On Guilt

As emotions go, guilt is one of the most useless ones.  It serves a minimal positive function and can serve to really ruin a person’s day and render them foolish.  Unlike some emotions, guilt is not time-dependent – it doesn’t fade over time.  It lurks. Guilt can also jump time.  Things can happen during the course of life that is all quite normal, then something happens to change our perceptions and suddenly we can remember something that previously appeared innocuous to us, but with our newfound perspective, we can feel guilty about it.

And we can feel guilty about things we have done, we can feel guilty about things we didn’t do, but wish we had, and of course, we can feel guilty for nothing at all.  We don’t have to have done something or omitted to do something in order to feel guilty.  Others can make us feel guilty through their expectations of us.  Expectations can lead to disappointment, and their feeling of disappointment can lead to our feeling of guilt.  It’s funny how some emotions link up to others in a  certain sequence and logical order.

It’s like this:

You expect something of me.
I don’t deliver.
You are disappointed in me.
I feel guilty about that.

But was the expectation fair in the first place?  I have long observed that high expectations of a person can seriously undermine them and erode their self-confidence.  After all, when the person does the action, are they doing for themselves, or doing it because it is what is expected of them?

Now, by “the action” this might be a behaviour, i.e. something they do, or an identity, i.e. something they are.

Here’s an example I’ve witnessed recently.  An intelligent young woman from a privileged background is at that junction in life where study ends and either further education is undertaken, or a career is selected.  She is bright, she is articulate, she has potential.

The great weight of unspoken pressure is there for her to be an achiever.  The university brochures are scanned through, the careers advisor is attended, wise words from family elders are spoken.

But the truth is she doesn’t want any of that.  She wants to get married, have children, be a housewife.

But that doesn’t fit with the image of the potential that has been ascribed to her.  After all, she is so young, it would be a shame to throw it all away…

This is an identity conflict.  So in order to avoid the disappointment of others, this young woman is going through all the motions of a university application.  Half-hearted efforts that repeatedly result in failure, late appointments, accidental absences and continual low-level illnesses and afflictions.

Everyone is asking, “What is wrong with Polly?”

The obvious is just too elusive.  There is nothing wrong with Polly.  The elephant in the room goes unnoticed though.

So we get:

You expect something of me.
I fail to deliver.
You are disappointed in me.
My maladies explain why I failed so that your erroneous perception of me never has to be corrected.
No one has to feel guilty any more.

As a clinician who spends many hours a week working with complex social and family issues, I see so many relationship difficulties that arise from the attempts to avoid guilt.  People deceive, they lie, they convince themselves it is for the best.  White lies.  Deception in the other persons best interests.

Guilt doesn’t make people good people, it makes them act like irrational fools and it makes them do stupid stuff.  As a professional change worker, I have long held the view that guilt does not facilitate change – in fact, it does the exact opposite, it inhibits it.  I shall explain my reasoning for this.

Guilty people are always apologising and trying to make amends, but they continue doing the same stuff.  If guilt was effective at creating change, why do they have to keep apologising?

Primarily it is because of time orientation.  Guilt is about the past – it is a retrospective emotion.  For example, we don’t feel guilty about things that have not happened or are yet to happen.  That emotion is called anxiety and anxiety is a prospective emotion.

So, guilt is about what has been, anxiety is about what is to come.

You cannot change what has been.  Small point, I know, but worth knowing.

Now, it isn’t entirely uncommon for individuals to punish others by making them feel guilty.  Last year I had a client whom I unceremoniously ejected from the session owing to his unsavoury behaviour.  He yelled, then he texted, then he emailed the threats of suicide telling me to think about how awful I’d feel if he killed himself.  The ultimate blackmail – do as I say, or I’ll kill myself, then see how you feel.

This isn’t a good strategy.  You see if we try to motivate a person with guilt, look at the situation the guilt-laden person is now in – the actions they now undertake are orientated in order to lessen their feeling of guilt, not necessarily to change any prospective behaviours.

Let me give you an easy example.  Imagine I have an unpleasant habit of repeatedly jabbing you in the face with my left thumb.  You tell me how much you dislike this behaviour and load me up with some guilt.  I may well now look to relieve myself of this guilt by making amends for what I have done.  But is this necessarily going to change what I am going to do in the future?  Possibly, but from experience, probably not.

I might “make amends” for what has been, but once I am free from the guilt, the chances are that I will carry on as before until I am loaded up with guilt again.  And so the process is repeated.

Thus to summarise the point: a guilty person usually seeks to free themselves from their guilt, not necessarily to change their behaviour, perception of you or their future conduct.  Once they are free from guilt, everything is reset to the way it was before the offence was raised.

It looks like this:

I poke you in the face.
You tell me how bad this is.
I feel guilty and apologise.
You accept the apology and we shake hands.
I feel better and I poke you in the face again.

So, in order to get a person to change, we need to get them to drop their guilt as a strategy for making things better.  Their guilt is has nothing to do with behavioural change, and behavioural change is the better outcome.

It’s worth mentioning here – if you are a person who feels a sense of satisfaction from making another person feel guilty, please stop doing this.  The people who do this are both professional victims and bullies.  As with my client example earlier, by using the threat of suicide he aims to turn me into his puppet, something completely under his control.  I have known many relationships between people that are controlled this way.  The threat is never actually made explicit, but rather it is implied and it becomes yet another elephant in an increasingly crowded room.  People start to feel suffocated but cannot leave for fear of what might happen if they do.

When guilt creeps into a relationship, silent and not so silent control games begin to emerge.  Rules get made, rules get broken.  Long silences – silent rows that can last for hours become commonplace, issues get skirted around and no one feels all that good any more.  If the relationship continues, homeostasis can be found when the maladies begin – insomnia, headaches, migraines, chronic fatigue, tired all the time syndrome, easy explanations, tempers and angers (often directed outside of the relationship – maybe towards politicians, maybe towards the neighbours or the spotty guy in the DIY store).  Blood pressure can rise, serotonin levels can fall and sooner or later diagnosable physical symptoms emerge.

A persistent low level of background guilt can be devastating the quality of life.  As trainees in Integral Eye Movement Therapy will be aware, there is an intimate relationship between guilt, worry and anger ( “The Three Pillars” model).

Persistent guilt is a trigger for worry.
Worry is a trigger for anger.
Anger is a trigger for guilt.
And around and around it goes.

If this pattern continues for any length of time, it can lead to a serious state of depression.  Of course, a state of depression is just perfect for feeling guilty, for feeling anxious and for getting angry.

People caught in this cycle are often a nightmare to be around, their behaviour affects other people, which of course, in turn, leads to yet more guilt.

In my book, The Rainbow Machine, I describe the behaviours common to Right Man Syndrome what was interesting was the effect this chapter would have.  I was inundated with emails and messages from people who thought either that

1. I was describing them or 2. describing someone they knew.

A number of clinicians contacted me to describe their relief at my response to dealing with Right Man Syndrome (get them out the door as quickly as possible and refer them to a therapist you don’t like!).  This enabled me to gather a lot more data and has led me to two simple conclusions.

Right Man Syndrome sufferers feel guilt stronger than other people and are more negatively affected by it.

Right Man Syndrome is a strategy that develops primarily to avoid feeling guilt.

So, in summary…

When things go wrong and guilt arises, the behaviours that emerge will lean towards resolving this guilt, not at changing their future behaviours.

The result of this is a situational and relationship reset where everything gets put back to what it was before the upset.  Chances are high that the issue will re-emerge later on.  Repeatedly.

Absolution of guilt is not change.  What changes is the person’s perception of what has been, not what will be.

Thus, resolution of guilt is only the first, and let’s face it, the least important aspect of creating change.  Guilt is resolved only in order to permit the prospective change to begin.

What is frustrating for me, as a change worker, is knowing just how easy and quickly guilt can be resolved.  Usually, within a few minutes an entire lifetime of guilt can be resolved using the appropriate processes, but what is frustrating is that guilty people are usually quite defensive and are keen to enter into a state of denial when the subject is raised.  For so many people, guilt is equal to blame, and blame is bad and so is best avoided.  Cue:  the beginnings of Right Man Syndrome, where being right is more important than being happy.

The other frustration is then getting the guilt-laden person to actually do the process.  So many people seem content to simply get an intellectual understanding of the resolution processes but they never actually try them out.

A particular problem with guilt resolution can arise though.  The person who feels guilty requires the offended party to also change – “She must accept my apology!”

But why?

If I poke you in the face and then feel terrible about that, why should you accept my apology?  It is as though because I feel bad, then you have to accept me.  By feeling bad and offering an apology, I now make you responsible for my emotional welfare.

So not only have I jammed my thumb into your face, but I now hold you responsible for how bad I feel about it!

And, to top it off, if you don’t accept my apology,  this will make you the bad person.

I poke you in the face.  I apologise.
Wounded, you don’t accept the apology.
Well, screw you.  Let me now tell you why you get poked in the face by people like me.

Power struggles get played out frequently around issues of guilt.

So, in resolution for guilt, it is important for the guilty party to give up the need for others to either understand or to change.  The guilt is theirs, and theirs alone.

But it isn’t a cross to bear. No. So many guilty people like to romanticise their suffering this way.

As I like to say to these clients, “Who you think you are? Jesus?” and then remind them that they are just not that important.  They are not important enough to martyr themselves, but they do have a responsibility to change and change they shall.

It isn’t a cross to bear.  It is something to be put down.  Given up.  Dropped.

Once they have done this, THEN they can begin to do the business of putting things right.

I remind clients that their guilt is about them and has nothing to do with the other person.  Here’s a demonstration of how to do this.

Ask the client:  “How strong is this guilt that you experience, on a score out of 10, with 10 being as strong as it can be?”
Ask the client:  “And how familiar is this feeling of guilt?”
Ask the client:  “And when is the first time that you can remember feeling this guilt feeling…now it may not be the first time you ever felt it, but rather is the first time that you can remember now?”  (Ref:  Integral Eye Movement Therapy)

Nearly every time, the feeling pre-dates the situation that is reported to be the presenting problem.  If you felt this same feeling before the current situation, then this situation has little to do with how you feel.  It is the earlier situation that taught you to feel this way.

Guilt resolution processes feature in a number of areas of my work.  Integral Eye Movement Therapy has simple enough processes that virtually anyone can use, and I have a more comprehensive model developed within the Metaphors of Movement work.

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