Warning: Guilt May Be Hazardous to Your Health
By Marcia Blau, LCSW
Whether it was shmeared on a Sunday bagel or served neatly on a communion wafer, most of us have had an ample taste of guilt. In our Judeo/Christian culture, guilt is a relatively prominent theme. And as with most things psychological, it is dangerous when taken in large doses.
The range of guilt feelings runs the gamut from being simply annoying to a version that is emotionally crippling. In my own family, I bore witness to both extremes when I was a teenager.
One of my Jewish grandmothers was an amateur guilt provoker. Upon hearing that I chose to go on a date instead of attending a family dinner, she tried her best to manipulate. “You’d rather be with some boy than with your own grandparents?” she nudged. Her attempt was so transparent it was almost cute.
My other Jewish grandmother, the rigid Romanian one, was a guilt trip professional. She left her imprint by warning me that I would feel guilty when she died, because I didn’t visit her enough. Two weeks later she passed away and I was hurled into a horrifying, guilt-driven depression.
At its best, a healthy dose of guilt can help someone gain discipline or become more ethical. But at an unhealthy level, guilt can push an individual into an excruciating inner conflict between being true to oneself and wanting to please someone else. This emotional tug-of-war can render deep feelings of unworthiness, depression, and fear of abandonment.
As a psychotherapist, I have witnessed the torturous struggles many have with guilt. Often I found that I could read a person’s religious orientation by the manner in which that person expressed guilt.
For instance, there is a particular loss of self-confidence that goes along with Jewish guilt. The attempt to hold onto oneself in the face of familial disapproval is at the center of this battle. The guilty party has hurt someone and “should at least feel bad” as a means of atonement.
Christians, especially Catholics, tend to be plagued with shame alongside their guilt. That can be even more damaging. From birth, many people who grow up in Catholic homes are taught to keep their attention on everyone else’s desires. They learn that it is “selfish” to focus inward. As adults, they often lack an ability to recognize their own wants.
Guilt is such a far-reaching part of our cultural thinking that even Buddhists talk about this “negative, paralyzing emotion” that stems from a non-acceptance of oneself. For them, repentance is the only way out.
With all the Hail Marys and self-recriminations, how do we stop the pain from whirling around our psyches?
The first step out of guilt is to recognize it. Most of us are habitual in our behavior. Often we go on for years doing things as we always have. So, noticing that you are not happy with the way things are is the beginning of changing this pattern.
Stand back and look at the person who is provoking your guilt. Do you want to comply with this person’s requests? Ask yourself whether you actually feel wrong about your participation in a given situation or if you bought someone else’s interpretation. Are you feeling resentful? Resentment is the emotion that often accompanies guilt.
By the time I hit my 20s, I realized that my amateur Jewish grandmother was an insatiable woman. No matter what I did for her, she remained dissatisfied. This was a liberating realization. Since the result would always be the same, I could do what felt right to me. And her dissatisfaction no longer provoked my guilt.
On occasion you may feel guilty about something you do or feel. That is part of human nature. But it is important to let that feeling run its course. Loving yourself unconditionally is about learning to forgive yourself. So whatever you’ve done, acknowledge it, make amends, and decide not to repeat it…then simply breathe and let it go.
© Marcia Blau