This is the first of a seven-part series of articles on dealing with guilt. Written by a psychologist, it outlines the current approaches to resolving this thorny experience. These articles should be read in order.
Everyday, we interact with others and situations that can induce feelings of guilt. You might have the feeling of responsibility for negative circumstances that have befallen yourself or others. You might have the feeling of regret for your real or imagined misdeeds, both past and present. You might have a sense of remorse for thoughts, feelings or attitudes that were, or are negative, uncomplimentary or non-accepting concerning yourself or others. You might have a feeling of obligation for not pleasing, not helping or not placating another, or you might have a feeling of bewilderment and lack of balance for not responding to a situation in your typical, stereotypic manner. You might have a feeling of loss and/or shame for not having done or said something to someone who is no longer available to you. You may have guilt for accepting responsibility for someone else's misfortune or problem because it bothers you to see that person suffer. In your mind, you may have caused another’s suffering because of your failures—failure to control your impulses, mood, etc.
In these circumstances, guilt is a motivator to amend all real or perceived wrongs. It frequently involves some sense of right and wrong that inhibits you from choosing a "wrong" course of action, depending upon how you assign your own definitions to the words. How does this happen? Here’s a list of some of the common psychological principles, behavioral shenanigans and complaints I often see in the office. People will:
• Make you believe they will suffer greatly if you do not respond positively to their request(s).
• Call on your guilt to respond to their requests, even when it means violating your rights.
• Respond to your irrational self by reinforcing your irrational thinking, giving you a sense of blame, for past, present or future actions.
• Build up a verbal or imagined scenario that portrays you at fault for inaction, thus guaranteeing your sense of guilt and your willingness to do anything to alleviate it.
• Accuse you of misdeeds, words or actions to arouse your sense of guilt and make you believe you are the one with a problem in an interpersonal relationship difficulty. (This effectively takes the pressure off of them.)
• Reinforce your negative self-perceptions, encouraging you to be guilt ridden and self-judgmental for their benefit.
• Build a case with moral absolutes to convince you of THE standard, THE "right way" to do things, avoiding that negative feeling of guilt for themselves.
• Set up situations for you in which you will believe your alternatives are limited to that which results in the least sense of guilt.
• Feign or fake hardship, illness, discomfort, unhappiness, incompetence or other negative behavior to arouse your sense of guilt and have you take over those tasks or duties bringing imagined negative consequences for them.
• Threaten negative consequences, like going to jail, to the hospital, to the juvenile detention center, failing school, dying or divorcing you. This manipulation uses your guilt to benefit them.