It's Time to Graduate From Draining Guilt

By Holly Michelle Eckert

Have you ever found yourself playing mental tennis, trying to convince yourself that what you’ve done (or left undone) was justified or not? Do you ever avoid certain people because you get an icky feeling when you’re around them? Perhaps you’ve caught yourself digging in your heels defensively when a particular subject comes up?

If you had a magic microscope to see the underlying cause of these behaviors, you might very well find a dark, gloppy mass of guilt. Interacting with (or avoiding) guilt can lead to exhausting inner arguments, a dispiriting combination of self-righteousness and self-condemnation, and miserable relationships.

Fortunately, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) offers an empowering alternative in relating with our guilt. Through NVC-style mourning and forgiveness, we are able to explore what is underneath the guilt and find resolution, freedom and peace. I’ve written more on this subject in Graduating From Guilt, which is scheduled for publication by PuddleDancer Press this April.

Here’s an example from just a few minutes ago in my own life. As I sat down at the computer to write this article, my mind was blank. The room felt stuffy to me, and I also felt a bit tired. So I picked up a few dollars of my birthday money and strolled to my neighborhood coffee shop for a latte. As I was walking back, I heard a little voice in my head say, “You shouldn’t need that coffee to get creative. Can’t you stick to your budget, or your diet? What’s wrong with you?”

My initial response to this self-condemnation was to try to convince my inner critic not to worry. The counterargument protested, “Ease up! The drink has hardly any calories with nonfat milk. In fact, it is a good source of calcium! $3.25 of birthday money is not going to break the bank. My gosh, many writers get their ideas flowing by going outdoors, talking a walk or having a brief conversation — it’s perfectly reasonable.”

Presenting these justifications only inflamed my inner nag, which then prepared to step up the assault. Fortunately, before the next round of attack began, I realized what was happening and chose to enter the process of NVC mourning. Rather than defend my actions, I relaxed into empathy for that self-critical voice. I looked for the need that was not getting met by purchasing the drink and tried to imagine what that voice really valued.

Within that framework, I found that the critical voice needed reliability, health, accountability and trust. As I sank into those needs, I also invited the uncomfortable feelings that arise when these needs are not met — anxiousness, fear and irritability. I then sat for a moment with those feelings.

After a minute or so, I could sense the tension easing. At that point, I knew that it would be safe and productive to express my counterarguments — not in a defensive, justifying tone, but through the framework of the positive motivation — what was I trying to accomplish by getting the coffee? What needs could I have been attempting to meet?

The first need that sprang to mind was creativity. I needed to stimulate my creativity, and fast; I was under a tight deadline and had a lengthy list of time-sensitive projects. That brought me to needs for efficiency and productivity. Ten minutes and $3.25 were certainly bargains considering I might have otherwise sat blankly in front of my computer for an hour!

I was also thinking of needs for health and accountability with my diet by ordering nonfat milk in my drink, and, much to my delight, the little chat with my friendly barista, Molly, gave me the opening line of this article. I realized that our connection gave me inspiration and playfulness. I then checked in again with my feelings and was pleased to find myself sitting in contentment, appreciative of the choice I’d made.

I smiled at the computer screen and the half-empty travel mug in front of me. I’d Graduated From Guilt.

Connecting with the needs important to both sides of my inner argument allowed them to reconcile. By first addressing the needs that were not met by what actually happened (the mourning step), the pathway was swept clean for the positive motivations to be recognized (the forgiveness step).

These two steps are the heart of the Graduating From Guilt process, which is covered in detail in my book of the same name from PuddleDancer Press. The full process consists of six steps to help you travel securely and effectively from start to finish. The short book is full of examples and stories to inspire your own transformative process and thus reclaim your aliveness.

Holly Michelle Eckert is the author of Graduating From Guilt, as well as a certified trainer with the global Center for Nonviolent Communication and the Nonviolent Communication Skills Online. Since 2001, she has worked with thousands of participants in her Radiant Relationships seminar series, led women’s retreats, facilitated organizational mediations and provided communication coaching for families and individuals. In 2008, Holly founded the Nonviolent Communication Training Center of North Seattle.