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.
Guilt over being honest with oneself is different from imposed guilt. Imposed guilt is characterized by feeling bound to others and limiting autonomy. It can be hard to distinguish the two. Imposed guilt-trippers hold others responsible, using suffering as leverage in unconscious emotional blackmail, and escaping accountability. Self-generated guilt can operate similarly, but the obligation is imagined and projectedi.e., feeling guilty for saying no out of fear of disappointing someone. Such guilt usually originates from actual childhood experiences in which boundaries are confused and children are used to manage adults’ emotional states.
The ability to bear disappointment depends on how we interpret the actions of others. For example, Eli’s mom personalized his leaving, feeling rebuffed and inferring intent based on her own feelings. She assumed, “he’s leaving because I’m not important to him” vs. “he has a full life of his own now.” Had she construed his leaving benevolently she might have said, “I’ve missed you and am always so happy seeing you,” containing feelings of loss and expressing love positively.
How can we tell if the guilt in our lives is pathological? The answer lies in how it affects our relationships, what lesson is learned, and whether it inspires constructive change. Healthy guilt is conscience with an action plan beyond suffering.
In sports, occasionally a good player makes a bad play late in the game, costing his team victory. In the post-game interview, it’s clear how upset he feels for having let his teammates down. But, at the same time, he knows the sincerest apology is recovering so he can score again. In a parallel way, his teammates pat him on the back telling him not to worry. “Just get back in and help us win.”