Guilt is a natural emotional response to acting in a way that’s wrong or harmful to others or oneself. Guilt is also experienced as a result of inaction or failure to fulfill one's responsibilities. It’s a healthy emotional response that helps individuals recognize their mistakes and take corrective action to repair any harm done.
When I was leaving the movement, I felt crushed by the weight of the guilt I carried. The thing about guilt is that it feels like an impenetrable wall that stops you from moving forward. It’s a shitty feeling, and it's hard to see past it. Guilt forces you to break your own walls and learn about parts of yourself that needed the wall(s) to begin with. But it’s also a good way to learn how you can move past the feeling(s) in healthy ways.
It can feel wild to think you’re “above social law” and “committing thought crimes,” but the truth is, you’re likely just acting and looking like a jerk.
Essentially, the reason we feel guilt is that, at our core, we’ve always been good people. You can’t teach someone to have a conscience if there was never one in the first place. Conscience is something that most humans are equipped with, and if the far-right is still the same as I remember, they teach you to repress thoughts and feelings; they claim people from outgroups will take advantage of them.
I will never forget those moments in my real life when I showed up to events and saw people I only spoke to on servers. At first, it felt like I was a part of something good and righteous, like a fellowship. Often, those moments melted into times of anxiety, where I’d dart my eyes from some so-called far-right friends that I only knew through a screen to the people they were loudly insulting with racial slurs. Sitting in a cafe or bar, knowing I wasn’t feeling nervous just because I was a part of one group of people insulting another, was a moment I couldn’t pass off and ignore. I felt wrong down to my core and wondered if the other customers knew who we were and what we were doing.
I lived in an echo chamber for so long, with the idea that I truly saw and experienced reality, but reality isn’t spent in chat servers and on occasional weekend retreats cosplaying bigotry, shit-talking, and ego-jousting. I saw everyone that wasn’t in my immediate social circle as an enemy, and even some people in my circle were sus. Fearmongering is a true story, and I took part in it. Do you?
I am better than I was before. I will be better than I am now. Even if/when I make another mistake.
When it comes to ourselves, practicing self-compassion and self-forgiveness can also be a powerful way to work through feelings of guilt. Self-compassion means treating ourselves with the same kindness, concern, and support that we would offer to a loved one who is struggling. Practicing self-compassion seems corny and embarrassing, but no one else is going to know exactly how to hype you up the way you can. If your best friend made a mistake, big or small, you'd let them know it's going to be ok and that they aren't expected to be perfect all the time. Why not extend that kindness to ourselves? Why don’t we model that for those around us?
Sometimes I ask myself why I allowed the movement to demand impossible perfection from me. When I really dug in and thought about it, I realized the person I did the most damage to was myself. Thus, I learned to accept forgiveness for myself, just as I asked it of others.
When it comes to re-framing guilt, there is a huge difference between beating yourself up over your past mistakes and taking accountability for it. I don’t recommend thinking less of yourself because of your past. When you start to feel that guilt, remember this and repeat it for yourself: "I am better than I was before. I will be better than I am now. Even if/when I make another mistake."
You don’t have to go at it alone. In reality, most people will be happy you left and will want to help and make sure you're ok. I was my own enemy for years, and you may be making the same choices, too. It isn’t too late to turn it around.