Tag Archives: rules

Did Your Mom Give You ‘The Look’?

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!

I'm 5, Mother just gave me The Look

Me, age 5, looking quite subdued, after my mother (the one with the crossed arms) just gave me The Look! (This was an in-laws’ Christmas night party my father endured for many years.)

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.

Adam and Eve beingin banished from the garden

(from free clipart by christiansunite.com)

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.)


We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

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Readers, Rebels and the Rules of Writing

(The third installment on gender differences in relating will be posted soon. Here is a post in our ongoing series on what Readers Really Want.)

I have always been a rebel. When I was a kid, telling me that something was against the rules was a sure-fire way to get me to do it. As an adult, I try to resist the temptation to break a rule at least once, just to see what happens.


From a 1915 musical score, public domain in the U.S.

When I retired from being a psychotherapist and turned my writing talents toward fiction, I was so relieved. No more having to follow the ‘introduction, literature review, evidence, conclusions’ format required for professional journal articles. My creativity would finally be free and unfettered.

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that writing fiction had rules! (One of which is to avoid using exclamation points. Teehee!) My editor probably ended up with muscle spasms in her neck from shaking her head so much over my first manuscript.

My editor probably could have used some of this. (Photo by Craiglduncan from Wikimedia Commons)

An internal battle then ensued, between the part of me that wanted to ignore the rules and the part that wanted to get published. The latter won and I beat the rebel into submission. Now, as a somewhat more seasoned novelist, I’ve developed a bit more of a compromise in my view of these rules. But before I get into that, let me present a few things to you, the reader.

Here are three rules that I find somewhat, shall we say, stifling: (1) Use exclamation marks very sparingly (as in, almost never); (2) only use said or asked in dialogue tags; and (3) avoid adverbs like the plague.

So imagine the hero is trying to seduce the heroine. He is nibbling on her earlobe and then starts trailing kisses down the side of her neck. *pauses to fan face, is it getting hot in here?* She is trying to resist but her body has other ideas.

“Please, stop,” she gasped breathlessly.

“Please, stop,” she said, in a breathless voice.

“Please, stop.” Her voice was breathless.

You tell me, which do you like better? Which is more powerful? And which will tend to slow the story down?

Example number 2: The protagonist tells his buddy that his pet gerbil can talk.

“No way,” Jimmy said.

“No way!” Jimmy said.

No way,” Jimmy exclaimed.

“No way.” Jimmy’s voice was incredulous.

I don’t know about you, but the first one sounds to me like Jimmy isn’t all that interested. Either the second or third one works for me, although I like number two best. Technically, according to the rules, the fourth one is correct. But looking at that one, and the third one, through my reader eyes (instead of those of the writer trying to follow the rules), I can’t help wondering why there isn’t an exclamation mark there, if Jimmy is so all fired incredulous.

Now, some editors would respond to this by saying, if you need an exclamation mark or the word exclaimed in order to convey the speaker’s emotions, then you need to rewrite the dialogue to make it stronger, or show (not tell; yet another rule) the emotion through action.

Okay, how about:  Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “No way.”

Nope, sorry, I’m still feeling like this reaction is too lukewarm without that exclamation mark. For me, first prize would go to:

Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “No way!”

So here is the middle ground I have found, with three–soon to be four–published novels under my belt. These rules should be guidelines, because they have merit, but they should not be strictly enforced.

Use too many exclamation marks and they lose their punch (not to mention the fact that the speaker starts to sound silly.) Let’s not outlaw them completely, however.

Use said or asked most of the time as dialogue tags, because the reader’s eye glides right over them and they don’t interfere with the flow of the dialogue. But when describing the emotion or tone of voice would interfere with the flow of the dialogue, use a different dialogue tag to convey that emotion.

Likewise with adverbs; use them sparingly, but sometimes they may be the tighter way to convey the mood or tone.

Protagonist and her husband are in the middle of a disagreement that is about to heat up:

“Look, I know I go on and on sometimes, but I feel like you aren’t always listening to me.”

“What, you go on and on? Naw, never!” he teased.

“Like right now. You’re not taking me seriously,” she shot back.

He realized he had gone too far. “I do listen,” he said softly, hoping to appease her.

Oh, yeah, forgot to mention the rule about avoiding italicizing words for emphasis. So here’s the same conversation, following all the rules:

“Look, I know I go on and on sometimes, but I feel like you aren’t always listening to me.”

“What, you go on and on? Naw, never,” he said, a teasing note in his voice.

“Like right now. You’re not taking me seriously.” Her tone was now angry.

He realized he had gone too far. “I do listen,” he said, softening his voice, hoping to appease her.
Now there’s nothing wrong with the second version. But, in my opinion, the emotions aren’t as powerful. And we have ten extra words that slow down the pace of the scene, which makes the interchange sound less heated.

Let me reiterate, however, that I have matured enough through the years to realize that rules usually exist for a reason. These elements should not be used too often. Note the following, which is not far off from several first-page samples I have read on Amazon in recent times:

Jeannette sat down on a bar stool, longingly glancing in Carlos’s direction, then blatantly ignoring him.

Suddenly, she felt hot breath on her neck. Carlos gently picked up her hand and, lovingly and tenderly, kissed the soft palm. “So you can’t resist me, querida!” he breathed lustily into her ear.

Jeannette shivered deliciously but kept her face turned away.

Another man had taken the stool on her other side. “Can… uh, I buy you a drink?” he stammered nervously.

Carlos leaned forward and stared aggressively at the interloper. “She’s taken!” he growled emphatically.

“I am not!” she protested, equally emphatically.

Carlos instantly jumped from his barstool and grabbed her arm firmly. “We’ll see about that!” he growled menacingly as he hauled her off her stool and moved her hurriedly toward the door.
Now this writer has promise (Ha, ha! It’s me, several decades ago), but the mood of the scene is ruined by all the melodramatic adverbs, exclamation marks and overused irregular dialogue tags. It reads more like a farce than a serious scene. My fingers are itching to go back and edit it. (I would keep two of the fourteen adverbs, one of the four exclamation marks, and two out of the five irregular dialogue tags.)

But I won’t bore you further by ridiculously hammering home an already obviously made point about the annoyingly frequent habit of over-using these temptingly easy elements rather than writing truly fabulous and exceedingly tight, emotionally tantalizing dialogue.
Please, wade in, readers! (Yes, I do so love those exclamation marks.) What do you think about these rules? Writers and editors, feel free to join the fray.

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address at the top of the column to the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!