33. Boundaries and Guilt: I am Trying to Set Boundaries, but I Feel Guilty – with Sumita Vasudeva

Boundaries and Guilt

Guilt is a normal emotion that can come up for us quite often. But it is important for us to realize that there is healthy AND unhealthy guilt. Healthy guilt can serve as a moral compass, reminding us of our values and guiding us toward ethical behavior. However, unhealthy or chronic guilt can be detrimental to our well-being, leading to self-blame or shame.

Today Mary will be exploring the emotion of guilt and how it impacts our ability to set boundaries with Sumita Vasudeva. They discuss how to recognize what is rational vs. irrational guilt and what to do when you notice guilt creeping in. Listen in to hear Sumita’s three basic steps that we can follow to help us not let guilt overwhelm us.

Learn more about Sumita Vasudeva HERE.

Main Episode Takeaways

  • When feeling guilt is healthy and when it is detrimental
  • Ground rules we can set for ourselves when guilt shows up
  • How guilt can lead to shame
  • How to differentiate between rational and irrational guilt

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33. Boundaries and Guilt: I am Trying to Set Boundaries, but I Feel Guilty – with Sumita Vasudeva

Mary: Let’s talk boundaries. I’m here today with Sumita and we are discussing the feeling of guilt. So oftentimes the women that I work with, they say, I want to set boundaries, or I have tried to set boundaries, but I feel guilty. And Sumita and I were visiting earlier this month, and we were discussing this feeling of guilt and so I invited her to come talk on the podcast with me. So welcome to the podcast. Thank you for being here. 

Sumita: Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m really interested in exploring the emotion of guilt and how it impacts our ability to set boundaries and succeed in that endeavor. So I also come from a similar background in that I’ll be speaking with my professional lens that’s equipped with Yoic philosophy and Ayurvedic psychology. So I currently have a online wellbeing platform where I help people live their best lives. And in my experience this issue of experiencing guilt while changing behavior has come up just as frequently as in yours. And so here I am to have a great conversation, hopefully with an outcome that can help maneuver our clients in, in a direction that will help them either relieve themselves of this feeling or at least evolve themselves out of it. 

Mary: Absolutely. So tell me a little bit about the feeling of guilt. 

Sumita: Yeah. So, you know, in my studies I have, as I mentioned, two resources one is the yoga philosophy, and we are all more familiar with you know, the physical aspects of yoga. But yoga also has philosophical dimension. And so I’ll allude to that a lot in my conversation here. The Ayurvedic psychology elements that come in are um, Ayurveda, that word that I’m using the, a objective is Ayurvedic and this word is really a description of Indian complimentary medicine, which is what I practice. So the psychology lends to us an idea of, you know, how to resolve disease and mental emotions are also considered a form of an imbalance. So it teaches us how to balance ourselves using food and other forms of nourishment using movement and using meditation.

So through these, you know, studies, I would propose that we are considering most of the times in an ordinary day, we are really dealing with two types of guilt. And one of them is the rational guilt that comes from you know, the values and the standards that we’ve set for ourselves. And sometimes when there is a shift from that value or sometimes we’ve not delivered to the extent of our standard we will experience a sense of guilt. That’s the rational guilt. That almost is a good thing to have because it’s giving us cue as to our behavior, you know, telling us what is good behavior, what is moral behavior. It’s a nice sort of guide to have. The irrational guilt can be quite toxic and chronic, and that’s the one that I think that we could explore a little bit more and see how to relieve ourselves from that, you know, ongoing feeling that sometimes we can’t even pinpoint what is it that I’m feeling guilty about, but I have the sense in my, like a sinking feeling in my stomach, or a low feeling in my heart, and I know I’m feeling guilty about something I’ve not done or I’ve not done correctly, but I don’t know, I can’t even pinpoint what it is. That sense of irrational guilt is one that we really need to address because it pulls us down, it depletes us, it doesn’t further us. So I’m hoping that through our conversation here, we can really examine the irrational feeling of guilt. 

Mary: Absolutely. So first let’s just touch briefly on the rational side of guilt. So when we make a mistake, right? Everyone makes mistakes. It’s a normal part of our life and our growth. And I want to normalize for people that we make mistakes. I make mistakes, everyone I know makes mistakes. Part of being human is making mistake. And when we make a mistake, which might mean we have broken our own boundary. Right? I have a standard of values for myself that I expect myself to uphold, and if I make a mistake that isn’t in alignment with my values, then guilt could be a really healthy way for me to take a look at that and decide, is this something I want to continue doing? Is there amends or restitution that I’d like to make here? Is there something that I need to learn and be introspective about that and kind of overcoming that experience and moving forward in a positive way. 

Yeah, so that type of guilt, I actually agree with you. I think it does serve us sometimes to have some feelings of guilt. And I’m thinking about, I had a situation a couple of years ago personally where, one of my values is honesty, integrity, 100%, I want to be honest. And there was a situation where I knew some information that I chose to withhold. And I didn’t tell a lie, but I withheld information really because I wanted to protect someone else’s feelings. I wanted, I wanted to protect another person that I loved. And what ended up happening was my choice to withhold that information actually led to someone experiencing more pain. And I felt guilt. Yeah. I felt guilty. I experienced the emotion of guilt and I think that really what guilt is is the emotion that we feel when we think we have made a mistake. And when I withheld that information, it was almost like I thought I had told a lie of omission and really had to check in with myself about my values. And I share this, you know, not by way of confession, but I imagine that most of us can relate to something similar. Most of us can relate to a decision that we made that wasn’t in alignment with our values, but I didn’t really think it through cuz I was kind of on the spot and I didn’t wanna make things worse but then I ended up making things worse and experiencing the feeling of guilt after that.

Sumita: Yeah, yeah. No, I hear you. And it’s a great example because it actually has three layers that I think would be useful for all of us who’ve been through that rational guilt. So the first layer would be that, you know, even before we begin to self-examine and think through the details of everything that happened, just coming from a place, and this should be a ground rule that if we can establish one, you know, just the ground rule, that we are all coming from a good place. Mm-hmm. And I think once we accept that then our response to ourselves in a situation like you just described would come from a place of kindness and we’ll just be much more forgiving of ourselves, knowing that it was an honest mistake, you know? So I think that’s sort of the premise to understanding how to work ourselves around these emotions of guilt, especially when it’s rational.

So, you know, we, we know that we made a mistake and if we come at it from that place of love and kindness, we are more likely to come out of this without more damage than is necessary. Right. You know, because sometimes guilt can be a little bit misplaced and can carry us through and cause I, I was mentioning this to you earlier, it can actually create grooves or patterns of thinking in our mind, and we can become so guilt ridden from one incident to another that this series of rational guilt experiences can eventually lead us into that other behavior of having the toxic and the more you know, chronic guilt. So it starts, it starts with the simple guilt trips. So, so just a word of caution to all of us that let’s come from a place of kindness and love.

And then once we peeled off that layer, then the second layer that you described, which I think added a layer of complexity to your situation is that unfortunately for you, your decision to withhold the information actually didn’t result in an outcome that was beneficial. Now, what if the same strategy had played out in your favor? Would you have felt guilty? You know, so I think that keeping a perspective on the fact that regardless of the outcome, good or bad, if we are beginning to feel a sense of guilt, we have to examine it, detached to the outcome. So, yeah, regardless of how things shape up, if we went against our values or against our standards and it’s making us feel bad, that’s a great opportunity for self-correction and saying, yeah, that’s interesting. You know, I really value honesty and this one time I took it upon myself to withhold some information and look how it’s making me feel. It’s making me feel terrible regardless of the outcome. Of course in your case, compounded by the outcome because you were feeling worse because the outcome didn’t turn out the way you would’ve liked it to. So yeah, I think that’s a word of caution, that regardless if things turn out good or bad, rational guilt is a good time to examine and self-improve. You know, so it’s a great opportunity, really. And when we are coming from a place of self-love and kindness, then we will take it as an opportunity. We won’t take it as the end of the world. 

And then I said there was a third layer to this conversation around rational guilt, and that is we have to be in a place, even though the guilt is rational and it’s short-lived and it’s not such a drastic thing, we have to be in a place where we can actually rationalize it. So what I’m saying is that not all of us are so even keeled all the time. And even though at the end of this podcast, you know, a lot of us will say, okay, so the next time I experience guilt, all I need to do is to you know, things through, you know, how can I learn from it really is the takeaway. It doesn’t always work out so black and white in real life, and I’m just coming from a place of recognition that even though this is advice from us, that, you know, sit back, think through how to develop out of this, it may not happen so naturally. 

Mary: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. 

Sumita: You know, and, and that’s where I think it’s the role of a coach who’s helping you through this self boundary you know, setting limits to help us come out of this feeling like, can I do this on my own? So we are here to guide you. 

Mary: Absolutely. And one as a word of caution, one thing that I see sometimes that I have to be aware of myself when I am examining my decisions and my feelings around them is the slippery slope that I call shame. So sometimes healthy, rational guilt can slide down that slope. And spiral into shame, and my experience is that shame never motivates me to do good. Mm-hmm. That it’s just a dangerous pit that we get into. And Brene Brown teaches that guilt says I did something wrong. And shame says, I am something wrong. And so when we make a mistake and we experience guilt, and then we make it mean that we are therefore a bad person, the mistake that we made terrible, we catastrophize it. That we should or should not have done something differently. It just compounds the spiral that we’re in and it’s so hard to get out of that. It loses the opportunity for us to learn and grow. 

Sumita: Yeah, absolutely. Well said. Yeah, I think guilt and shame go hand in hand. It’s like this friendship that they have and yeah, it’s a good reminder.

Mary: Mm-hmm. All right, so let’s dive into this irrational guilt. I wanna talk more about that. So tell me more around your thoughts of when we feel guilty because someone else is feeling uncomfortable.

Sumita: Yep. Yep. So, you know, it’s also described as existential guilt, which is, it’s not within us originally. It doesn’t start within us. It starts within somebody else and we pick up on it. And it could be just a perception, it may not be real picking up on it. And that’s why it’s sort of irrational, because it’s a perception that we have, that we have either hurt somebody or we have let down someone. And even without anyone ever saying anything, it starts knawing at us. To the point that we have declared ourselves guilty even without cause. Sometimes the other person may not even be aware that we have feeling this way. And they’re carrying on with their life, totally oblivious to the fact that we are wallowing in this misery, thinking that we’ve let them down in some ways. So that’s the irrational aspect in a, where it’s really in our minds and it is a belief system that we’ve ascribed to. And now we need to examine it. And it’s a tough one because when it’s so entrenched in our mind, we are almost not recognizing it as irrational. We are convinced it’s rational. So it almost takes somebody else to point it, to help us see it. This can happen sometimes just as we, you know, go about life, we can not exactly lose our sense of judgment, but our judgment can get skewed. 

And there are many reasons as to why that might happen. And it typically happens to all of us, not all the time, but some of the time. And when we are in that, it really takes a kind friend or a coach to just say, Hey, listen, you are feeling so bad about something like this. But have you even thought about how the other person has, you know, construed your action or inaction? And most of the time when you do the verification, you realize it was all in vain. So that’s the good thing about irrational guilt. Sometimes it really truly is not there in real. 

There’s one other thing I would like to say about irrational guilt, and that is that you know, the example, I’m trying to figure an example that, that can speak to all of us because it it should be able to describe how we encounter it in our lives. So, you know, I think it’s best described when we think of it as a feeling that we have that sits at the bottom of our stomach or in our heart, but we can’t articulate why we are feeling it. So if someone says, what is it that you’re feeling? And you’ll be like, I have the sense of guilt, but I don’t know where it’s coming from. And that’s the irrational guilt. And typically there is a reason as to why we feel this way other than our perception of why we are feeling that way. But sometimes, you know, in childhood, sometimes it could be something as way back as when we were little, we may have truly had one of those rational guilt moments and not addressed it. So if we leave rational guilt and not learn from it, it builds and builds and creates this eventual sense of doom. Mm-hmm. And so that is why it is important to recognize rational guilt as an opportunity, learn from it, make amends. I love the idea that you actually said something like, it’s not a confession, but actually, you know, the act of confession could be a really good remedy to the rational guilt. So when you confess, you talk about it to friends, you ease it out of your system, you talk about it, you apologize. It’s over and done with. You move on. You change the behavior. But if you dwell on it, imagine by the time you know, you come around to our age, you’ve had enough experiences of rational guilt where you didn’t apologize, didn’t take action. Then it’s this feeling of doom and gloom, and then we start attributing it to things that are typically not real. So we start saying, you know, I have taken time out of my busy life. One of my values is hard work. And I’m going to compromise on that value, and I’m gonna set a boundary because I know that, you know, my value is leading me to some health issues. So I’m gonna make some compromises and I’m gonna set a boundary and go to bed at a certain hour but, boy, do I feel guilty because I have all this work that’s still undone and it’s really not right for me to be turning off the light and resting when my spouse or my children are still working hard. And so that’s the kind of irrational guilt that’s just built up. And our perception is that our children and our spouse are begrudging us taking time to rest, you know, from the end of a hard day. So I hope that’s an example that speaks to most of us. 

Mary: Yes, for sure. So when we feel irrational guilt what are some questions we can ask ourselves? Or when we feel guilty, what are some questions we can ask ourselves to help us determine if it is rational or irrational? 

Sumita: Yes. I think that’s the thing that I was trying to articulate is the feeling when it is unexplained, when we really don’t have a concrete idea that why we are feeling the way we are feeling. If we have a defined idea and we know for sure that we have messed up along our values or standards, then we are still in the realm of the rational guilt and we can make amends, we can become better or apologize, confess and relieve ourself out of that. It’s when we can’t explain what it is that’s making us feel that way, and, but we start speculating, we start saying stuff like, you know, I’m feeling guilty and I think it’s because I’ve recently stopped reading to my kids at night. And, you know, it’s, it’s a speculation. The kids haven’t said anything for all, you know, they’re really happy that they’re out of the, you know, the bedtime reading routine, whatever it is. Like a lot of times it is just built up guilt, that’s not verified as how I should put it. So when you are sure that it’s that kind of guilt where you can’t say, it’s all speculation as to why you’re feeling that way. No one else has said it, but you, yourself are assuming that that’s how the people are feeling about you. And that’s when you remind yourself before you even pose that question, just remind yourself that, Hey, I am divine. I am coming from a place of goodness, even if I have recently changed a behavior and now I’m guilty about it, I need to remind myself that this came from a place of kindness to myself. That’s why I changed my behavior. That’s why I set a boundary and let me continue down this path in this role of kindness to myself before I start, you know, beating myself or having done a kind gesture toward myself.

So that’s I think the reminder that one should pose for ourselves. And then the question, you know, is this a real guilt? Have my children or my spouse or my mother or my relative actually said something to me that’s making me feel like I came short, or is this my perception of years of accumulated guilt coming through? You know, I think that it’s important to examine that, and the fact that I’m mentioning that it’s irrational is because 80% of the time, by the time we’ve got to our age, that’s what we are dealing with. It’s just a pattern that has sunk in and that we’ve not resolved. So yeah, I think it’s worth examining, is this for real or is this a perception?

Mary: Right. So my favorite question when I’m taking a look, when I’m examining is, what’s the matter, love?

Sumita: Love it. I love it. 

Mary: And sometimes that’s followed by, you know, what’s on your heart right now? What are you thinking about? What’s bothering you? One time there was a day when one of my children came home from school and I, and I could tell that the child was experiencing some negative emotion. And I said, what’s the matter, love? And then I thought about it later that day in my journal and I said, wouldn’t it be beautiful if, if I could talk to myself that way? And so I try, I try to say, what’s the matter, love? 

Sumita: Yeah. No, I think that’s beautiful. Hmm. I think that that question in itself is a reminder when we speak to ourself like that, that hey, you know, be kind to yourself and rather than, what did I do right? You know? Mm-hmm. Because that, that question’s definitely going to get you down the path of, you know, I’ve done something wrong and now I need to figure out what it is. And yeah. I like, I love your question. 

Mary: Absolutely. So then when we’re trying to decipher between the feeling of guilt, being rational or irrational. Some of the questions that are coming to mind for me might be are my actions in alignment with my values? Or maybe is there something that I would like to self-correct?

Sumita: Yes. And both these questions are leading down the path of assuming that it’s irrational guilt. And so, you know, you are checking in and saying, Hey, did I do everything that was true to my own beliefs? And then if you have a feeling that you fell short, you’re like, okay, I’ve I’ve fallen short. It’s a mistake. We all make mistakes. How can I correct it? How can I feel relieved from this feeling? So we’ve gone down that path with those two questions. With the irrational guilt, the questions that come to my mind are more along, what is this feeling that I’m feeling? And, and then suddenly like, why am I feeling guilty? Where is this coming from? Why am I feeling guilty? And then recognizing that if there is no recent example of a concrete rational guilt that is contributing to this feeling, then in all likelihood we are just manifesting years of guilt catching up with us. That could also be a recent guilt. It could be that there was a rational guilt, you changed behavior, you felt guilty about doing it. But you never apologized and you never corrected, you never reexamined that maybe the value of the standard that you have is changing shape and form. And this is really key because we all transition out of our values at certain stages of our lives. You know, the value that I’m there for 24 hours for my kids cannot be kept up at some point you know, there comes a time where are like, oh, the kids are getting more independent. I can now you know, transition into a different way of spending my time. And so values also have to be reexamined. And it’s when we stick with the same value that may not hold true in a new time and place, we could be holding guilt for no reason again. You know, that’s again, the irrational guilt. So the question in the irrational guilt is, what is this that I’m feeling? And if you can trace it back through a value or a standard that is no longer serving you, then might be time to even reexamine that in itself. 

Mary: Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. So then what are some tips if we are experiencing irrational guilt, how do we process that, let it go? Yeah, let’s wrap up there. 

Sumita: Yeah, that’s a tough one though, because obviously if it’s irrational, it takes a lot of willpower to first admit and even become aware that that’s what you’re experiencing. So that takes a little bit of reaching out and support to a friend, a coach, and just be seeking out, you know, their counsel. And if you have the ability to create self-awareness around that emotion, then sitting in stillness, the first recourse to any sort of release of an emotion would be taking a deep and long breath. Taking a several deep and long breaths is even more beneficial. So I have a magic number that I propose, and it’s the number six. And yes, it just comes from having tried and tested, you know, how long it takes for the heartbeat to stop racing, for the pulse to stop racing. For us to just come back to a sense of calm and reexamine, okay, wait a minute, sense of doom and gloom. What’s going on? Let me start examining without saying what is it? What did I do now? Hey, now you know, you start getting into this sort of questioning mind before you go there. Okay. I’m feeling doom and gloom, I’m going to take a few deep and long breaths and see if some clarity comes to me, and in that breathing clarity comes after those six deep and long breaths, you move on to then saying, hopefully coming to that conclusion that, wait a minute, I’m experiencing something that I feel like I’ve held on for a while and let me reexamine where this is coming from. Is it, you know, going down that path of the question. So first, deep and long breath. 

Second would be making sure that you are well-nourished, because if there is a point in time that you’re going through this experience of doom and gloom, it can be very possible that you’ve neglected eating a good, hearty last meal. And, you know, sometimes missing a meal can bring on this awareness even faster, that, you know, why am I feeling like this? So making sure that you nourish yourself physically with warm meal, a hot meal, a soup, a stew, something that, you know, settles your tummy and comfort food, you know? So reach out for something nice, warm and nourishing that fulfills you. Once you have the food in your belly, you’ve done your little breathing. 

The third thing would be to sit in stillness. So need not all happen in one swift, you know, sequential way, but over a period of time, recognizing that when you do some deep breathing, when you eat hot, nourishing food, and when you sit in stillness, you begin to get much more clarity. And once clarity comes, the response or the answer of what to do with this feeling comes to you. There is no one else but your own body wisdom that will reveal that. And this is a way to get to that space, you know, to find the quietness in your mind, to get that response from within you. You will hear a voice that will likely guide you and say, just apologize, just confess, just move on. This is time to reexamine all the old patterns of guilt and emerge from them knowing that this is not furthering you. So that would be, you know, the course of simple things that you could do just at home.

And I do want to follow this up with one more idea. And this is coming from the fact that in Ayurveda, when we understand emotions, we actually dedicate certain spaces in our body where these emotions reside. And it so happens that guilt resides in our kidneys. The way it holds its toxicity is by not letting us release toxins that it would normally release through the filtration process. Kidney stones. So guilt will eventually manifest physically if you don’t ease it out mentally. I don’t wanna scare us into feeling like, okay, now what? Now I’m gonna get kidney stones. But just that, you know, you can track some of your physical illnesses to mental states of being, and that’s why it’s so key to address it, you know, when it surfaces, don’t neglect it. Give it, its due. and you know, it shouldn’t come to the fact that we all land up with kidney stones, but you know, the prevention lies in recognizing that guilt can manifest physically. And we don’t wanna let it do that. We are going to make sure that we take care of it in the mental relm. 

Mary: Awesome. One additional tip I’d like to leave listeners with is sometimes I think our irrational guilt is fed by a thought or a way of thinking that we just want the people around us to be happy. We don’t want them to experience any negative emotion and that if the people around us are experiencing negative emotion, then we must have done something wrong to make them feel bad and we feel bad about making them feel bad. And that there is oftentimes some people pleasing ideology that lends itself to this irrational guilt that I would love to just offer a tip that sometimes the people around us are going to experience negative emotion, and that’s part of them being a human, having a human experience. That’s doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve done anything wrong or that we need to correct anything or that we need to feel bad about it. Sometimes it’s just a part of their human experience and their journey. I don’t know anyone who’s never felt disappointed. I don’t know anyone who’s never felt angry. I dunno anyone who’s never felt sadness or grief and that it’s not my responsibility to rescue them from being a human experiencing negative emotion and sometimes it’s a little easier to let go of that irrational guilt when we understand that it’s okay for people around me to experience negative emotion and I don’t need to feel bad about it.

Sumita: Yep. Detachment from others’ experiences is not easy. And I’m so glad you are mentioning this as a course of action because we do need to all work on that detaching ourselves from, you know, the experience with others and trying to control everyone else’s emotions. Tough enough to control our own, but but yeah. Great reminder.

Mary: Yes. All right. Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate this discussion. If people wanted to reach out to you, how would they be able to best find you? 

Sumita: Yeah. So my online platform www.omniwellness.org. We welcome members who wanna engage in community of wellbeing, and I hope that Mary, you will join in our conversations there so that we continue to work together in shaping minds and hearts. So, Especially through the subject matter that you deal with. 

Mary: Absolutely. I would love to. All right. Thank you so much, and listeners, you start to feel guilty I hope you go back and listen to this. Talk soon. Bye.