This is the third in a three-part series of articles on the psychology of guilt. Please read the previous two articles first.
In guilt dynamics, there are only two patterns of thinking or behaving—rectifying something you did not do or rectifying something you erroneously did do. Either way you are stuck. In general, this is a no-win experience for the recipient. This is the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. In general, if we conform to the speaker’s manipulations, we have stuffed our anger and failed to be assertive. We feel crummy (anxiety on the surface, resentment underneath) and reinforce the guilt-inducing behaviors by not dealing with it directly. If we counter-manipulate at the level of the manipulation, we will have an argument and be further criticized by the speaker, again at the same level using the same standards, which in this case we are bucking. If we fail to respond; that is, do nothing, we are burdened with unresolved negative feelings. Strike three—you’re out!
I think of guilt as being on a continuum from the more local to the more global. Guilt can be induced by small events, like not coming home at curfew, especially if you happen to be a teenager. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, one can have “life guilt,” like Catholics and other Christians who were born in original sin.
“If you’re born on this world, you’re guilty, period. Screw you, end of report, next case. Your birth certificate is proof of guilt.”--George Carlin
From that point of view, humans are in a sorry state right out of the starting gate, and they didn’t even do anything, personally. The causes of guilt are failures in behavior, if viewed from legal, sociological or psychological perspectives, or sins, if viewed from a religious point of view. Both in the legal and religious arenas, there are lesser and greater transgressions. Thus, in law we have misdemeanors (petty theft, jaywalking) vs. felonies (burglary, assault). In Catholicism, there are intermediary “sins.” These are the venial sins. Then, there are the big ones, called mortal sins. (Catholics are my best customers because of all that guilt).
Guilt is intensified if the perception is that by our behavior, we have caused harm to another. Thus, getting drunk and running a stoplight causes us to crash into another’s car, which causes considerable harm to the other driver and car. However, guilt is diminished if there is no harm caused or if I don’t get caught. Consider this scenario. It is three in the morning, and I’m driving home on an old country road. I come to an intersection with a four-way stop, and there is no one around for miles. I slow down but don’t stop; instead, coast through the intersection after looking in all directions. Did I do something wrong? I didn’t hurt anyone and no one was there to remind me of the law, which I clearly knew; therefore, my driving must be OK.
To find the cause of guilt, I have to recognize that I have violated some standard of thinking, feeling or behaving. If I don’t appreciate or even know of the standard(s), then I don’t feel guilt. If I do, then I have a problem, mostly how to deal with my ambivalence. Ambivalence? Yes. Guilt, like procrastination and the inability to forgive are the three major forms of ambivalence. (An example of a minor form of ambivalence would be simple indecision, say at a restaurant, having trouble deciding which entrée is more appealing. Distrust can be a form of ambivalence, but some forms of distrust can just be distrust without ambivalence.)
This is really an article on ambivalence because guilt is one of three major forms of ambivalence. Why discuss ambivalence? Guilt rests on the foundation of ambivalence. Without a solid understanding of ambivalence, the three major manifestations of ambivalence make no sense. So, forgive the apparent diversion to follow, but from my point of view, a discussion of ambivalence is necessary to properly understand guilt.