.
And I hope that each one of us has one place where we can be met, human to human – where we don’t have to perform, hold everything together, look ‘healed’ or ‘awake,’ but can simply be, and be met in that being.