Freedom from Guilt, Worry and Fear
Countless people are plagued by feelings of guilt, worry and fear as a result of certain relationships in their lives. It's time to break free of these negative feelings and live life on your terms.
By Lynell Ross, Certified Health and Wellness Coach
Imagine a world where you don’t have to feel afraid that someone is going to call and ruin your day. Imagine a world where you don’t have to feel frustrated, annoyed, or nervous because of anyone else’s behavior. I spent my whole life worried about others, feeling guilty and frustrated that I couldn’t help them, until I learned the secret to living a happy life.
I thought my purpose in life was to be a peace maker. I mistakenly thought that it was my job to bring harmony to every situation. I myself was searching for peace of mind. Peace was my highest priority, but I could never quite get there. I read hundreds of self-help books, have attended hundreds of workshops, been to therapy and a part of support groups.
As I went back to college to become a health and wellness coach, I also studied psychology and behavior change. There was a question haunting me in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t articulate it. I would sit in the front row of personal development workshops and classes wishing I could raise my hand and ask for help, but I didn’t know what was wrong or how to formulate a question.
I thought my problem was that I wanted to find out how to help other people who were suffering, that it was my job to fix or save my family members, friends and clients who were struggling. I heard that I was supposed to be happy in spite of the suffering of others, but I never felt that was quite right.
Worry is a Waste of Time
Spiritual teachers say we need to give others the dignity of walking their own path, to allow them to learn lessons on their own timeline, but that this is something that has been hard for me to accept. I felt that I was leaving them behind. I wasn’t the only one who was wrestling with this question. Others at workshops often ask: What do I do with my mother, my sister, my brother, my father, the people in my life who won’t help themselves?
The answer from the experts is always, let them figure it out. Be a good role model. I hated hearing that. I couldn’t stand for the people I cared about to feel alone, hurt, or frustrated, so I kept reading books and attending classes to learn how to help them. I worried about everyone.
Then slowly the pieces of the puzzle started to come together, so I could see the picture more clearly.
One of my most valuable mentors, a therapist told me that the angst I was feeling would go away when I could see person whose poor behavior or actions against me were giving me a gift, and to see that person as my sand paper angel. I bristled when she told me that, even though I knew she was right. I just didn’t want to see the benefit in a person I felt was torturing me.
When family members, friends or clients would not take care of themselves by drinking too much alcohol, abusing prescription drugs, over spending or over eating and ruining their health, their finances and their lives, I let it upset me and affect me deeply.
The piece of the puzzle my mentor was teaching me is to find the gift in the problem. Another way of saying this is to learn the lesson. When you learn the lesson, you can prevent the problem from happening again. This fact alone can take the sting out of any accident, loss or mistake. The question to ask is “What is it that I need to learn from this?”
Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free
My next coach was working with me on boundary setting. It took me nearly four years to understand what boundaries are, how to set them and that it was my job to uphold them. I started out not even knowing what boundaries are. Boundaries are the place where you end and others begin. I found that I was as guilty of crossing other people’s boundaries, as others were in crossing mine. Imagine the humiliation I felt when I finally understood that it was me allowing others to cross my boundaries.
That wasn’t even the hardest lesson I had to learn. The lightbulb came on when my coach said to me, “You have spent your whole life being quiet, not rocking the boat, being the peacekeeper, trying to fix change and save everyone.” “Yes”, I said, that is my job and I am proud of it. Then she explained to me that avoiding conflict not only creates more problems, it enables people to continue behaviors that hurt themselves and others. I hadn’t thought of my peace keeping as enabling, I truly thought of it as helping, but it wasn’t.
When I stayed quiet, or made excuses for people’s made behavior, I was keeping them from learning the lessons they needed to learn. I was too afraid to tell them the truth.
I stayed quiet until my health couldn’t take it anymore. After a lifetime of helping, fixing, solving or covering up others problems, I wound up in the cardiologist’s office thinking I was having a heart attack. Instead, it was a panic attack. My putting everyone else’s needs ahead of mine caused my heart to race and jump so erratically, that I couldn’t make it stop. I began losing weight at an unhealthy and rapid pace. After that, I asked for help. That is when I started putting the pieces of the puzzle of my life together more quickly, and I could see it all so clearly.
People need to live independent of each other. This doesn’t mean we don’t help others. It means that everyone has their own separate lives, their own feelings and gets to decide what is best for themselves. No matter how close the family member is, mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, grandparent or cousin-- no one has the right to tell another person how to live. A hard lesson to learn is that some people don’t want our help. We need to keep our judgments to ourselves.
The tricky part when someone comes to us for help, is deciding what our part is. My mentors, therapists and coaches had taught me not to do something for someone else that they are capable of doing for themselves. In other words, don’t clean up other’s messes for them. Let them feel the pain of making their own mistake so they can learn their lesson. I knew this, but wasn’t practicing it. I couldn’t stand to let others suffer, so I was always there to catch them or better yet, to try to prevent them from making another mistake. I was the one who wound up exhausted, suffering or cleaning up the mess.
Guilt is a wasted emotion. It is there to be a warning signal if we have done something wrong or have made a mistake. If we have, then we can acknowledge that wrong, take responsibility and do something to rectify the problem or make amends. However, much of the guilt people feel today is misplaced. Often, the guilt we feel is caused by someone else telling us we have hurt them or that we “should have done something differently.” If we believe them, without questioning the truth, then we are not only doing our self a disservice, we are hurting our self.
Relationships are complicated. People can have what therapists call, “unhelpful thinking patterns”, and they don’t know it. So, they blame others, judge them and attempt to make them feel guilty without taking responsibility for their own actions. Often, we feel guilty when other people aren’t handling their own life well, through no fault of our own.
I felt guilty when my loved ones were suffering. This kind of guilt is misplaced. I hadn’t done anything wrong, except to prevent them from feeling the consequences of their own behavior. I tried everything from pleading with them to change and reasoning with them, to listening to some of them complain incessantly. I tried everything except telling them the truth or letting them face their own consequences.
When people don’t face up to their behavior and refuse to change, they are not only hurting themselves, they are hurting everyone around them. We don’t usually tell the people who causing problems this because some of them are difficult people, and we walk on egg shells around them, trying not to set them off. This brings us back to why we don’t rock the boat, and why some of us work quietly behind the scenes to fix things.
It’s Time to Face Your Fears
With most people, conflict doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be an opportunity for greater understanding, personal growth and stronger connection. We lack the language and ability of how to communicate. When we can calmly express our needs, without blaming or shaming the other person, when we can be vulnerable and open, it opens a doorway for them to be honest with us as well.
The formula for better understanding and communication is to stay calm, understand your needs and explain them from an “I” point of view, without labeling or blaming the other person. Chances are, when you are kind, yet honest, the other person will feel safe enough to be honest with you.
The key here is to know who you are dealing with. Some people won’t be able to hear you no matter how kind, or truthful you are. They are not capable of having a discussion without feeling criticized. If someone yells at your, curses at you, blames you, or their anger gets out of control, then they are being verbally abusive, and you need to remove yourself from the situation.
You can’t reason with unreasonable people. So, know the difference. This was life changing for me.
It is not our job to fix, change or solve other people’s problems for them. It is not our job to make decisions for anyone else. All we can do is to have self-awareness, know our values and to decide if our interactions will help or hurt the other person.
The Dalai Lama says, if you can’t help another person, at least don’t hurt them. I used to think that meant I was always supposed to help them, when many times, I was hurting them instead of helping them.
Now when I am faced with someone else’s problem, I look at guilt, worry and fear in a new way. If I haven’t done anything purposely to hurt them, I know have nothing to feel guilty about. My worry won’t help them, but my faith in them will. Lastly, instead of choosing fear, I search my heart for the most loving thing I can do. I can hold a light for them until they see the light themselves.
The secret to a happy life is allowing yourself to be happy even when those around you aren’t, knowing they have the ability to change if they want to. I believe there is always hope. The Dalai Lama also says, “Your purpose in life is to be happy.”
It is time to stop worrying, feeling guilty and fearful and accept happiness for yourself. From a place of happiness, you set a good example for others.