Serving Up Guilt
Alongside love, food, and perhaps gifts, guilt is usually on the menu when adult children visit their parents on holidays and other occasions — and we’ve all tasted it. “Why can’t you stay longer? You’re too busy now for me?” mom said to Eli as he kissed her goodbye.
And so it goes when guilt is used unconsciously to get loved ones to do what we want. Even though this method doesn’t always produce the intended effects, we may resort to it when feeling helpless in the face of longing and disappointment. This approach to relationships disregards boundaries and mutuality, and implies lack of faith that others would give of their own free will. Emotional manipulation through guilt can be costly – breeding resentment, limiting authentic engagement, and hijacking initiative and genuine desire.
Sometimes trying to make others feel bad when they’ve hurt us is actually an effort to evoke empathy so they experience what we feel. When understood as such and not taken as retaliation, this can be powerfully healing. Alternatively, the motivation behind wanting others to feel bad may be punitive – to even the score. Though this may seem fair at the time, winning the battle of vengeance is a defeat for the relationship and perpetuates using combat to manage hurt and anger.
It’s human to want justice. When we’re wronged, we feel vindicated knowing those who hurt us suffer too – but where does it end?
Feeling the pain of having hurt someone and taking meaningful steps to make amends, or learn, don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Guilt can operate effectively as an internal signal that jump-starts reparation. However, when guilt has gone awry it takes center stage and can prompt emotional paralysis and self-absorption in place of growth and learning. The origin of guilt was for development of conscience, to remind us of our values and keep us civilized.
Brittany, a bright, thoughtful young woman, sought therapy to confess something she did as a teen that she knew was reprehensible. She was haunted with shame and remorse, often feeling unworthy of living – seemingly asking whether she deserved to suffer indefinitely for this transgression. I noticed my own internal conflict as I supported her letting go of guilt and shame. Was I thereby condoning her behavior?
I reminded myself that excessive or chronic guilt interferes with judgment and decision-making. Counter-intuitively, when guilt is used to punish oneself or others it’s not an effective deterrent and fails to promote reparation. That is not to say that behavior should be free of consequence. But guilt-induced constraint can backfire, exacerbating impulses and evoking prohibited behaviors in a compartmentalized form.
Fortunately, guilt also serves as a barometer of inner truth – a trip wire set in motion by self-deception. A conspicuous example of this is the finding that “yes” to the single question, “Do you feel guilty about your drinking?” is a valid measure of a potential alcohol problem on a widely used diagnostic test for this purpose, even when objective data, such as alcohol quantity or frequency, may suggest otherwise.