As a child/adolescent psychologist, I work with a lot of moms. They often express feelings of guilt for their children’s challenges. I often respond by saying, “You have the rest of your life to feel guilty as a mother. Save some for later.”  This statement usually gets a laugh and often the guilt although not gone, is small enough for us to move forward in our conversation. It is often, however, not so easy. People get stuck. Even psychologically solid, reasonable parents can get stuck on guilt. Several years ago, I worked with a wonderful mom of a very young child who was showing signs of significant developmental challenges in multiple areas. She had professional experience working with children and was acutely aware that her son may have handicaps that would greatly change the future possibilities in his life.

Although there was no evidence that she had done anything to contribute to her son’s difficulties and further, it was yet unclear as to whether his difficulties would be short-lived or chronic, she felt guilty. She felt guilty and stuck. During one session I asked, “What do you think you are getting out of this guilt?” She looked at me understandably with a confused expression. I went on, “It may sound backward but sometimes people hang onto guilt because it gives them a sense of control in situations in which they feel totally out of control. We cannot have guilt without a sense of power, even if the power we feel is to harm.”

She was dubious but I had planted a seed. She came back a week or two later and basically told me that she had thought what I had said made no sense but upon careful reflection, it actually made sense. It was a turning point in her grief process.

Guilt is blame turned inward. It can also be turned outward. In Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film, The Sweet Hereafter, a town grieves for the loss of a busload of school children in an accident. Ian Holm plays an attorney who travels to the small town to file a class action law suit against the bus company. He has his own grief back story, which is his adult daughter’s drug addiction. Holm’s character tirelessly pursues blame. Someone must be responsible for the tragedy. That someone must pay. Things don’t just happen. They happen for a reason. He was going to find the reason at all costs. I won’t spoil the ending for you but let’s just say that letting go of blame and accepting the loss of control is a major theme of this film.

As for myself, I have had issues with letting go of anger. There is a release that comes with losing my temper and in the moment, it feels good. But because I am at heart a peacemaker and an empathetic person, I feel regret at having hurt other people, especially my husband. My anger is usually rooted in anxiety, anxiety that a problem can’t be controlled or solved. Anxiety that my house will never be an environment that I can control and make a sanctuary. Fears that my cancer will return. Fears for my family, especially my teenaged daughter. I have fears of not being a good enough psychologist when my patients are having particularly treatment-resistant struggles.

Most people would consider me to be a very disciplined person. One exception to this has been my life long struggle to eat healthfully and to exercise regularly. I love food. I am an excellent home cook and I love good restaurants. I love to eat a large amount of food. The act of eating is an amazing, highly enjoyable, sensory experience. It is also a wonderful social experience. And I know when I am overdoing it and often in my life, I just keep eating. And at these times, it seems too hard to put the time into preparing healthy meals. Quick and easy is convenient but not nutritious.  The rest of my health suffers and I just don’t feel as good during the non meal parts of the day. It also feels good sometimes, not to exercise. “Ah, I can just sit here and rest.” This is particularly true when I let my work and family life burden me. I work too many hours at work and at home, doing things and worrying about people. I am tired and I feel that I deserve to rest even though I know that I deserve the kind of treatment that promotes good health. But like many caretakers, I put my self-care low on the priority list even though I have counseled countless moms to avoid this. But putting my health at lower priority made my daily to-do list shorter. It made it seem like I was juggling fewer balls in the air. It was a false illusion.

In my 20’s, I gained and lost the same 20 pounds over and over. By my 30’s and 40’s, I have gained and lost the same 40 pounds twice. Right now, I have given up the convenience and the joy of eating to the point of indulgence for healthier foods. Yes, it is work to plan my meals, to make entrees ahead and freeze them in reasonably-sized portions. I take the time to make sure that I always have healthy vegetables on hand. I love vegetables and you know what, eating a large volume of vegetables is actually good for me. And I’ve gotten so that I look forward to my daily 3 mile walks. The key for me was realizing that I was self-employed and could therefore set my own hours! I am better at exercising in the morning and had been trying to add it to the end of long clinic days, which didn’t work at all. So, I just started seeing my first patients at 9:30 am instead of 8:30 am. What a rut I was in to not think of that solution years ago!

Letting go of these things has required patience, which does not come naturally. But I have grown and changed over the years. I have learned to manage my anxiety pretty well and with my mindfulness practice, I am learning to practice acceptance and further, that acceptance is not the same as doing nothing. It is not accepting that can spin me in circles, feeling like I am doing something but getting no where. Endless anxiety and anger can be a trap where you expend so much energy that it feels like you are doing something productive and your are not. And as a person who has been clinically depressed twice in my life, I can tell you that the helplessness and hopelessness of that passive state is one of the loneliest places in the world. I can’t tell you how thankful I am that I have not been near that place for over 10 years.

It can be hard to let go of anger, of grief, of impatience, or anxiety, of sadness, of guilt, at the point when I need to move on. Emotions are vital to our lives, even the “bad” ones. They motivate, protect, and educate us. But they do not always work in a healthy way with our thoughts and behaviors. I know that I will be working and reworking this balance for the rest of my life. I try not to think about how things “should” be in respect to things over which I have little control. I got breast cancer when other people with similar lifestyle and risk factors did not. I got it when people with more risk factors did not. Disease is part of the natural world and it doesn’t make sense to me to be mad at the universe. That just doesn’t work for me and the cost is too high.

We all have to make our own paths in life. In my life, I feel pretty unstuck right now but know that the cost of each day is a different set of gains and losses. Yes, I have lost the illusion of control but I have gained so much. I write this to reflect. I write this to remember the peace I have in my life at this moment.

I let go to gain freedom. I let go to go on.