Have you felt it?
The squirmy feeling when you’re about to speak up to point out a bad idea at work.
A cold sweat when you think about asking that difficult family member for more space.
That knot in your throat when you’re about to say no.
Heaviness in your chest when you’re about to announce a decision you've made.
All while you’re yelling in your head 'I'm not doing anything bad!' It’s infuriating and tiring to struggle so much to take steps you really want to take.
So what’s really going on in these moments of inner conflict?
You feel guilty speaking up or asserting yourself because you’re a good and honourable person who wants to be a force of good. And because you want to do well by others, you take these guilty feelings very seriously.
But without unpacking what’s really happening with our guilt, we stay stuck with how things are, and always sense that something’s missing.
As you consider changing something in your life, there are just a few responses. You can stay quiet, say yes, wait to change, or move ahead doing business as usual.
What’s really happening in that moment is that we realize we’re about to cross some sort of line with the people around us, and that is the true source of our guilt. This feels bad, so we commit to making this change later, when it might feel better.
But what if this line of thinking and acting is not quite accurate?
Guilt only exists in relationship to other people. When you do things differently, you’re signalling to other people that you’re becoming different. Which activates a very risky feeling that sounds something like
“If I change, I won’t belong anymore because I’ve left the safety of the center of the group.”
This threat of not belonging activates our fear of vulnerability. In turn, that vulnerability stirs up a range of real and imagined fears that sound like:
I’m going to lose the love and respect of my family and friends
My emotional and financial support will be taken away
All the shared bonds and history will disappear overnight
I like to use a visual to think about this. You know those levels for hanging pictures? They have a little cylinder of liquid with a bubble in it and painted lines in the center. You’re the little bubble, and the two lines in the center are the unspoken rules of the group you’re interacting with.
When the bubble is inside of those lines, you feel good.
When the bubble moves outside of those lines you feel guilty.
You are a bubble whether you’re inside those guidelines or not.
Guilt is NOT a moral compass. It’s a compass that points us towards our social agreements and tells us whether we’re inside or outside the circle of belonging.
What does that look like in real life? Here are a few examples:
Raised in a family where lying is acceptable, I don’t feel any remorse about being untruthful.
In a work culture that allows everyone to be late to work, I won't sweat much over doing it myself.
If my family is supportive of homosexuals I won't feel conflicted about coming out. But if my family shuns all but heterosexual relationships, I’ll feel guilty about admitting my orientation. My sexuality hasn't changed, but my awareness of what is or isn’t allowed in my family influences whether or not I’ll feel guilt about this.
When our behavior matches the people around us, we’re in the center of the 'rules.' We’re right in the middle of that bubble level, and just like the eye of the hurricane, it’s calm and quiet here.
Leaving these norms is when we bump into the edge of the hurricane and start to feel its power and pushback. That knot in our throat, that cold sweat right before we speak is there to warn us: do not cross this line by accident.
This is why leaving your old life might feel wrong, but it’s more accurate to say it’s risky.
Like a passport checkpoint at the airport, the security guards are not there to prevent you from travelling, but rather to make sure that all your papers are in order for the trip you want to make.
You have the power to make changes in your life, but guilt is there to let you know when you’re bumping up against your existing social agreements. This doesn’t mean you can’t cross those borders, but you don’t want to do it unintentionally.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when those guilty feelings arise:
Am I speaking up because I believe in what I am about to say?
Do I feel at peace with my efforts in this situation, so I can heal or move on in a different way?
Is the decision I've made an authentic one for me?
If you’re answering yes to questions like these, then the risk you’re taking is just part of answering your calling. It’s a natural part of your soul's journey of growth. With time, that guilt will liquefy into courage and resilience.
Sometimes people find it helpful to picture their social agreements as the walls of a house, and making changes in your life is simply cutting a hole in the wall to put in a new door where there was none before. Your soul wants you to build a sturdy door that will open and close properly, and make the house better.
Next time you feel your guilt come up, thank your soul for letting you know and giving you a heads up that you are in the presence of an important (often unspoken) agreement.
Perhaps it’s an intersection where a family rule collides against a workplace rule or a place where your own values clash with those of others. However it may be, it is a crossroads and you get the chance to be the pioneer who forges a new path, leaving the route others have taken before you. Don’t let guilt stop you from embarking on the adventure that’s calling to you.
Stay true to your soul. After all, every pioneer was a rule-breaker at some point .
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this perspective can help you follow your own soul calling. And as always, I’m sending much love to all of you!