The Free Motion Quilting Project: Express Your Guilt

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Express Your Guilt

I've been toying around with this post in my head for awhile now. Sometimes I post ideas and thoughts immediately, and sometimes things need time to gestate before I can share them in a reasonably logical way without getting super confusing or jumbled. And yes, this might be a post that's a bit too much for you on this rainy Saturday afternoon, in which case I encourage you to go check out all the posts we've worked through this year right here.

I guess the best place to start is with Express Your Love and what I expected from this journey on January 1st, and where I find myself instead here more than 6 months later. Back in January, I was looking for a bridge that would finally unite my two passions: creating new designs and experimenting with new techniques.

I also wanted to make a quilt, or many quilts, on the theme of love. Expressing it, saying it, showing it, giving it away, and receiving it with an open heart. So often around that time I found myself feeling terrible, and I hadn't yet figured out what was behind my bad feelings.

All I knew is that I wasn't as nice and as I could be to the people I loved the most. That had to change.

Over the last 6 months we've worked on three different versions of this beautiful quilt. None of mine are near completion and that's okay. This is a process in more than making quilts, but also learning and experimenting with new techniques.

free motion quilting | Leah Day
Black wholecloth version - She still needs some hair!

free motion quilting | Leah Day
Spoonflower Printed Version - She still needs a lot of fillers!
free motion quilting | Leah Day
Pieced version - she still needs a face and body!
I was about midway through the black wholecloth version that I finally put my finger on one of the major causes for my frustration and bad feeling: guilt.

I'd never put much stock in guilt before. I'd certainly never recognized just how much it rules my life. When it came time to cut out the toxic people in my life, I did so without a single regret. I refuse to feel guilty for protecting myself and my family from those that would relish seeing us fail.

But somehow not feeling guilt over that made me assume I didn't feel guilt over anything at all. WRONG! It was this summer that finally woke me up to just how much I cringe over small day-to-day things.

Did I hug James when I came upstairs? No...GUILT! Did I play with him before lunch? No, I needed to get that quilt section finished...GUILT! Did I respond with support to Josh's stress over international shipping issues? Nope, I was in a hurry and I snapped for him to take care of it...GUILT!

Now that I feel it and see it for what it is, I literally feel like I'm drowning in it. I'm being pulled underwater and drowned in the river of my own guilt. A small guilty feeling over quilting in the morning makes me feel defensive and snappish by the afternoon. Soon every word out of my mouth is a snarl, and by that time everything I do and say compounds the guilt over and over.

Soon I find myself sitting with my eyes closed, trying hard not to yell the words: Get away from me! Go away so I won't hurt you! Can't you see I don't deserve you?! Can't you see I'm not good enough to have you?!

Journaling has helped so much to find this issue and weed it out. Writing two solid pages of my thoughts every morning has helped me at least recognize this guilt that causes me to act so badly. My theory has always been once you see it, see what the issue is clearly, then you can do something about it.

And I know exactly where this comes from - right from the very people I feel no guilt for cutting out of my life. My sisters were guilt masters. "You don't deserve that Leah. You were BAD." "You didn't work as hard as us. You need to finish this all by yourself because you're lazy."

My mother was equally good about flexing her guilt button. Josh actually laughed out loud when after a fight he offered to make me dinner and I responded with "I shouldn't be rewarded for bad behavior." That, along with, "It sounds to me like you're being selfish," had been a comment mom had made so often, it's like it's been stapled inside my brain.

It's times like these, when I see the thing I need to work on, but I feel so mired in the emotion I can't move, that's when I pick up my pencil and start designing.

free motion quilting | Leah Day
If you'd like to make a quilt out of the sketch above, feel free. I've posted the photo here even though this is by no means the finished quilt design, but a starting point to work from.
What I've found over the years is that emotions like these need work. I can't snap my fingers and make those memories, or the pain they still cause me, go away. I see it for what it is, and that is one step in the right direction, but now I need to know how to step through it.

I work on this by making a quilt on the subject. Yes, a quilt on the subject of guilt. As I work on it, I feel it, I process it, I ask questions about it. Eventually I find a way to step through it, and by the time the quilt is done, that huge, heavy emotion charged with the pain and abuse of my past will feel small and manageable once again.

Will it ever go away? No. I don't think so. But I can learn my way through it and how to quell the feeling before it takes over and turns me into a destructive monster too.

That is ultimately where the largest source of guilt comes from: I have destroyed my monsters, cut them out of my life and protected myself from their poison. But now I run the very real risk of becoming a monster myself.

Kindness is not optional. I hold myself to a very high standard because I've seen what happens when you stop caring. I've seen what happens first hand when you "have nothing left to give" which is what my mother said from the time I was 12 as her excuse for not caring what happened in her home.

There is so much truth to the saying "if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy" and while some women might take that as a license to act how they please, I see it as yet another mark of just how much responsibility comes to with the position of wife and mother.

Who is the most responsible for bringing peace and compassion and contentment into a home? Who is the member that can sew harmony or discord with a single comment? Who, whether she is a breadwinner or not, is ultimately the head of happiness of any household?

In the end, I know my thick, heavy, oil drenched feelings of guilt will have a very easy counterpart: kindness. It's not easy to tap into right now. It's not easy to wade my way through the waves of guilt I keep putting between myself and everyone else I love. But by the time I finish this quilt, I believe I'll have worked on this emotion enough to finally set it aside.

There has been a rawness to this post that you might have found unsettling. Please understand that I'm not a person who makes quilts just to cut out fabric and sew it back together. I work on them and they work on me, and in the end, I'm always a better person for sharing the experience.

Because even if this has made thousands of people uncomfortable to read, I'm writing it for the few people who struggle with guilt too, the few that might be helped to know that there is a choice between drowning in heavy emotion, or stitching your way out of it.

It's time to pick up a needle and take up this challenge. I refuse to let guilt ruin my life.

Let's go quilt,



  1. Thank you for this, Leah. I didn't share your experiences growing up, and my reasons for quilting are different. However, my mother did and reading your posts (especially ones like this) help me better understand and appreciate her struggle to escape those abusive and poisonous voices in her head. She has recently come to quilting and she seems to have finally found a creative outlet that will allow her to clear her mind and sift through her feelings. So thank you for being honest. Thank you for helping us deconstruct the shame cycle that surrounds abuse and mental health. You are incredible and I love all of your work!

  2. Thank you for your honesty. You are an amazing person and this "rawness" show how beautiful you are. I, too, have been on the same path as you this year. Although my emotion is resentment. Quilting is definitely cathartic!

  3. Leah, you have so much courage, I know you will work your way through this. My sense is that you have chosen the most powerful path, through creativity, to heal the deep wounds. Please be gentle with yourself in the process. You are enough.

  4. I sometimes feel eaten up with guilt and worry I have damaged my children I love them with all my heart.I am thinking over what you have said thank you for that with us. Could I ask a personal question do you still see you sisters and mother? I send you much love xxxxx

  5. Leah - you are a kind person. You do not have to try to be this, you ARE.
    You have a past. Not the best memories in it, but it is what helped you to be who you are today, and why you want what you want. Bless your past life and bless your future. (not I am not religious, but I do understand - I have a past too.....)

    You are taking your creativity, your 'escape' and doing wounderful things with it, for yourself (oh my? Is that selfish?? NO!!!! It is beautiful and wounderful and Fantastic!!! YES!!!) It keeps you happy, grounded, gives your emotions a place to go and grow and escape to! Creativity is in your blood, in your soul and you are also a teacher! You share your talents freely and honestly and you have touched many, many people with your skills, talent and kindness.
    A woman in my guild mentioned you when we were talking free-motion quiting one day, we live in Canada, and you are touching people here, my friends actually, so I know you are kind. And appreciated.

    So what you snapped. So what you barked one day and forgot to give a hug - so What???? What does that mean?? Your aren't wounder woman. Knew that already. Still like you. You are letting life get in the way? Happens, so does stubbing your toe. Mean things can come out of your mouth in both circumstances. Still like you. So does your family, only they still love you and there is nothing you can do about it. :)

    Sisters can be mean, I still have one living like she is still in our house in the 70's, still living her life 'that' way; she has not changed a bit and figures we haven't either so..... She is not in my life. That simple. Sorry, but I do not need THAT in my world - ever.

    And I am glad you are protecing yourself. Now, give yourself a break for being human, a woman with alot going on. And, as Mya Angaelo says, "When you know better, you do better." And she is right.
    You have just spoken of things you wish had not happened and why, so you are learing what you like and don't like and you also know why. Do not beat yourself up. Next time, give that hug, then run and get to it. Tell hubby you didn't realize the international thing was such a pain (or what ever it is - did he want to talk about it? Need my help, or can you handle this? Sometimes, all a person needs is to be heard and you are both in this together!! And you are doing fine.

    Leah, you are not alone. You are doing great and because you do not want to to re-peat your upbringing, you won't. AND when you hear your mothers voice speaking when you have said something - you will immediaty apologize and make it better. I know I have had to do that and I was shocked when it happened - but since that is not normally 'you', they will understand you did not mean it in quite that way!

    Now that you either deleted this or your coffee is cold, i will let you get back to your rainy Saturday. We are having the same weather, so lets go get creative together today!! ;)

  6. What a thought-provoking post, Leah, and thank you for opening your heart and pouring out your soul.
    I struggle with my Husband Wonderful and my unofficially adopted 24 year old son, to try to figure out the right mix of emotional options. Am I a nag? Or an enabler? Am I getting my own needs met? Women define their own roles today, but at 64, I'm still working on it, LOL!

  7. You are not alone in your feelings.

  8. I hear you loud and clear Leah. You insight is motivating. I too quilt out of guilt...errors I've made. So very hard to forgive ourselves. Now I'm grateful to enjoy the peace snd calms my tightly spun character. Most people are shocked that I could slow down long enough to quilt. Your FMQ allowed me to solely quilt an appliqued 20 block quilt to honor mom and dads 50th. . Dad has since passed. I no longer speak to my older brother...for 3 years now. I lost my job, moved in with my mom looking for a new job when she had a stroke. My oldest brother said I was taking advantage of my mom. I am her sole caregiver...she can not care for herself. She see's 7 specialists. It was difficult to decide that this toxic brother of mine was contaminating my life and my mothers care. My goal is to keep her heathy happy and alive long enough to enjoy her 8 yr old granddaughter and for my niece to remember her. I am blessed to have a younger brother who tells me often how much he appreciates me. I hope you too can get the cathartic process fro quilting that I now get. Thank you Leah for the many ways you have helped me both personally and creatively....stitch on, it will realign your spirit!!!

  9. Oh Leah - I'm sitting here thinking about all of the things I've learned abut guilt - The trick for me was keeping the "voices in my head" in check - My therapist and I worked on the "three c's" - CATCH IT (is that voice talking? sometimes it's so ingrained in us that we don't even realize it's talking) CHECK IT (is it telling lies? truths? causing positive or negative feelings? Is it true?) and finally, CHANGE IT... your thoughts should be your domain. Change them. Control them. Hard technique to learn, but it's literally saved my life - sitting around talking to myself and the voices of my past has made me a much stronger person.

    Another thing I've learned is what makes me feel less guilty is to be and feel less judgemental - the faster I can forgive or overlook an offense, the happier I am.

    For me, though, remembering that I am a Child of God who loves me is powerful stuff.....

    I hope you can find peace with your thoughts and continue practicing kindness. I am confident that you're on the right track!

    And I LOVE that you share with us both your feelings and your quilting! It's inspiring and exciting!

  10. Please don't forget to be kind to yourself also. None of us are perfect and life is a journey.

  11. This is a very beautiful post, Leah. So wonderful to combine our self-healing with art. The drawing is beautiful as well. Blessings.

  12. hi leah, thanks sooo much... I'm struggling about 2 months allready with this feeling guilt: when I quilt,rest,take time only for myself. I wanted to make an express your love quilt, but until now Icouldnt.. because of feeling guilty. and I see that I have to face my guilt bevor I can express all my love... thanks.claudia

  13. I hope your putting pen to paper or needle to cloth does expel the demons. We all have them, some big, some small, some visible, some hidden... but they are there.

  14. Mindfulness is the first step in changing your behavior. It sounds like you've definitely on the right path. Be gentle, and don't be afraid to apologize if you feel the need. It takes strength to admit your wrong.

  15. Guilt is a big one for me, but I've made quite a bit of progress in the last few years. One of the things I've noticed is that you mention kindness, but you've forgotten the most important part of it: kindness to yourself. That is by far, the biggest key to getting past guilt.
    Thanks for continuing to be so honest on your blog. It's the main reason I follow it.

  16. Oh yea...I ride the guilt train and I want off!
    Even at my age (60) I get pangs of guilt when it comes to my father, who I take care of. If I want some time for myself and go out to dinner with my daughter, I feel horrible leaving him alone. I have to stop this behavior. (That is only one example) I can only care for him if I care for myself...right?
    I think I am going to try to do this challenge with you. If I can get to my sewing stuff. I still feel guilty moving my dad's stuff to make room for myself in his home. See?

  17. Leah, are so sweet...allowing us to be a part of your recovery is amazing! And, I agree, quilting is cathartic and, best of all, healing! My wish and prayers for you are and love through the pain! Remember to say say your apologies, so you cannot have guilt there. Remember, too, the ones who hurt you can no longer "dump" their guilt on you! You are stronger and wiser through your quilting and please, be gentle with are worthy!

  18. Thanks for this very personal post, Leah! This gives me hope that I can step through the past, too. Not to stand still and caught in thoughts of memories, being not able to make anything.
    Maybe the idea of working on a quilt to break the lethargy is a good way to handle with all the feelings.
    Wish you all the best!
    (English is a foreign language for me, so I hope nothing will be misunderstood)

  19. I understand. I understand what it's like to have to pull and pull to break away from your upbringing, and feel the weight of it on your back. I understand what it's like to be constantly vigilant of yourself, in case you inadvertently turn into that person. I don't know you personally, which is a shame, but I've seen a lot of your videos and read your blog all the time, and I don't think you hide yourself, so I will say what I see. I see someone who is talented, hardworking and generous with her knowledge. I see a woman who loves her family and cares deeply about their well being. I see someone who is vigilant of themselves, willing to acknowledge where they are going wrong, where they could make improvements and work towards a happier life. (This one is worth it's weight in gold, girl, it's a rare jewel of a quality. Most people don't even know you CAN do that, let alone try. ). However, I know the value that counts is the value that you put on yourself, how you gauge your own worth, not what I or anyone else says. When you said to those that were damaging to you 'stop, enough is enough, I don't need, want nor deserve this!', you KNEW you deserved better. Don't let the echoes of their voices drag you down. Listen for that other voice that told you to break away. Listen to those that love you and you love.
    Keep taking steps, and you'll get where you need to be. :-D x

  20. Leah, your post hit home with me. I grew up in a very similar situation. My outlet was writing novels. These books were published back in the 1990s so I'm sure lots of other people felt the same anger I did. Even though they were science fiction novels, I pulled every ounce of woe and strength I had collected over the years and threw it onto my characters. It helped, but didn't cure. I'm now 55, and I think I've entered a phase of my life where guilt doesn't exist anymore. I've used it all up. At some point in your journey, you become liberated--or you don't. I can tell you one thing--freedom from guilt is the only way to live your life.

  21. Well done. Thank you so much for being brave enough to be vulnerable and share yourself like this. It is healing to many others. About ten years ago I had to work through letting go of a toxic family member. I had to mourn the loss of the who I thought they were and come to grips with who they actually were.

  22. Leah, thank you for your post. I'll be thinking over some points tonight as I stitch. :) One thing though - the happiness of your household does not rest with you. During the past year adjusting to new motherhood, I realized how much my bad mood affected my husband and son. I realized how I could turn the atmosphere poisonous with my unhappiness. Luckily, I turned the corner and I'm back to my (happy) self again. But I also realized that my husband's moods also affects me and my son. So it isn't so much up to me, but up to both of us to bring the light and contentment into our home. And when my son is older, he will learn his role on this as well. Stay strong! Be happy. :)

  23. Thank you Leah. I still struggle with the poison people in my life. I think you are on an amazing path to heal yourself.

    I echo the comments that you are kind. You first impressed me with your kind, gentle way of teaching. Try it, make it yours and it will be beautiful you said. You are right. You are creating a life of beauty, one day at a time.

  24. Everytime I open your blog, I find a little piece of me in your posts. This one really hit the nail on the head. Not only have you single handedly taught me how to make a quilt, but you are also teaching me how to process the chaos in my head that comes from being a working wife and mother.

    Thank you for being so honest and raw with your feelings, and of course for helping me learn to quilt.

  25. I agree with all the above comments. You are are a sweet wonderful, generous person. Its ok to hold yourself to a higher standard, but allow yourself to be human as well. Having the insight to see yourself and explain things to those you love will bring you all closer. They will only grow to love you more as they see your true self.
    My nine year old said to me last month, "You're doing a really great job, Mom." Frankly, at the time I was in a nasty mood and just barely holding it together. I'm still shocked and greatly humbled. Love is a funny thing...

  26. Beautifully said. Guilt is a terrible motivator- and it is taking a lot for me to figure out how to not use it as my motivating factor.

    Thank you for being honest and open. I love posts like this.

  27. I just read a book last week called Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. She has a website, several other books, and two TED talks -- on shame and vulnerability. Listening to what you just wrote, I think you will find what she writes to be illuminating and helpful. You are already on the path to healing, but I think you might find some ideas in her work that will help you along the way.

  28. Oh honey, I could make this so much more 'raw.' But you've nailed it. I am 60 and very self-irritated to say that I still don't have a handle on eradicating guilt from my life. Add a guilt-monger mother to my Catholic upbringing, and you've got the picture. But I'm working on it--pretty much all the time. You, however, seem FAR more savvy and aware than I ever was at your age, so it looks like you'll be busting this bugger much sooner than I've been able to. All the best!!!!


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