Have Some Mercy

I was talking with a friend yesterday and I said something that hurt her feelings. I didn’t mean to hurt her, I love her, but after I said it, I became filled with guilt. I apologized but I couldn’t stop beating myself up. It went on for hours and I felt like I was having a fist fight and I was losing. When I finally gave it up, I found a way to switched the guilt to remorse and I felt so much better.

There’s a big difference between remorse and guilt. If I say something unkind, being remorseful afterward can be productive. I don’t enjoy fighting with anyone but I’m a human being with triggers that get pushed from time to time. Being remorseful is about regretting that I went unconscious and became defensive without self-hatred. It allows me to experience the pain I caused someone else with compassion and mindfulness, and hopefully, I won’t repeat it. As I feel the feelings that my words or deeds caused, it feel connected to the other person, my heart opens, and I’m likely to do things differently the next time. It helps me leave myself alone so I can think clearly and find self-forgiveness.

Guilt is something altogether different. In most cases, it’s primarily driven by self-hatred, a violent reaction against myself about something I said or did. It causes my heart to shut down. When guilt arises, it’s easy to blame someone else because vicious self-blame is so hard to tolerate. It leaves no room for forgiveness and my mind goes into a perpetual loop, making myself wrong over and over again. It squashes my spirit and encourages me to feel depressed and angry.

Embracing remorse is a far better choice. Remorse allows me to see that I am fundamentally a good person who did something wrong. It’s a merciful feeling that allows me to have compassion and to understand what really happened and why. This is how I learn about myself so I can make healthier decisions in the future.

Guilt, on the other hand, convinces me that I’m a bad person and I never do anything right. I go over and over the mistake I made without a hint of self-love. I don’t really learn anything because I’m causing myself so much pain, I can’t see or think clearly. All I can do is feel the pain and I’m more likely to repeat the same negative behavior in the future.

I was in a death and dying workshop many years back, led by the late Stephen Levine and his wife, Ondrea. The AIDS epidemic was surging and a man raised his hand to speak. He was sick with the virus and his father was a preacher who blamed his son for his lifestyle. He said that getting sick was his punishment. “I feel guilty all the time,” he said.

Stephen looked at the young with kind eyes and said, “When are you going to have mercy on yourself?”

Let’s turn the “when” into “now.” Let’s have mercy on ourselves. Guilt fosters illness. It’s toxic and relentless. Remorse fosters healing. It’s clean and promotes clarity. They are polar opposites of each other and they are both available. Which do you choose?