Archive for March 2011

Guilt   2 comments

Guilt is a very powerful cognitive emotional experience. One that can lead a person to feel anxious and depressed. Guilt can sometimes lead someone to engage in escapist behaviors such as social withdrawal or heavy drug use. However, guilt can also serve as a positive force. One that motivates people to atone for legitimate wrong doing and to remedy tarnished relationships. In essence guilt can be a tremendous learning experience.

People feel guilty for a variety of reasons, sometimes this guilt is unwarranted,sometimes it is valid. Excessive and punitive self-guilt is debilitating psychologically and can leave one to become inert. People can become consumed by guilt and the thoughts and images associated with it. People will neglect their relationships, responsibilities, and life itself while playing over and over again in their minds the memories, experiences, and associated thoughts and feelings. Excessive guilt is often associated with PTSD.

On the other end of the spectrum we find the sociopathic perspective. Here, a person feels no guilt or remorse, rationalizes their behavior, and otherwise lacks a sense of moral reasoning altogether. Such people will use denial or project onto and blame others for their behavior.

Both extremes of this spectrum are irrational. Both extremes, when they are expressed by people, come about through a variety of reasons; some experiential, some cultural, and some are likely based in heredity. This can only be truly determined through knowing the person him or herself.

For instance, let’s say a person grew up in an environment consisting of a fundamentalist religious culture. Perhaps there is a strict moral code. Such a person could be found punishing him or her self and feeling guilty over finding people of the same sex attractive. If homosexuality in any form is a violation of the persons instilled moral code the person may believe that this will have deep metaphysical ramifications. Although understandable how such a person can come to feel guilty within that person’s cultural context, from my perspective this would be considered excessive guilt.

The other end of the spectrum consists of a more sociopathic person who may rationalize theft by blaming the victim for leaving their property in a place where it could be easily stolen. This person neglects the negative effect on the other person who suffers upon realization of the theft of their property.

When working with a counselor, a determination must be made in regards to the rationality of the person’s guilt. There can be an offering of alternative perspectives. For the person in the fundamentalist culture, he or she could be shown that nature is abundant with homosexuality in its lifeforms and the person can ponder; Why would humans, being a part of nature themselves, be so far different? Then, one would have to work with this person further to examine the ongoing effects on the person’s social system, especially if a revelation of the person’s homosexuality is made to those in their social system. In the context of a fundamentalist culture, it can be quite difficult for this person to come to accept him or her self for who they are. Even more difficult, can be acceptance within the person’s social system. Empowerment is crucial with such a person so that opinions and judgments by others do not hold too great a value that the guilt becomes reinforced.

For the sociopathic thief, if a counselor cannot help the person accept responsibility for their actions as well as adopt a perspective of empathy in understanding the negative effect their choices have had on others, then another possible approach would be to highlight the real legal and punitive consequences that can come about to those who harm others and violate the law. Sometimes this can restrict this behavior, other times not. If it does not, the justice system exists for this purpose and criminals are removed from society.

As human beings, we have all made choices and behaved in ways which we believe, and in turn feel like, we should not have. If one accepts the concept of free will, then moral reasoning is a positive force in this world as human beings always have the potential for great and destructive atrocity. Our conscience keeps us in check. However, malignant guilt can be a destructive force. Leading one to depression, deteriorating relationships, even suicide. At times a person can resolve their guilt on their own and live life without such a burden. Others may require counseling to determine the level of rationality behind the guilt and work to attain the true goal when working through guilt; forgiveness to oneself.

Finally, the literal “Golden Rule” in regards to guilt and relationships is to put on the other shoe. Think about how you would feel if someone you have a relationship with, a spouse, relative, or friend was carrying out the absolute identical behavior and thought process you are having. How does that make you feel? If it would hurt you to know the other person was doing the same thing  than that is usually a good sign that it may be in your best interest to avoid such behaviors, that your guilt may be justified. Conversely, if you would truly be accepting of the other person(s) carrying out the exact same behaviors than it is likely what you are doing is not something to necessarily feel guilty about.