Guilt is the destroyer, more than fear.
Guilt and its bedmate, shame.
I’ve lived most of my life crippled by both.
These daily challenges are all abstractions. For me, abstract language is “coitus interruptus with the fleshy world.” It both frustrates me and tempts me into long, abstract expositions, which are usually dull. That’s why I respond to these topics with stories or anecdotes.
It was in the shopping mall at Canary Wharf, in 2009. I was out at lunchtime, just returning from a meal at Leon. As I walked up the slope towards the door of my office, I felt breathless, then a crushing pain in my chest, like a metal band had been put around my ribs. My walking slowed to a stagger. I could see people looking at me. I managed to step to one side and rest against the wall. And then, as my breathing returned to normal, thoughts raced through my head.
I was going to transition. My wife and daughter hated what I was and who I was becoming. Everything I was doing seemed to hurt them. But I had to. I’d worked through every scenario, including life apart from them. They all seemed unbearable.
Somewhere since then, I learnt that there is only so much I can bear, there is only so much I can do and there are, conversely, many things I can do. So here’s how I tackle guilt.
Guilt creeps up on you. An uneasy feeling, or a sudden wave, or a sharp pain. Sometimes it’s just frustration, of which more in a moment. Recognising it, looking it in the eye and saying, “Hold on while I think” is the first step.
This is where the Vulcan in me kicks in. I ask myself two questions:
What have I done? What did I do that caused something to be wrong or someone to suffer? This is where honesty is very useful. And a strong moral code. Even if it’s guilt about something I’ve not done, I move on to 2.
What can I do to make it better? Can I apologise? Is there anything practical I can do? Even if I’ve not done something wrong but just feel frustrated, if I can make the situation better, I’ll think of what I can do.
If I can apologise, I do it quickly, concisely and sincerely. If I can make amends, I offer to, and if the offer is taken up, I do it. If I’ve not done something wrong but can make the situation better, I do it.
I ask myself a third question: what can’t I do? I am only human. There are boundaries to my personal and professional life. I have to remain mentally and physically healthy. So I recognise what I cannot do: if I can influence others to do something, I will; otherwise, I move on.
A great way of avoiding unnecessary guilt is to live a good life. Try to do no harm. That, I believe, makes me the best teacher I can be.