As we head into the season of overspending, overindulging, and dealing with relatives we don’t always like, I figured it might be helpful to pass on some advice I learned years ago about guilt.
My mom had this look. From across the room, she could make me want to crawl under the nearest piece of furniture. She didn’t have to say or do anything else. The Look was enough to tell me I’d screwed up big time!
Nobody but nobody can make us feel guilty quite like our mothers can. And that’s a good thing, because moms and dads are responsible for teaching us right from wrong. It’s their job to instill guilt in us!
As kids, guilt may stop us from doing stuff we know our parents wouldn’t like, even if we’re not too sure why that stuff is wrong. We just know our folks will be mad, and disappointed in us, if we do it. Guilt starts out as a variation on fear. Fear of rejection by someone we care about, i.e., our parents. So at first we feel guilty mainly if we think we’re going to get caught, or if we’ve already been caught doing something wrong.
But once we’ve got a fairly good conscience established, the guilt isn’t necessarily linked anymore to whether we’re likely to get caught. Indeed, children will sometimes confess to their parents that they did something wrong, just to make the guilt go away.
Now guilt has become a motivating emotion in its own right. It keeps us on the straight and narrow.
The Big Guy in the Sky knew exactly what He was doing when He invented guilt. He was the first parent to give The Look, as He tossed Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for disobeying Him.
The purpose of guilt is to remind us of the rules we internalized as kids. It’s supposed to stop us when we are about to do something that breaks those rules. It keeps us from stealing or from hitting people when we’re pissed at them. If we feel the desire to do those things, the guilt kicks in. If we don’t do the behavior, the guilt goes away.
The problem comes in when we’re not quite sure what we’re feeling guilty about, or when we feel conflicting emotions about something. Then what do we do with those guilty feelings? When I was still a novice psychotherapist, more years ago than I am willing to admit, I learned a simple five-step approach for dealing with guilt.
- First, you determine exactly what behavior you are feeling guilty about. It may be a behavior you’ve already done, or one you want to do, or something you feel you should’ve done but haven’t, and/or don’t particularly want to. Sometimes it helps to say it out loud: I feel guilty because I want to/don’t want to/did/did not __________ (fill in an action).
Example: I feel guilty because I don’t want to go to my in-laws’ for Christmas dinner.
- Second, you identify the internalized rule that the behavior is breaking. You may notice that the rules often have the words always or never in them. This is because children are all-or-nothing thinkers by nature. So the rules get recorded in our conscience in this child-like absolute language.
In our example, the rule might be ‘One is always supposed to be nice to one’s in-laws.’ Or perhaps, ‘One should never make people feel rejected and unloved.’
- Third, you analyze the rule to decide whether or not you still believe it is valid as it stands, or does it need to be modified, or perhaps ejected completely from the rule book.
Let’s say in our example that the in-laws are not very nice people and they don’t treat you or your spouse (their own grown child) very well. Every holiday spent with them is totally miserable.
Do you really have to keep being nice to people who aren’t nice to you?
(A word of caution here. This exercise is not meant to be used to justify whatever you want to do by changing the rule. Ask yourself if you honestly still believe in the rule!)
Or perhaps your in-laws are nice enough people but you just really hate the long drive and the boring conversation.
Is it okay to make them feel rejected and unloved just because they’re boring?
- Fourth, depending on how you now feel about the rule, you either modify the rule and/or the behavior so that they are in sync with each other again.
First Scenario (nasty in-laws): You might decide to change the rule to ‘One should be nice to one’s in-laws unless they are nasty people who mistreat you and/or your family members.’
There are several alternatives for changing your behavior. If you really hate going to your in-laws, is it time to take a stand and insist they treat you all better? (This, of course, must be discussed with your spouse and it’s their call ultimately, since it’s their family.)
If your spouse isn’t ready to deal with it, then you might decide to suck it up and go anyway. But now you are doing it to support your spouse, not out of guilt because you’re supposed to be nice, even to people who aren’t nice to you.
Second Scenario (nice but boring in-laws): You may very well decide that the rule should stand as is. Wait, let’s take that word never out of there. Absolutes like that are rarely a good idea.
How about: ‘One should try very hard not to make people feel unloved or rejected.’
So you probably want to suck it up and go spend one evening with the boring but harmless in-laws. You don’t need to feel guilty, however, about not liking it!
Which brings us to step 5…
- Fifth, once the behavior and the rule are in sync, thank the guilt for doing it’s job and then send it on it’s way!
But wait, you might be thinking, I still feel guilty for not liking my in-laws!
Why? No, no, not why don’t you like your in-laws; we’ve already determined that they are either nasty or boring. Why are you feeling guilty about your feelings. Guilt isn’t about feelings; it’s about behavior. We can’t control how we feel; we can only control how we act. (See The History of Emotion for a somewhat tongue-in-cheek description of how our society came to the erroneous conclusion that we should control our feelings, not just how we express them.)
If you’re doing the right thing, it’s okay to let go of the guilt–pat yourself on the back even–and move on.
This really hangs some people up though. I had a client say to me one time. “Well, I know it really is okay to do that, even though I was taught not to. So if I feel guilty about it, then I can go ahead and do it.”
Is your head spinning maybe just a little? Mine did at the time. I finally figured out what she meant. Her guilt was the sacrifice to the Parent Gods so that she could then go ahead with the behavior; i.e. it’s okay to break the rules Mom and Dad taught you, as long as you feel guilty about it.
No, no, if you don’t believe in the rule anymore, then change the dang rule! You’re a grown-up now. You get to think for yourself.
If you really have trouble letting go of the guilt, sometimes a ritual is helpful.
For example, I’ve had clients write out the whole thing on a piece of paper. “I feel guilty about… The rule is… I have changed the rule/behavior to… The guilt has done its job. Thank you, guilt. You can go now.” Then I’d give them a book of matches and have them burn the piece of paper (over an empty trash can) as a symbol of letting go of the guilt.
I love this 5-step exercise. It has helped me sort out my guilty feelings more than once and pointed me in the right direction to act appropriately.
What about you? What do you tend to feel guilty about? Can you let guilt go once you’ve figured out what to do?
By the way, the contest celebrating the release of Celebrity Status, A Kate Huntington Mystery, is still going on through next Sunday. Clcik HERE to enter.
(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
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