Feelings of guilt aren’t always the result of a great injustice – sometimes it’s small but hurtful memories that cause the most pain.
BY MURRAY LA VITA for YOU Pulse magazine
It's the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and I’m sitting on the patio of an old beach house built from smooth, round stones by my friend Cornel’s dad.
My three female companions and I gaze at the glittering bay stretched out before us. Two dogs are playing on the sand, chasing each other into the shallows, tongues hanging out as if they’re laughing.
They look completely carefree.
Non, je ne regrette rien
Edith Piaf ’s voice echoes from inside: ‘‘Non, je ne regrette rien . . .’’. Perhaps it’s the song that prompts Cornel to say: ‘‘I miss my mom. And I feel guilty". And so begins a long and intense conversation.
‘‘When I was in primary school I came home one afternoon and found her bent over the stove. Suddenly the memory is so clear. She was wearing her hair in a bun, a wooden comb keeping it up.’’
And then Cornel, born long after her siblings, began shouting at her mother, who was in late middle age. ‘‘I yelled at her that that wasn’t the way you made samosas,’’ she says. “But it wasn’t about the food. I was angry because I thought she’d been drinking again.
"She straightened up and looked at me in astonishment, probably even shock. She’d wanted the samosas to be a surprise for me because she knew I loved them, she said, then turned away. I remember this well – that she turned away. Because there was a big orange sun in the middle of the back of her kaftan. It was what had made her buy it. She loved that kaftan and always said whenever she wore it she felt radiant.’’
Cornel falls silent and looks away from us towards the horizon. Hundreds of white birds are swarming over the sea at the furthest point of the bay. I knew Cornel’s mother so I know how much she resembles her. Especially Cornel’s eyes – now filled with tears – look like her mom’s.
‘‘Guilt is like an account that just gets more and more overdrawn. Then one day you forgive yourself and settle it,’’ she says, wiping away the tears. I nod but I don’t ask if it’s something she has managed to do. One thing is clear: she can’t sing along with Piaf about having no regrets.
Janet, the artist, takes a sip of white wine and slowly puts down her glass. The way she turns to look at Cornel reveals she’s also about to share something. She grew up in a leafy part of Cape Town in the shadow of Devil’s Peak. One day (she was about seven or eight, she says) she took a coin from the round white porcelain holder on her mother’s dressing table.
‘‘I went to the café near our house and bought banana-flavoured Sunrise toffees with that coin, which looked like a rand to me. A day or so later my mom started looking for it. That’s when I found out what I thought was a rand was actually an extremely valuable coin she’d inherited from her grandmother.’’
‘‘What happened? Did you tell her?’’ I ask.
‘‘No,’’ Janet says. ‘‘To this day I haven’t told her I stole her heirloom.’’
It’s the first time she uses the word ‘‘stole”. Just now it was ‘‘took’’.
On the beach the dogs have begun barking at a fisherman. They won’t bite him but Cornel calls them anyway: ‘‘Venus! Crystal! Come here!’’
It’s her son’s birthday in two days’ time, Olivia says. She has warm, brown eyes. Last year when he turned seven his parents forgot his birthday.
‘‘We were visiting friends that afternoon when the woman said, ‘But isn’t it Caspar’s birthday today?’. My husband and I looked at each other in shock and then at Caspar. He burst into tears and said, ‘You forgot my birthday!’ ’’
Olivia and her husband told him how sorry they were and said they loved him a lot and were just terribly absent-minded. ‘‘No, you’re lazy!’’ he shouted at them. Olivia laughs as she tells the story. She doesn’t feel guilty any more.
‘‘There’s no point in feeling guilty. Those kinds of feelings are just dead weight. Dragging them around with you is like arm-wrestling yourself. I don’t do it any more.’’ That evening we make a bonfire on the beach.
‘‘Let’s each throw something in the fire,’’ Cornel suggests. She doesn’t need to say why – the conversation on the patio is still fresh in our minds.
She builds an effigy of wood that’s something between a stick figure and a cross, shoves a plank in the sand and fastens the effigy to it with a twig. We pile wood at its feet.
The wind is blowing and there are millions of stars overhead. The Southern Cross and Orion with his belt of three bright stars are visible in the clear country sky. We stand with our backs to the house where we sat and chatted earlier.
The burning figure becomes engulfed in flames, resembling a woman with outstretched arms. Behind her the sea is dark and still. It’s low tide.
Olivia takes her 2007 calendar and puts it in the fire. She laughs as the months curl up one by one and bits of the old year drift up into the air.
Cornel has something small and dark in her hand. A few minutes after she’s thrown it in the fire, a wonderful fragrance surrounds us. It was a piece of brandy-drenched fruitcake.
Earlier, after our conversation, Janet spent quite a while in her room on the mountain side of the house. She’d made a drawing, which she now shows us: a big blue coin with her profile on it.
I’m a bit disconcerted when the image she has made of herself goes up in flames in an instant. She notices and touches my hand. I take an old yellow cotton scarf from around my neck and hold it to the flames. As I do so I say goodbye to something I haven’t shared with them.
How to get rid of guilt
Guilt is an intense negative emotion which can make you feel depressed and poison your relationships with others. It’s possible to put it to rest for good, according to Dr Magdel Alberts, clinical psychologist.
Sometimes you do a terrible thing and the guilt nags at you until you put things right. Other times the guilt is about something that wasn’t even a mistake on your part. But whether there’s a real reason for it or not, the time has come to rid yourself of this destructive emotion. Here are a few guidelines to help you shake that guilty feeling.
Put your guilt into words
Explain to yourself, your therapist or someone you trust exactly why you feel guilty and how you experience this guilt every day. Guilt is usually about something we’re ashamed of so we’re inclined to keep it to ourselves. This can cause the feeling to grow and grow until it overwhelms us.
Telling someone about your big secret can make it easier to handle.
Ask why you're trapped by this guilt
Do you really feel guilty about something you said or did, or is someone manipulating you? Is this person someone who was good to you at one stage and therefore someone you’re ‘‘not allowed’’ to cross swords with? Is your guilt related to something in your past? Sometimes it’s necessary to delve into the cause of your guilt (on your own or with a professional). Doing so reveals patterns.
Analyse your guilt
It’s essential to understand that although our emotions may be real and true, they’re not necessarily based on logical, rational facts. In fact, irrational thoughts often lead to intensely negative emotions. Ask yourself these questions: Is what I think really true? Can others confirm my conclusions as rational?
For example, compare this rationalisation: ‘’I’m a bad daughter who’ll never please her mother!’’ with this one: ‘’I try to be good to my mom but we’re very different and so she’ll be disappointed with my decisions sometimes. I’m trying my best in my own way.’’ Sometimes we think: "That’s the worst thing I could have done!’’ But was it really so terrible? Or could it be that it was simply not ideal?
Let yourself off the hook
You can confront your guilt in various ways – but certainly not by ignoring it. This process of confrontation usually requires that you forgive yourself. It’s necessary to admit it’s human to make mistakes and that you don’t have to be the victim of your mistake forever.
Our society places a high value on punishment which is why we often (and wrongly) feel we have to punish ourselves in some way in order to be forgiven.
It can help to talk to the person you feel guilty towards so the relationship can be mended. If the situation is too threatening, you can use a facilitator to defuse the tension and guide the conversation.
We’re allowed to cry, talk and think about our guilt – but we’re also allowed to put down that emotional baggage and vow never to pick it up again.
[This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Winter 2008 edition of YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS. The current edition is on sale now.]