Guilt and Mistakes

The basic freedom we have in life is the freedom to make mistakes.  If we can’t make (reasonable) mistakes and learn from them, what freedom do we really have?

“The first time it is an accident, the second time it is a decision.”

My girlfriend likes to say: “The first time it is an accident, the second time it is a decision.”

My daughter is 8.  She is starting to develop the ability to be guilty about something, and expresses anxieties about the world like never before.  I assume this is a normal part of the growing up.  She has a powerful creative imagination and it can develop some pretty powerful scary future scenarios.  She hears about a plane crash and imagines her family on that plane.  She hears about a boat sinking and imagines her family on that boat.  She does something that hurts her friend (accidentally) and now spends 15 minutes feeling guilty and wallowing in the sadness.

Slaves to Guilt?

The limit on our freedom in most western societies has nothing to do with rules or laws or police.  It has to do with guilt, and imagined potential guilt.  Animals have a freedom in that they don’t lay awake at night painfully reliving their mistakes of the day and reliving the crap in a self-destructive guilty wallowing.

The first time you try anything, you should not be able to feel guilty.  I am able to feel guilty about certain things when just imagining them… and then feeling guilty that I even imagined it.  This then puts me in a crappy mood and I give up all efforts to be a better version of myself.

Sometimes it would be good to fall sleep with the guiltless calm of a dog or a cat.  A deer watches another deer being caught by lions without dwelling on the idea: “it could be me.”

Accident or Benefit?

I wonder whether guilt and anxiety are evolutionary advantages or they are accidents that came with the enlarged frontal cortex?  Our ability to imagine the future and plan how we will meet challenges is no doubt a powerful survival advantage.  The agonising feelings of anxiety, of low self worth, of being “bad”, of guilt – do they help?  Maybe they help us survive, but they do not help us thrive.

With my daughter, I don’t try to tell her to not feel the anxiety or the guilt.  What she feels is real.  I loved a conversation she had with a wise 11 year old.  My daughter asked “what is the worst thing that has ever happened to you?”  The older girl replied “I don’t find that a good thing to think about…  I prefer to ask what is the best thing that has happened.”  The older girl has a great imagination but has learnt to direct her imagination towards the positive.  It doesn’t mean that she ignores reality, but it does mean that she doesn’t wallow in the negative feelings of what could go wrong.

Life can be scary and bad things do happen.  We cannot pretend that this is not the case.

We can cultivate the belief that we are resourceful and when we face challenges we will do the best that we can do – but we don’t have to spend our hours, days and years preparing for every horrific potential scenario.

Are you a parent who has seen a child face anxieties and feelings of guilt?  How have you helped them deal with these uncomfortable feelings?


6 responses to “Guilt and Mistakes”

  1. Bhawana Upadhyay Avatar
    Bhawana Upadhyay

    Lovely! Thanks. Bhawana

  2. Two nights ago, I spent some “quality” time talking with my daughter Kristen, who is now 19. She is home from University. We talked about how she used to worry when my husband John and I would go out on an “evening date”. She still remembers how she used to worry as far back as when she was in grade 1, so that would be 4 years of age for her. When she was a few years older, she would call us on our cell phone making sure we were OK. Before we left, she always wanted the address and contact details written down on a piece of paper. She told me just the other night, that every so often, she imagined her parents in car accident and that she was trying to come to terms that one day, her parents could die. It was a big struggle for her. As for my older daughter Alexandra (older by 2 years), not one drop of worry ever came out of her – she was, and still is, as tough as nails. When John and I would head out, Alexandra would say; “OK, have fun!”. Thinking about this, I do think that some people are born with a personality that worries more than others. I also think that we can control the amount of worrying that we do – we can decrease or augment it. To cap this, I tend to lean more towards the first hypothesis, that some people are born “worriers” and others less so. Those are my small observations on worrying – a topic worth talking (and not worrying) about! Cheers Conor! 🙂

  3. Half the time the ‘future’ is the cause of anxiety and guilt. We worry, panic, drive ourselves insane over something that has not, or may not, happen. You are correct in saying guilt does not help us thrive, in fact it puts us in a deep hole with signs saying “this way to depression”. Learning from a mistake then resigning the incident, not the lesson, to the recycle bin called ‘Past’, is the only way to escape it. I suffered guilt for years for my mother’s psychological problems, then I suffered guilt for not keeping in touch with her. We build up this guilt because we think it’s who we are, it’s our identity, our ‘life-story’. We need to concentrate on what we’re doing ‘now’, not what we did or are going to do. Anxiety and guilt can’t really take hold of us if we aren’t worry about past or future unless it’s practical.

    1. Thanks. I know the rational cause of guilt and anxiety, but it doesn’t mean that I can then choose to switch off my imagination of future losses… I guess we get good at what we practice – if I practice being present, I will spend more time being present… but it will take some years to undo 42 years of practice in worrying about the future! 😉

      1. Don’t think of it as practice, think of it as ‘living’. Practice is something for the ego, which loves guilt and goals.

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