Recently, many of my clients have been bringing up the topic of guilt in sessions. Occasionally, the feelings of guilt they describe are appropriate; when we have done something to hurt ourselves or someone else, it is normal and healthy to feel guilt or regret. This guilt is what keeps us from repeating the same harmful behavior. However, most of the time I notice that the feelings of guilt my clients' experience are related to things beyond their control. For example, many of my clients feel guilty about their various experiences of privilege. When we feel guilty about something that we cannot control, we tend to get stuck.
The truth is that, compared to many people throughout history and throughout our world today, many of us are incredibly lucky, incredibly privileged. It is a sign of compassion and empathy if we can look at the economic disparity in the world, or at issues of social injustice, and say to ourselves, "this isn't fair." Guilt, however, is not an emotion that naturally leads to action; guilt tends to be paralyzing. If we freeze when confronted with our own privilege, nothing changes.
Instead of guilt, I want to challenge us to feel gratitude for the ways in which we are lucky. Let us thank our circumstances for allowing us to have the life that we do. Let us give thanks, but we cannot stop there; along with gratitude must come action. When we realize that we are privileged in some way, whether it is white privilege, socio-economic privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, etc., it's important to use this privilege to be a catalyst for change.
Working toward justice and equality can be done in a number of ways: we might volunteer our time, donate money, or show our support in some other manner. However we choose to give back, we need to make sure that we are doing it in a way that respects the dignity and expertise of the the people we are aiming to join with. The best way to do this is to listen. Listen to your minority friends, to minority leaders. Present your ally-ship to them, and be willing to assist in the ways they are asking you to assist. Guilt doesn't do anyone any good. Let us focus less on our guilt and more on our gratitude, allowing us to take action and help make change.
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