Unhealthy guilt and attitudes
Although violating our own standards of behavior creates guilt in us, it seldom torments us for very long. If we neglect our diet, spend too much money, or perform poorly, we can try to make things right, and it is unlikely that such transgressions will cause severe psychological trauma. No one wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and shudders at the thought of eating chocolate cake for Christmas. If the negative emotions associated with unworthy behavior are slow to leave us, they usually produce feelings of regret, not guilt.
Unhealthy feelings of guilt usually arise in situations that affect our relationships-when other people suffer because of us. This feeling usually takes three forms, each of which inflicts certain psychological wounds: unmitigated guilt (the most common and often the most dangerous form), survivor guilt, and selfishness guilt (or the closely related guilt of infidelity).
Relationship guilt is born for a variety of reasons, but unmitigated guilt tends to remain because we don’t apologize as well as we think we do. But even when we apologize as we should, the harm done may be too great for the person to forgive us so easily. He might be happy to let go of our sins, but feel unable to do so (which often indicates that apologies are ineffective). In each of these cases, the guilt remains unaddressed and lingers in our souls, releasing poisonous substances.
Sometimes we feel guilty without having done anything wrong. Survivors of wars, disasters, serious illness and other tragedies often cannot return to a normal life, so they are haunted by the memories of those who died. These people often wonder why they survived and not someone else. Or they feel responsible for what happened, even though they could not have prevented it. Many of those who experience acute survivor guilt also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In such a case, the guilt is a symptom of a more complex mental disorder and the treatments suggested here will not bring relief. If the survivor’s guilt is related to war, accidents and other traumatic events, it is best to see a professional psychologist who specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.
Survivor guilt is often exacerbated by circumstances. Perhaps we had an argument with our brother just before the accident in which he died, forgot to call our girlfriend and was found the next day slitting her wrists, or insulted a coworker minutes before he was told he was fired. One of the clearest examples of how circumstances can exacerbate survivor guilt we can borrow from the life of Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly’s guitarist. Jennings was supposed to go with Holly on the plane, but decided to go by bus, giving up his seat to J.P. Richardson, who was not feeling well. The plane crashed and all the passengers died. If that’s not enough to experience survivor’s guilt, let’s remember Jennings’ last conversation with Holly, when the latter joked with him, saying: “I hope your old bus freezes.” Uyelon responded by wishing him that “his plane would crash.” Although Jennings then became an international star, he always chided himself for Richardson’s death and for wishing for Buddy Holly.
Fortunately, many situations that provoke survivor’s guilt are far less dramatic. When we think we are luckier or happier than others, either because we are doing so well or because others are not doing so well, the combination of remorse and empathy can intensify feelings of guilt. As a result, we feel uncomfortable, even if we are doing everything right. For example, we find it difficult to enjoy a promotion because our friend and colleague also applied for the position. We can’t fully enjoy finding the woman of our dreams because our older brother is still single. We are unable to celebrate college enrollment because our best friend has, alas, been left out.
Getting rid of survivor’s guilt is not easy because there are no actions for which we should apologize, and we have not harmed anyone that we are obligated to compensate. Guilt is not good for maintaining or strengthening our relationships with others, and its warning signals are nothing more than false alarms that poison our lives.
Selfish guilt involves ending our relationships with people or temporarily breaking up so that we can move on and pursue our goals. It is difficult for us to enjoy a romantic date with our husband when we feel guilty about leaving our children with a caregiver, even if they are comfortable with her. Sometimes we blame ourselves for living away from our elderly parents, even though they have everything they need to live. Or we feel guilty about going to work or study abroad, knowing that our loved ones will miss us.
We feel guilty about being unfaithful if we are so loyal to our family or friends that pursuing our own goals or making decisions that do not meet their expectations makes us uncomfortable. We worry that those close to us will find our decisions and actions disrespectful of their values and a betrayal of family. This kind of guilt usually stems from religion and sexual orientation. One mother I worked with approached her lesbian daughter (who had just revealed the truth to her and agreed to participate in psychotherapy) with the words, “How could you do this to me?” In response, the daughter told her: “I’m not doing anything to you. I just want to be happy!” – and then she burst into tears, muttering her apologies through her tears.
In situations like this, family members often feel betrayed and, unfortunately, are not shy about speaking openly about it. Of course, many adult children also feel betrayed by their parents, who gave them no support. But they usually carry a much heavier burden of guilt than their parents and other family members, as well as friends and acquaintances.
Of course, we cannot ignore the impact of our decisions on our relationships with loved ones, but the unhealthy nature of guilt has something else entirely to do with it: we experience it for things that are not our fault. We simply want to express our self, live our lives, and make decisions according to our psycho-emotional needs.
Regardless of whether unhealthy guilt is the result of our transgressions, the stronger it is or the longer it keeps us stuck, the greater the harm and the deeper the wounds it inflicts on our psyche.
This text is an introductory excerpt.
Continued on LitRes
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Everyone has probably had to play a game of “guess what’s wrong” at least once in their lives (and probably more than once). One player has faulted the other, but doesn’t know exactly what his fault is. The other is sure that if the first player truly loved him, he would know exactly what his fault was and probably wouldn’t have let it happen. The result is guilt squared: the person is guilty both of what he did and of being such an indifferent chump that he didn’t even realize what he had done. This game is often played both by romantic partners and by children with their parents (in fact, this modus operandi is learned from child-parent relationships).
The paradox of this game is that the egocentrism and lack of empathy here is actually displayed by the accuser. No one can or should know what’s in your head, we all perceive the world differently, and harmonious relationships are about being able to negotiate with each other, not about flawlessly catching each other’s emanations. But if a person doesn’t understand very well where his responsibility for his neighbor’s comfort ends, it will be very easy to get caught up in the guilt.
The way things work
Guilt belongs to the category of social emotions – they were formed specifically for successful interaction with other individuals. A legitimate question may arise here: “How is that possible? After all, my feeling of guilt is connected to my personal, inner sense of my own wrongdoing. I am the one who decides what is right and wrong. In fact, any personal ethics is initially shaped by our environment (then it may change as we learn about the world around us), but the trick is that these rules are integrated into the psyche as if they were formed in us from within. More often than not, they are perceived as something self-evident rather than as an imposed scheme, so when we break these rules, we feel that we are betraying ourselves in the first place.
Insidious of nature to put such a mechanism in us, isn’t it? But it’s generally in our best interest. Purely from the outside, these rules would not work, or rather, they would work until the strong desire to do something forbidden outweighed reasonable predictions of unpleasant consequences. Unfortunately, for many people the forces are unequal here: when the limbic system, in which emotions and desires are formed, goes into withdrawal, it most often “overrides” the brain areas responsible for planning and self-control (just as a bright and emotional but dim-witted speaker can outshine a nerd who says something sensible). So it is much more effective not to leave ethical rules purely abstract, but also to tie emotions to them: I get a carrot when I’m good, I cut myself when I’m bad.
All this, as any experiential learning, is based on the system of rewards, which facilitates our choice by giving out psychological rewards for behavior that is useful for us and psychological penalties for behavior that is harmful (but there are nuances here – for example, a caloric donut, from the point of view of ancient brain sections, is more useful for survival than harmful). When we decide how to act in a new situation, we do not always have time to weigh all the arguments, and then the reward system helpfully (and, most importantly, very quickly) reminds us how many carrots and sticks we have previously received for a similar action. Such is the economy of effort. The problems begin when new situations require new behaviors, and not all people are equally good at adjusting from autopilot to improvisation.
But back to guilt – it doesn’t come along with the ability to learn from sticks and carrots, but somewhat later, when we begin to understand that other people are individuals with their own experiences and interests. Conventionally speaking, in the beginning you remember not to throw Mom’s smartphone around because it leads to trouble for you personally. After a while you realize that Mom gets upset about it, and you also realize that Mom doesn’t throw Dad’s smartphone because she doesn’t want to upset Dad, etc. This transition occurs at the age of five, when the child develops a so-called theory of mind – the ability to understand someone else’s psyche and behavior – and cognitive empathy begins to work. All this is built on top of the system of rewards, carrots and sticks begin to be passed off as conformity to morality and deviation from it. And we get a kind of Super-Ego, in Freudian terminology – a part of our personality becomes an inner judge (at the same time there is a “button” in our psyche responsible for predicting external condemnation – shame).
And here begins the most interesting
When a child develops feelings of guilt, parents have a very powerful tool of influence in their hands. It is no longer necessary to go into detailed explanations like “you shouldn’t do that because it’s not good for you and it upsets us” – you can simply say, “Good boys/girls don’t do that. For a crushing combo blow, sometimes the “we only love you when you’re nice” link is added (literally or in context). As long as the psyche is very malleable, and there aren’t many other examples of behavior at the child’s disposal, internal guilt signaling can be put on almost anything.
For example, on thoughts and desires. This is where the Christian tradition, with its “if you look at another man’s wife, you have already committed adultery,” sets the bar high. In terms of regulating behavior, this is again very convenient: a person has barely had time to think about something undesirable, as he has already whipped himself for it. It is much less of a problem for those who watch over public order (this is why all totalitarian states are very careful about the proper level of morality among the population). The problem is that self-injury has a devastating effect on a person with a heightened sense of guilt. And it ricochets to those around them, so the abundance of such individuals is ultimately not good for society, no matter how attractive the idea of controlling morals might seem.
How guilt begins to interfere with normalcy
In the first place – as far as children are concerned – resorting to guilt and shame for any reason or no reason greatly interferes with learning how to really learn and understand the nature of things. For example, to evaluate the long-term consequences of one’s actions in terms of one’s own benefit. And if the emotional whip ever fails, one is disoriented. For example, in conservative American states, where they have “innocence balls” and parents nurture feelings of guilt and shame in teenagers (especially girls) for their interest in sex, teenage pregnancy statistics are higher – also because unpleasant emotions prevent kids from quietly learning about birth control, and self-control still often fails.
Secondly, when guilt is attached not only to actions, but also to thoughts, desires and emotions (“How could you think about that!”, “Don’t you dare get mad at me”, “You don’t want to spend all your time with me? Then you don’t love me,” etc.), the person is deprived of the opportunity to be himself. After all, these manifestations of the psyche cannot be fully controlled, and if an individual begins to excel too much in controlling this or that emotion, he or she becomes neurotic and gets a bunch of problems (depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm, psychosomatic problems or just not very high quality of life). A lot of energy in this mode is spent not on useful actions, but on resolving internal conflicts – as in the magnolia joke. A person stops trusting himself, because he considers his inner impulses to be “wrong,” but he cannot get rid of these impulses.
Thirdly, people often do not realize that not everything that upsets their neighbors makes them guilty by default. Conversely, many are willing to shift the responsibility for any of their unpleasant feelings onto those around them. If I feel hurt, then you’ve hurt me; if I don’t feel loved enough, then you don’t love me enough (or aren’t capable of loving me at all), and so on. If you get from a private relationship to world justice, you can begin to feel guilty in general for feeling good while children in Africa are starving.
Finally, excessive guilt begins to distort the behavior of others. There can be different variants here: a conscientious individual can take all the blow on himself and unreasonably absolve others of responsibility (manipulators willingly use this, but also an ordinary person at some point can get used to “transferring the blame” to an eternally guilty one), or he can transfer his feeling of guilt to someone on the chain (“Why do I suffer so much for this, and he does not. It’s not fair!”). Either way, it spreads misconceptions about responsibility.
What to do
Major guilt problems require deep work with the individual’s personality, often requiring psychotherapy. Still, you can list a few universal questions to ask yourself regularly if this emotion goes off the rails.