L

ike the Roman god Janus, the feeling of guilt has a double face, at the origin of a delicate paradox: on the one hand, it is highly unpleasant, to the point of sometimes poisoning the lives of those who feed it, but on the other hand, it is indispensable to life in society.

It is therefore a balancing act to tame it, trying to preserve its usefulness while limiting its destructive power. At the heart of how to stop feeling guilty, is the notion of responsibility.

THE REGULATING ROLE OF THE FEELING OF GUILT

guilt regulates our behavior


Like we talked about in our detailed article about the usefulness of the feeling of guilt. Let us first recall that emotions very close to guilt actually appear quite early in human life.

In fact, around the eighteenth month, self-awareness emerges (the child recognizes himself in a mirror) and that of others (the child knows that others have thoughts and desires different from his own, but this awareness is not completely mature until much later, around the age of 8 years).

Guilt then manifests itself as a kind of inner policeman, punishing bad actions, that is, violations of the rules that cause harm to others.

This emotion, which emanates from the sense of empathy – only the individual capable of putting himself in the shoes of others can imagine the suffering – is healthy since it helps to live in society and to respect its obligations.

It is indeed desirable that anyone who causes an accident or damages the property of others should feel guilty. This painful feeling encourages him to apologize and make amends. And above all, to avoid in the future the behaviours that are at the root of it.

The function of the internal policeman of guilt is thus to ensure compliance with the rules in the absence of authority.

PERMANENTLY GUILTY

avoiding to feel guilty permanently


But, in addition to this healthy guilt, there is a much less useful version.

In this regard, we could mention the image of cancer: healthy cells, which fulfil a specific function, undergo a mutation that causes them to proliferate out of control, without any further benefit for the organism that hosts them.

This is how guilt sometimes develops in a morbid way, to the point of invading the whole psyche: some people feel guilty almost permanently, even though they have committed no fault, no reprehensible act, as this man testifies:

“It started very early. I was the eldest of five children. I quickly realized that I had ease at school, which was not the case for my brothers and sisters. First in class, long studies, university, doctorate. While my two brothers had all the trouble finishing compulsory school and one of my sisters did not even finish it. In short, I felt guilty about being gifted, about being my parents’ friend, about being an inaccessible example. It is as if I was stealing from my brothers and sisters the love that should be theirs. I had come to stop rejoicing in my academic achievements.”

MANIPULATION BY GUILT, WHY IS IT EFFECTIVE?

manipulation by guilt is effective


To understand how this healthy emotion is diverted from its primary function, it is useful to look at its use for manipulation purposes.

Indeed, among the many manipulation strategies, the one of making others feel guilty is particularly effective. The aim here is to make the other person feel guilty by making him/her believe that he/she is responsible for a misfortune or suffering (known or to come).

For example, this teenage girl who wants to go to a distant party and who, faced with her mother’s refusal to pick her up in the middle of the night, assails her:

“Well, I’ll hitchhike! And if I get raped, it’ll be your fault! “

Or the elderly person who puts pressure on his family:

“If you put me in this retirement home instead of keeping me at home, then I will let myself die…”

Emotional blackmail in all its forms is also a sad manifestation:

“If you leave me, I will throw myself off the bridge and you will have my death on your conscience!”

All these sentences have in common that they try to make the other person responsible for a future misfortune. They all convey the idea that he will have to assume the consequences, since it will be “his fault” if the worst happens.

Of course, this is not the case in reality: it is a matter of manipulation.

Why? Because in each of these examples, the speaker can choose another alternative: the girl can decide not to go to the party or to sleep there, the eldest can choose to enjoy her new life in the retirement home and the rejected lover can choose to turn the page to find a new partner. Since they have the freedom to choose, it is impossible to attribute the responsibility of their choice to anyone else.

EVERYONE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS

everyone should be responsible for his actions


The general rule with regard to all these behaviours is that those who have the freedom to choose from among several options must bear the consequences; they are responsible for them.

As long as one tries to make others bear this responsibility, he’s trying to make them accountable and, in the event of unfortunate consequences, he makes them feel guilty: “It will be your fault if I suffer”.

Once the mechanism of guilt has been identified, it is legitimate to wonder if the same lever is activated when we experience morbid feelings of guilt.

The first clue in this sense is language: don’t we say that we feel guilty? It therefore seems that one can make oneself feel guilty, that is, blame oneself for the misfortune of others without anyone else intervening.

Example: We learn that one of our friends committed suicide. It is entirely possible to blame oneself. The associated thoughts are then:

“I should have been more present with him. He said several times that he was not well. If I had listened more to him, then he wouldn’t have died…”

GUILT IS DENYING THE PROBABILITIES

getting rid of guilt is acknowledging other probabilities in life


“If i had listened more to him, then he wouldn’t have died…”

The mechanism at work here is similar to the one described above: someone bears the consequences of others’ decisions.

In fact, there is no need for a third party to feel guilty. But the benefits of this mechanism remain more enigmatic… When guilt is voluntarily used to manipulate others, there is an advantage: the influence you gain on the person you are targeting. In this way, the young girl in the example showed above can make her mother give in and get her to take her car at two in the morning to pick her up, the eldest can make sure she stays at home and the lover can keep the romantic relationship going. But what is the advantage of hitting your head against the wall in guilt?

To find out, let’s go back to the cognitive side of the person whose friend killed himself: (“If I had listened more to him, then he wouldn’t have died.”)

The focus should be on the second part: “He would not have died“. We note the absence of a maybe, moving this conclusion away from the realm of probabilities to the realm of certainties. By repeating to himself that by acting otherwise, he could have avoided the tragedy, the individual reassures himself, but at the cost of a negation with serious consequences: the free will of his friend. The latter’s act then no longer responds to his own will, but to someone else’s decisions.

PARADOXICALLY, GUILT REASSURES

guilt is a vicious circle


Consider the example of a child who feels guilty about his parents’ divorce. He said to himself: “I should have been a better child, worked better at school, prayed more…”

Paradoxically, these guilt thoughts reassure him: he should have, which means he could have, and the divorce could have been avoided, he believes. Better yet, it is possible that his parents will get back together if he makes more effort.

Thus, by convincing himself that he has the power to change events, this child reassures himself in the face of a terrible realization: the world does not work as he wishes and he is powerless to change its course.

Rather than feel this terrible anguish due to powerlessness in the face of others’ decisions, he prefers to think that he has the power to effectively change things. But the price to pay is responsibility, and therefore guilt when things go wrong. Guilt is the ransom for the power you think you have.

GUILT, THE RANSOM OF POWER

feeling guilty implies you think you are all powerful


The advantage is there: a feeling of omnipotence, certainly illusory, but psychologically reassuring. By denying the free will of the other, we become responsible for their choices, which can be exhilarating because we eliminate the anguish of uncertainty, but we pay them the exorbitant price of guilt when things go wrong.

Guilt is the ransom of power. Let us see if this feeling of omnipotence is also present in the three cases of manipulation mentioned above:

  • The mother can reassure herself by thinking that by going to look for her girl, she eliminates the risk of her being assaulted, when in reality, such a risk is never totally excluded in a night out.
  • In the case of the elder, her family may think that she will be happy at home, while she may be just as unhappy, in addition to running the risk of feeling unwell and no one is there to help her.
  • Finally, believing that it is enough to renew a sentimental relationship for the rejected partner to flourish is an illusion that the statistics on the subject have quickly denied.

But each time, we see that the person who feels guilty gives himself a power that he really does not have over events and others. The feeling of guilt, paradoxically, conveys an idea of power, if not of omnipotence: it was enough for us to act (or to have acted) in a certain way for the result to be (or to have been) exactly what we wanted, independently of the free will of others.

DENYING THE FREE WILL OF OTHERS

remind yourself of other's free will to choose what they feel

Let’s look at an additional example to better understand this idea: a woman meets a colleague who invites her out for a drink after work. She accepts the proposal while making sure to notify her husband by phone that she will arrive a little later. On her way home, her husband gives her a hard time being jealous.

If she feels guilty, it is because she is taking some responsibility for this jealousy crisis. She said to herself: “It is my fault that he is in this state! “.

However, the husband’s emotional reaction is not caused by his wife’s actions, but by the way he interprets this behaviour. The latter is certainly a trigger, but by no means a cause! The reason for jealousy is the thoughts playing in her husband mind about the worst-case scenario. Actually, he could be jealous even if his wife had given up the invitation. A simple hair found on her dress was enough to spark off a crisis.

THE MECHANISM OF SELF-BLAME

how self blame unfolds

The mechanism of self-blame is twofold:

  • the person denies the free will of others while granting himself an influence over them that entrusts to the omnipotence.
  • This transfers their responsibilities to himself, transforming others intovictims without decision-making power. In fact, where someone feels guilty, it is not uncommon for another person to position themselves as a victim.

A final example highlights this double dynamic of taking power over others and denying their free will: A father who feels guilty about seeing his son smoke. He thinks it’s his fault, because he was a smoker too and he set a bad example.His guilt leads him to deny that his son is responsible for his choice to smoke.

It is still that his son is the one who buys his cigarette packages and lights them one after the other. Besides, this young man’s brother did not become a smoker! If the father had full responsibility, both his children should behave in the same way.

However, the father’s guilt protects him from a terrible reality: he is powerless to change his son’s decision, he can only notice this dependence on cigarettes which prepares him for a slow agony… The slogan of morbid guilt is simple: better to be guilty than powerless!

BETTER GUILTY THAN HELPLESS!

That is why we cannot simply erase morbid guilt with a magic or therapeutic wand: its absence would confront us with a terrible anguish of impotence.

Whoever wishes to free himself from morbid guilt must first renounce this fantasy of omnipotence. Accept that it is up to others to assume the consequences of their choices. It is about learning to assume our responsibilities, all our responsibilities, but only our responsibilities, which means giving others responsibility for their actions, thoughts and feelings, in other words, their well-being or their unease.

It also means letting go, that is, accepting to live in a world where we cannot control everything, where our influence is real but limited. It’s the price of stopping to feel guilty.

IN SUMMARY

Guilt is usually a useful emotion, but there is a more deleterious version: for no reason, some people feel guilty all the time, or others are manipulated (they are blamed for the misfortune of others).

In these cases, the individual thinks that he controls the facts or that the outcome of an event depends on him. Hence the weight of responsibility.

To free oneself from it, the key is to abandon this need for omnipotence and let go.

Author

Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying to understand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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Related Articles

Author

Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying to understand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Be the first to receive the latest articles and exclusive offers on our products directly in your inbox

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*You can unsubscribe any time via the link provided in Newsletter.