To err is human. Indeed, living in this world can present us with situations in our lives which we feel as though we could have acted differently–an altercation with a friend, family member or colleague where words were exchanged which upon reflection afterwards, filled your being with the unsettling, culpable feeling we know as guilt.
Guilt, and negative emotions in general, can weigh on the mind to the point of affecting health of the body. In this world of stress and expensive medicine, maintaining command of your emotional mind is an important component in the maintenance of inner peace, and in turn, health.
It is something that we all experience, yet continue to bring upon ourselves over and over again. What are the origins of this feeling? And how do we keep guilt from consuming us to the point where we can’t live anymore?
“I hate you!” she said, pushing him back against the wall. “Get away from me! You’re so stupid!” A set of words and actions that emerged automatically the instant her blood boiled from hearing something that flew in the face of her normal expectations. There are only two emotions, love and fear, with all others being variations of the two, respectively. She was enveloped in the realm of fear, erupting forth from her reptilian brain.
When we react without conscious thought, that is the domain of the survival aspect of the brain–the reptilian brain, or R-complex. You can identify actions and feelings originating from the reptilian brain via their automatic, fear-ridden expression, followed by guilt and embarrassment due to the fact that you acted without thinking, and said and did things you now regret. When conscious thought is allowed to return, the guilt and remorse comes along with it. Think how many times we have said or had someone say to us “you really weren’t yourself. You were acting like a totally different person.” This is because the brain was under different command for a spell.
The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain, nestled at the top of the spinal cord in the center of the brain, with its function principally oriented for survival. In this capacity, it hasn’t the ability to think, and indeed it wouldn’t have such an ability, because it is a system that needs to act as fast as possible. Thus, there is no time for there to be any processing of conscious thoughts, simply knee-jerk reaction.
The Solution Goes Hand in Hand With the Problem
Acting in an unconscious manner in difficult scenarios seems unavoidable, but now that you know the source of the problem, the answer is hitched along with it. The best way to deal with guilt and remorse is to avoid it in the first place.
Here are three steps to take to prevent a reptilian brain-induced loss of control that leads to guilt after the fact:
And breath deep. The reaction, fight-or-flight system causes an arousal in the body, because you feel as though your well-being and/or your world view is under attack, or that you are about to lose something important to you, like a boyfriend or girlfriend, for example. The breath becomes shallow and quick. To counteract that, breathe deep and slow, which enacts the relaxation response in the body.
2. Observe your thoughts.
The reptilian brain doesn’t think, so when you think and try to understand what is really going on, it takes away control from the knee-jerk reaction section of the brain. This ability improves with practice, as with most anything else.
To err is human, to forgive divine. This step is more applicable after the fact. Forgiving not only is directed at other people who have done us wrong, but also directed at ourselves. Letting ourselves get taken away by emotion is something that is not easy to control. After an altercation in which you’ve done or said something regretful, realize that it was something that took you away for a moment, and work on moving away from dwelling in its wake.