We all experience guilt, rational and irrational. Most people are able to tell if they are feeling guilty; unlike shame, which is much more difficult to access. We often, however, do not distinguish between rational and irrational guilt. Rational guilt is at the centre of being accountable and responsible. It is irrational guilt that causes us problems because it blinds us to our true, underlying feelings. This keeps us on an unending treadmill of self-blame.
Unresolved, irrational guilt drives unconscious and self-destructive behavior. We can use it as an entry point to our authentic, true self.
Rational guilt stems from what we have learned throughout our lives to be right and wrong ways of behaving. We experience rational guilt when we go against our own code of ethics, our own values. We experience rational guilt when we subvert our own integrity. When we can feel our rational guilt it alerts us and functions as a useful guide to keeping our integrity intact. When we live with integrity we are true to ourselves.
When we notice and respond to our rational guilt we are authentically evaluating our actions and taking responsibility for them. We acknowledge that we would rather behave in a different way and determine that we will make a better choice in the future. We acknowledge the consequences of our actions and genuinely apologize to anyone whom we may have hurt.
Rational guilt is an alarm system for personal responsibility and is emotionally healthy. It is irrational guil that causes us so much trouble.
Irrational guilt is an internal smokescreen that keeps us from knowing ourselves. It is self-blame and self-reproach. Holding irrational guilt is a defense against feeling anger, fear, need, hurt and other emotions that we would rather hide from ourselves. When we remain stuck in irrational guilt we preventing ourselves from experiencing these underlying feelings. We are stopped from seeing any alternatives and doing anything effective to change the situation.
Like all defenses, irrational guilt gives us a sense of control when we do not really have any; we avoid our overwhelming feelings of powerlessness by blaming ourselves. For example, when something tragic occurs that is out of our control we diminish our sense of impotency by protecting ourselves with irrational guilt. As children this was our only option. When we are emotionally fit adults we allow ourselves to feel the rawness of our powerlessness and devastation. This is real and will pass into the tapestry of our lives as an integrated experience.
When we take on the responsibility for events that we have no control over we can be sure this sense of irrational responsibility is held in place by our childhood pain. For example, when we have been brought up with a lot of "shoulds' we will be very angry. If we were made to feel that our anger was a bad thing then we will not allow ourselves to know that we are angry and we will fee] guilty instead. We will turn our anger against ourselves. This is what irrational guilt is. Remember that as children we had no choice but to blame ourselve5 when we did not measure up.
When we have critical and judgmental parents we fear their disapproval. This fear is too much for us to feel and we turn it into self-punishing guilt. Again, taking the judgments on ourselves gives us a sense that we have some control: Why didn't I do better?" "What's wrong with me?" "I always mess up," or "I'm no good."
Guilt becomes a very familiar feeling
When we wrap ourselves in chronic guilt we are fooling ourselves that we are taking responsibility. In fact, feeling guilty all the time is a way we avoid responsibility. Using guilt to make ourselves feel okay does not really work.
The more irrational guilt we suffer, the more our feelings are driven underground and the less emotionally fit we are. When as an adult we understand that guilt is a defense that we are using to protect ourselves from feeling pain, we can choose to notice it, work with it, feel/know ourselves better and become freer to be who we are.
Danielle pleased her father by achieving academically. She even learned to engage with him at the family dinner table by discussing world events. Her oldest brother, who was a failure in his father's eyes, was unable to do the same.
Years later Danielle found herself consumed with guilt because her life was so much better than this brother's. She was unable to enjoy her own accomplishments and good fortune. She found herself irrationally angry at this brother and then overwhelmed with self-berating guilt. When Danielle realized how much she was beating herself up and how conflicted she was, she sought help.
In time Danielle realized what an impossible situation she had been placed in as a child and how much effect it had had on her life. She got to the feeling of being torn between her need for her father's love and approval and her compassion and empathy for her brother. She felt how angry she was at her father for treating her brother as he had and for locking her into a lifetime of guilt.
Danielle felt relief from her pervasive guilt when she continued to make these connections. Now she was able to be responsive and empathetic without feeling responsible for her brother's difficulties.
Sources of guilt in our childhood
When we as parents are unable to take responsibility for our feelings, thoughts and actions it gets deflected onto our children. "You make me so angry I could scream," "Look what you made me do," and "If you don't stop that you'll be the death of me" all place the responsibility of our actions on our children. These are examples of the blatant use of guilt to control our children.
When this happens to us as children we carry this burden of responsibility and guilt into our adulthood. Our unconscious belief that "there must be something wrong with me" and "it must be my fault" will keep us feeling responsible-caught on the notion that, if only we could do something better, if only we could be different, we would gain our parents' approval. We end up with the unconscious belief that we are responsible for other people's feelings and happiness. This produces irrational guilt and we act out by taking responsibility that does not belong to us.
"Shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" trigger guilt. When we feel our parents' overt need for us to do well, look good and be good and we are unable to live up to their wishes we may be weighted down with guilt. We are very sensitive to the nuances of our parents' behaviour; we experience their subtle disapproval and have no way of dealing with it but to feel a disconnected sense of responsibility.
Guilt perpetuated in our culture
Advertising fosters shame. It also fosters our discontent and guilt. The more we have suffered guilt about our shortcomings as children, the more we feel dissatisfaction with ourselves now and the more susceptible we are to advertising. In other words, the greater the guilt we carry from our childhood the more easily we are manipulated. Guilt prevents us from listening to ourselves and our real needs - we become susceptible to what advertising tells us.
Women who have been subjected to and used by advertising in our culture often feel guilty no matter what they do. One of my clients once remarked that she even felt guilty about feeling guilty!
Feeling through irrational guilt
When we feel our way through the confines of irrational guilt we gain the freedom of self-acceptance. We no longer need to suffer self-destructive thoughts, feelings and behaviours. When we become more honest about our frelings we give up the need to feel irrationally guilty.
This is a process based on our own power to heal ourselves emotionally and it is lasting. Let me say again that this is different from trying to change our thoughts in order to change our feelings, or affirming positive thoughts in order to banish the negative.
Guilt is an easily recognized feeling, and as soon as we become aware of it we can check out if it is rational guilt alerting us to some present problem or if it is irrational guilt. If it is irrational guilt we can ask ourselves the question "If I didn't feel guilty what would I have to feel?" The answer will come from inside ourselves. Feelings that arise may be anxiety, unbearable sadness, anger, rage, powerlessness.
Often we walk around for some time just acknowledging guilty feelings before we break through to the feeling that lies underneath. Once we have experienced this shift, we are more readily able to access the underlying feelings when our guilt arises.
Stretched to the limit
The more we allow ourselves to feel guilt, the more we will be able to tolerate it and not be driven by it. When our behaviour is unconsciously driven by our need to avoid feeling guilty we can end up stretched to our limit and completely out of touch with what we really need and who we really are. We may spend time on things that do not really interest us. We may extend ourselves beyond normal endurance and we may not be able to ask for help. No matter how much we do we never feel good enough. Avoiding our feelings of guilt drives us to be permissive with our children instead of responsive. We can become so used to the stress and pressure of avoiding feeling guilty that we believe the feeling-state of exhaustion that we live in is normal. If we continue like this, sooner or later we will hit a wall and discover one morning that we cannot get out of bed.
Guilt as a signal
Again, it is important to acknowledge that our feelings of guilt are a signal. Either we are feeling rational guilt because we have breached our own integrity or we are feeling irrational guilt disconnected from our childhood pain.
Sometimes it is difficult to know that we are feeling guilty; When we
justify, defend or make excuses we may be feeling guilty. These can act as red flags for us so that we can become aware of when we are feeling guilty and when we are behaving as if we are guilty. We can notice if we feel guilty when we do not get the approval of someone else. We can notice when we are talking to ourselves in a negative way. This usually heralds that we are feeling guilty about something.
Rather than trying to change our negative self-talk by sheer force of will, we can notice it and allow ourselves to identify what we are feeling.
Connie nervously explained that she felt guilty all the time. She remembered feeling guilty as a child and now as an adult she was aware that her life was being controlled by her guilt. She sincerely wanted to change this because she noticed she was running herself ragged trying to please her three children and that no matter what she did for her widowed father it was never enough. On top of all this she was holding down a very responsible part-time job as a bookkeeper for a small family business and hosting her husband's frequent business parties in their elegant five-bedroom home.
Connie took her therapy very seriously and began immediately to compose her time line, look up family pictures and visit her old school grounds. She had trouble getting into her feelings however, which made her feel guilty. When she was asked to stay with this feeling and she sank down into it, she began to sob. Over time she realized how little she had had of her own life. This was the beginning of her healing.
Guilt as a smokescreen for fear
We can learn to admit to our fears once we know that guilt often covers fear. We can replace self-recrimination by self-observation and ask ourselves such questions as "What did I really want to say?" "Why did I do that?" "What would I prefer to do?" and "What am I afraid of?"
Connie, in the example above, connected to the many times she had felt guilty as a child. When she acted "silly" her mother would often say things like "What will the neighbours think?" Connie began to feel how afraid she was as a child that she would not be loved if she did not perform. It is catastrophic for children to feel that they might lose their parents' love.
As we allow ourselves to revisit our past through our natural emotional healing power, we become connected with how fearful we were as children and how this fear got bound with guilt.
A guilt-ridden child becomes a guilt-ridden adult.
Guilt as a smokescreen for anger
When we become aware that guilt often covers anger we can consciously ask ourselves what we may be angry about. When we agree to visit our demanding mother when we do not want to, it is because we do not want to feel guilty. The price we pay for this dishonesty is suffering our submerged, disconnected anger. We are not being true to our feelings and our own needs. We hurt ourselves rather than risk being honest. When we can feel our way through our guilt and our fear of anger we can begin to make choices that are more congruent and honest. If we feel guilty more often than we feel angry it is probable that we would rather feel guilty than face our anger. When we risk telling ourselves and then others the truth about our anger, we remove the smokescreen of guilt. This helps reveal the knots of held anger stretching back in our tapestry.
One of my clients once said, "My guilt makes me do things I don't really want to do with people I don't enjoy much." This client discovered that she was a much less angry person when she started to look after herself better and not do things she did not really want to do. She began to let her anger surface when others called her "selfish." This anger took her to scenes in her childhood when her simple needs were characterized as being selfish by her angry mother. As she looked after herself better and gained a stronger sense of herself she was paradoxically better able to really be there for others, notably her children.
As Connie connected to and felt her fear as a child she became angry. As she worked through the anger at her parents for being so demanding and rigid she became clearer and clearer about how she wanted to behave in the present. She took the risk of telling her father what she was willing to do for him and what she was not and negotiated different arrangements with her husband for his business events so that she no longer carried the responsibility for them. Connie didn't make big, sudden changes, but really gave herself credit for every small step she took along the way to being honest with herself and feeling her guilt instead of letting it drive her.
Guilt obscures the opportunity to live by our own values
When we recognize the necessity of taking care of ourselves in order to live with integrity and therefore emotional health, we can accept the challenge to look after ourselves better. This can be particularly difficult if we are at the bottom of our own list or do not put ourselves in the equation at all.
It is common to believe something but not live in accordance with that belief This occurs when the adult part of us knows, for example, that we deserve help with the household chores, but our childhood feelings leave us feeling too guilty to ask. When we allow our natural emotional healing power to work and feel back to the child that we were we can get our gut in line with our head. We can feel okay with what we know to be true and can act in accordance with our authentic, true selves.
The more we do this, the more we will have of ourselves. It becomes a positive cycle: the more often we risk looking after ourselves and feeling through the guilt, the better we feel and the more we are able to look after ourselves.
Irrational guilt keeps us stuck
Irrational guilt keeps us stuck because we do things we do not want to do in order to avoid feeling guilty, or we feel guilty and this allows us to continue to do things that are not in our best interest or in the best interest of our relationships. It is a terrible defense in which to be trapped.
Gordon was feeling uncomfortably guilty. For over a year he had been having an affair with a woman he worked with. He felt guilty because he was hurting her by not leaving his wife and because he was deceiving his wife every day.
When Gordon sought help he was very distressed; he did not know what to do.
The guilt Gordon was feeling allowed him to believe that he was a very caring person who had "unfortunately" fallen "inadvertently" into this trap. He had no real complaint about his marriage and this was why he felt he could not leave. He could even acknowledge how much he cared for his wife.
Gordon was willing to explore his past, although he could not see how it was connected to his present dilemma. So he was surprised to find himself crying as he told me how he had finally been able to please his father when he excelled at basketball in high school. His dad had died when Gordon was only nineteen, and the only time he could remember his dad paying much attention to him was when he came to watch him play basketball. Gordon began to open up more and more to the hurt and deprivation of his young life. When he was able to feel his need that had propelled him into the affair, he was able to make a decision. He ended the affair. Gordon decided to risk feeling his enormous need instead of remaining stuck and living with guilt.
I have had other clients who have been unwilling to let go of the guilt and take the responsibility to end their affairs, to be honest with their partners and to begin to feel instead of defend with guilt. I have had some clients who have wanted to come to therapy because doing so made them feel as though they were doing something about their situation and thus assuaged their guilt. Needless to say, it is not good therapy to collude in helping clients fool themselves. It is essential to help such people acknowledge that their guilt is keeping them stuck.
The greatest gift we can give those around us is to be as complete and whole a person as we can possibly be. We will be this when we can own and express our feelings, look after ourselves, know what we need and want and be able to ask for it and receive it instead of being driven by guilt.
Janice Berger's website may be read at http://janiceberger.com/ . She calls her form of psychotherapy "Deep Emotional Processing Therapy" which she and her associates practice at 179 Eagle Street in Newmarket, Ontario. Also available on her website are excerpts from other chapters of her book, Emotional Fitness: Discovering Our Natural Healing Powers, as well as its table of contents. Her book may be ordered from the Chapters/Indigo website or directly from her office.
Also see on this website my article, Guilt - Still Another Facet in Neurosis