We were sitting in a dimly lit restaurant at a cosy table for two. At the end of the meal, I told my boyfriend that I wanted to end our relationship. For a few seconds, I saw in his eyes an intense sadness and vulnerability that I had never seen before, a kind of disbelief at the words he was hearing. Then, he retracted into his cocoon again. He accepted my decision and its consequences without a fight.
Initially, I too was in disbelief. Ending a relationship couldn't possibly be that easy. We had just completed a series of educational seminars, which was supposed to have been a period of time for us to reflect, plan new projects, and embrace our future together with energy and vitality. Yet from the very first session, I had known in my heart that it was the beginning of the end. Perhaps at a deeper level, we'd both understood that our desires and wants in life were not compatible.
At the beginning of our relationship, I terminated an unplanned pregnancy. I had been upfront about not wanting children and he agreed that having been together only a couple of months, it was too soon to make a lifelong commitment to raise a child. What he didn't say at the time, and admitted much later, was that he had actually wanted to be a father. He went along with my decision while feeling confused and unable to tell me the truth.
On my way home from the restaurant, I felt angry. He had said nothing about how he felt or what he thought, as usual. He hadn't even attempted to talk me out of it, or fought for me to stay, which in turn made me feel more righteous about my decision to end it. Very quickly, however, the guilt began to seep in.
During my 20s and early 30s, I had numerous relationships and dalliances, but this was the first time I had made the decision to end a relationship. When I remembered the agony and hurt of being dumped countless times before, for no apparent reason, I suddenly felt like a bitch for hurting a man who had always been kind and generous to me. And instead of feeling liberated and courageous, for finally having the confidence to set my own boundaries and express what was important to me, I felt only shame and guilt. Somehow, my ‘reasons’ didn't seem valid enough.
It is when we are most vulnerable that guilt rears its ugly head. Guilt is an ingrained and unconscious emotion, often triggered by a decision or experience from long ago that we blame ourselves for and have not yet resolved.
My mind immediately flipped to the narrative of my parents’ story, which was the primary example from which I learned about relationships. The fact that my father died so young effectively meant he abandoned my mother, and as most children subconsciously believe, I assumed that I was the cause of his departure. As an adult I learned to expect the same, attracting men who did not cherish me as special enough to hang around and who kept leaving, no matter what I did to try and make them happy. I reached the point of believing that I was not destined for a happy relationship until I realised the problem was not ‘out there’. It was in fact me who was disrespecting myself by clinging to situations that ‘recreated’ my feelings of the guilt and abandonment connected to my father. And as long as I was stuck in feeling bad, I could not face up to the anger and upset that festered inside me for most of my teenage years.
Once I began to be aware of the habitual patterns I manifested in my relationships, I understood that I could make different choices. For too many years, I had been confusing the distinction between ‘giving’ and ‘giving in’ to my partner, i.e. being a doormat and avoiding expressing dissatisfaction when I was unhappy. I imagined that being a supportive girlfriend meant doing whatever my boyfriend wanted. What I didn't see was that it was impossible for me to give genuinely and with integrity when it was at the expense of my own sense of values and standards.
The ideal that we should love ‘unconditionally’ sounds good, but it is not real, because we cannot take our own needs and wants out of the equation if we are to be true equals.
In hindsight, I have appreciated the many relationship turmoils I've experienced as lessons about what I did not want in my life (though I admit some lessons needed a few iterations!). And in spite of now being in a nurturing relationship with a man who gives me the space to be vulnerable and honest on my darkest days, sometimes it still takes excruciating, ‘inward looking’ work to get to grips with the guilt I've held since I was a child. Feeling guilty has been the default setting for a big portion of my life —my underlying fears about whether I deserved to be happy, not feeling guilty about my father's death, or the fact that my mother did not fall in love again— and, I have learned to be vigilant.
My teacher once told me that guilt is the most useless and unproductive emotion. Whether we intend to or not, making mistakes is part of being human, and instead of taking action to change, we hold onto the guilt and stay stuck in the habit of feeling bad. From an objective perspective, a guilty criminal serves their sentence in prison only once. How often and for how long do you feel bad for a wrong decision you've made at some point in your life?
To be free from guilt is as simple as letting go of the string of a balloon that then floats away into the atmosphere. The problem is that we are also scared of a future that we have not yet lived. We do not have any certainties nor the perfect strategy for avoiding more mistakes and well, that is the way life is. The past cannot be undone, and, our perception and memory of it can be altered when we accept that we made those choices and decisions with the best information we had within the context of that moment. Accept being human, learn and embody the lesson and then move on.
When we don't communicate and resolve our negative emotions (anger, frustration, aggression, shame and remorse being a few of them), the negative energy gets stored in our body, as tension, defensiveness, tightness, and in the longer term, sickness and disease. More importantly, we then do not allow ourselves to know who we are a deeper level, to reach the ‘heart of sadness’ that lies beneath the guilt, which is a place where we can feel true compassion for ourselves and for the human condition. To experience this heart of sadness is the thread of connection to every other human being on the planet, most of whom also hold guilt for a past event they blame themselves for.