Do you sometimes feel embarrassed, ashamed or guilty? I certainly hope so. These emotions are crucial if we want to survive and be happy as social animals. Only by having a sophisticated capacity for shame can we learn how to fit in, be good citizens, avoid disgrace and be liked by others.
Infants are born narcissists, but they gradually learn how their behaviour is seen through the eyes of others. A two-year-old can’t be reasoned with, but a mother’s finely calibrated weaponry of approval and disapproval can easily train him to realise when he has done something wrong.
In time we develop an internal policeman, a ‘critical parent’, a conscience or what Freud called the superego, that tells us of right and wrong, even when mother isn’t around. By recognising embarrassment, shame and guilt, we adjust our behaviour to negotiate the hazards of whatever company we find ourselves in.
A capacity for guilt helps to inoculate us from arrogance and excessive self-esteem. People who fail to develop their inner policeman often create havoc for themselves and others. Angry people can spend their lives blaming others. Psychopaths may understand the law, but have no gut-feeling that violence is wrong. A narcissist may intimidate his staff and exploit others with a sense of absolute entitlement.
Guilt is a complex mixture of self-disgust and fear of retribution. It is not enjoyable, but without it, we would never question our automatic responses. It kicks in when something goes wrong and forces us to ask ‘Do I have some responsibility for this?’
The most likely correct answer is not ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but ‘maybe’. The feeling of guilt is just an internal alarm signal. It is definitely not a proof. It may have no bearing at all on whether you actually are guilty or not. As it is so obvious in the law courts, it is notoriously difficult to prove and quantify guilt. This is equally true in one’s personal life. Despite this, many of us naively make the assumption: I feel guilty so I must be guilty. This is when intuition goes horribly wrong.
Although guilt uses the language of right and wrong, that’s just a smokescreen. It often has nothing to do with those absolute values. Feeling guilt and making others feel guilty is all about survival and control, not about right and wrong. To imply to someone that you’re unhappy and that it is his or her fault is a very powerful tool, even if it is utterly ridiculous.
The dynamics of guilt have only the most tenuous link to rationality. A toddler is not capable of understanding the laws that govern right and wrong. Even though we don’t expect him to be fully responsible for his behaviour, we make him feel guilty anyway. The growing brain needs a good twenty years to mature. It takes that long for the neural connections between the emotional brain and the pre-frontal cortex to be fully functional. Until we are adults, our thoughts and emotions interact in a rather primitive fashion.
This means that we are trained to feel guilty years before we have any capacity to understand why. During that time, the rationale is not: ‘Am I right or wrong?’ but ‘I must be guilty because other people are angry with me.’ We learn to feel guilty even though like Kafka’s heroes we don’t know, and are never likely to find out, what crimes we’re accused of.
Not surprisingly, the guilt-instinct often goes awry and becomes pathological. Millions of adults suffer from a chronic inflammation of the guilt response which we can call ‘guilt- itis’. A chaotic childhood, or a mad mother or a tyrannical father may be to blame. Just as often, religious and political leaders broadcast guilt as a means of social control. It works brilliantly for that purpose even if it makes people miserable for life.
The feeling of guilt is highly irrational, and yet the mechanism is quite simple. If something bad happens in the family, such as an argument between parents, a well- trained child will ask himself ‘What did I do wrong?’ Little children, still under the shadow of their infantile narcissism, can mistakenly feel they are personally responsible for any disaster: ‘Grandma died because I was naughty’. Or ‘I have no right to be here. I make Mummy so miserable’.
This kind of magical thinking effortlessly continues into adulthood. Global warming? What did we do wrong? Economic meltdown? Is God punishing us? Bad marriage? It must be my karma. I don’t deserve any better. Guilt-itis also explains why it is so easy to persuade victims that they deserved whatever happened to them.
Guilt-itis seems impossible to dispel by reasoned arguments, but that doesn’t stop us trying. We ask probing questions: what did I do wrong? Was it wrong for me to say that? I shouldn’t have done that, should I? Guilt is often the rocket fuel behind the endless circular thinking of depression. Its signature word is “Sorry!”
We can always find a reason to feel guilty. Our minds will automatically confabulate a plausible explanation from the scantiest data. In fact, guilt is usually too ancient, too preconscious, too much embedded in infantile patterning to ever reveal itself to reason.
If we suffer from an inflamed sense of guilt, there is little value in asking “why?” or “what did I do wrong?” It is better to simply admit “I am a guilt-aholic, and I am powerless to resist”, and then find some other way of breaking the habit. Generally, the person most in need of our forgiveness is ourselves.
The Catholic system of confession and absolution is a good model to follow. By talking to a priest (or a counsellor or a friend) you would acknowledge what you think you’ve done wrong, which is the first step towards letting it go. Just to verbalise the problem can have a marvellous therapeutic effect. It takes it out the murky back cellars of thought, and exposes it to a clearer assessment. This alone will probably downgrade it from a crime to a misdemeanour.
If in the unlikely scenario that you were to actually confess to a priest, he would be likely to say “God is pleased that you’ve acknowledged your fault and have resolved to do better in future. On his authority, let me tell you that He loves you just as you are, you miserable sinner, and forgives you.”
An addition subtext is that you don’t need to be perfect or even good, to be loved or to love yourself. God knows you’re likely to fail again, despite your best intentions, and it doesn’t matter. Being a human being is a very complicated matter and it is hardly surprising that we fumble at times. So long as you acknowledge your imperfections, and try to do your best, you can be absolved of your guilt.
Of course, it is easy for God to love us and forgive our faults, but how can we love ourselves? Some people do have passionate love-affairs with themselves, but love, in this context, really means self-acceptance. At the very least, we can see how complicated life actually is, and so be more forgiving about our actions within it.
Sometimes we actually are guilty, but nowhere nearly as frequently as we seem to be. We are truly guilty, as opposed to just feeling guilty, only if we freely and consciously enter an agreement – typically some kind of relationship with another – and then wantonly violate it.
We can regard such an agreement is invalid, however, if we were coerced into it, or if we were incapable of understanding it, as children are, or if we didn’t even realise we were making a contract in the first place, or if the goal-posts keep getting changed by the other party. In those circumstances, we can walk away guilt-free.
We can also regard the contract as null and void if what we were agreeing to is impossible. The unspoken contract we commonly make with a lover is usually “I will be good and care for you, as best I can” which has some chance of success. However this kind of contract typically comes with devilishly small print which reads: “and I promise to make you happy.” If the contract contains that, you can rip it up with a clear conscience. No one can carry that burden. You were taken for a sucker, hook-line-and-sinker, and are heading for a lifetime of guilt servitude unless you acknowledge this.
None of us can be confident of even making ourselves happy. Can you do anything ensure that you will feel happy in the next hour, for example? It is it far too much to expect of anyone that they be responsible for the happiness of someone else as well. If that is the source of your guilt, I suggest you stop feeling guilty about it. I wish you luck, and I know you will need it!
© Perth Meditation Centre 2008