Guilt: The gift that keeps on giving.
Guilt is a vehicle through which people become aware and change. It is not universally negative and has functional value in providing the impetus for corrective behavior. It is a natural byproduct of becoming aware of hurtful or inappropriate behavior toward others. In fact, it would be a lack of feeling guilty that would be the sign of true pathology. A sociopath unable to feel empathy for his or her victim is immune to guilt and continues his or her reckless behavior. Consider the case of Bernie Madoff, who swindled his investors out of billions of dollars and used his money for his own pleasure. His inability to feel guilty for what he was doing hurt many people and institutions.
One of the primary functions of anger toward someone is to make them feel guilty. But if the anger is used to make someone else feel guilty, rather than take responsibility for your own behavior, this is the classic form of denial. Those who tend not to take responsibility for themselves may use anger and its many forms (such as passive aggression and manipulation) to get others to feel guilty so they don’t have to. I am imagining it is this situation to which you refer.
When this is the case, the best thing to do is recognize the situation for what it is. Once you are sure that this is an attempt at manipulating you — not a wakeup call for a necessary change in your own behavior — then I encourage you to listen, and assert the fact that you understand, but disagree what he or she has said. Tell him or her you don’t see it his or her way, and won’t allow yourself to be treated poorly.
According to Psychology Today’s website, there are 5 types of guilt:
“Guilt Cause #1: Guilt for something you did. The most obvious reason to feel guilty is that you actually did something wrong. This type of guilt may involve harm to others, such as causing someone physical or psychological pain. You may also feel guilty because you violated your own ethical or moral code, such as by cheating, lying or stealing. Guilt over your own behavior can also be caused by doing something you swore you would never do again (such as smoking, drinking, or overeating). In each of these cases, there’s no doubt that the behavior occurred.”
“Guilt Cause #2: Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to. You’re thinking about committing an act in which you deviate from your own moral code or engage in behavior that is dishonest, unfaithful, or illegal. Like Jimmy Carter, you may have mentally lusted after someone other than your spouse or long-term partner. This is a tough type of guilt to handle. It’s true that you didn’t actually commit the act, and so you’re still sitting on the moral high ground. However, we all know that the very fact that you’re contemplating an act that violates your own standards can be guilt-provoking.”
“Guilt Cause #3: Guilt for something you think you did. As cognitive theories of emotions tell us, much of the unhappiness we experience is due to our own irrational thoughts about situations. If you think you did something wrong, you can experience almost as much guilt as if you actually committed the act — or even more. One fairly typical cognitive source of guilt is the magical belief that you can jinx people by thinking about them in a negative or hurtful way. Perhaps you’ve wished that a romantic rival would experience some evil twist of fate. Should that evil twist of fate come to pass, you may, at some level, believe that it was due to your own vengeful wish. At some level you “know” that you’re being illogical, but it’s hard to rid yourself completely of this belief.”
“Guilt Cause #4: Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone. Perhaps you have a friend who is very ill or who is caring for an ill relative. You’ve given hours of your free time to help that person, but now you have other obligations that you absolutely must fulfill. Or perhaps your neighbors suffered a tragic loss such as the death of a relative or fire that destroyed their home. You’ve offered days and weeks of your free time but, again, you find you can’t continue to do so. The guilt now starts to get to you and you try desperately to figure out ways to help them despite the toll it’s taking on you.”
“Guilt Cause #5: Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else. The experience of survivor guilt is recognized by professionals who work with combat veterans who outlive their fellow troops. Survivor guilt also occurs when people who lose families, friends, or neighbors in disasters themselves remain untouched or, at least, alive. Applying not only to people who live when others in the same situation have died, though, this kind of guilt also characterizes those who make a better life for themselves than do their family or friends.”
Wishing you patience and peace,
This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on August 24, 2010.