Kiss Your Guilt Goodbye
The sunlight bathed the room in an almost surreal mist. He sat listlessly on the couch as he watched her move ever so slowly. Each gesture came after seemingly enormous effort. The edges of her lips were cracked from age. Her skin was deeply lined and resistant to the movements of her mouth. However, her eyes, deeply set into a still attractive face, sparkled when she talked. This was a joyful morning for her . . . always a joyful morning to be in the company of one of her grandchildren.
Once an active participant in her environment, she had been forced by her arthritis to take a more passive role as viewer and recipient of news rather than its creator. In fact, she always had difficulty making her days and weeks appear interesting to others since she envisioned their lives as filled with great designs and activities. For her, the little things had now become distinctly significant … a book of light poetry, an amusing television program, the little dog who was her constant companion, the unexpected smile of a child or her daughter’s voice echoing in a telephone receiver. Each of these small events was a gift.
Somehow, he knew all this, sensed all this as he sat with the woman whom he had come to view from a distance, a separation generated by his own unresolved questions. He wondered whether he would, indeed, want to live so long, especially if he was ill or disabled.
These visits had become a way of dispensing with an obligation … more to pacify his insistent mother than to engage his grandmother. Almost three months had elapsed since his last visit, during which time his parents had accused him of being insensitive, inconsiderate and callous. It was the word “callous” that tapped something very disturbing inside and flooded him with guilt. He didn’t want to be ungrateful and cool to those who loved him. The more uncomfortable he felt, the more he pushed himself to see his grandmother. Although he knew he loved and respected this very mild-mannered lady, it was his guilt and self-consciousness that dominated him.
Somehow, even though he sat opposite her, he was too distracted by his own inner currents to become involved. As he watched her sip tea and smile at him, he couldn’t help but smile back. For a moment, some of those old, warm, very warm, feelings caressed him. Still, he could not seem to concentrate. Her words fell on deaf ears. He found himself drifting, daydreaming about the white-water canoe trip he planned for the following weekend. He could see the sleek, slender boat cutting through the turbulent water and polished rocks. He could feel the sense of off-balance he always experienced on the river . . . the very same kind of uncentered sensation that possessed him now.
The fantasy abruptly ended when he was startled by his grandmother’s hand gently tapping his shoulder. Her head rocked back and forth in a cadence as even and calculated as a pendulum. She smiled as she suggested perhaps there was somewhere he might be wanting to go. Her manner was easy and accepting.
Immediately, he froze – feeling exposed, transparent. He believed she knew his underlying feelings. His lack of interest was apparent. Uncomfortable and embarrassed, he felt even more guilty than before. He could not believe how ridiculous and insensitive he had been to ignore her conversation while sitting only five feet away.
Somehow, had she been angry or accusing, he might have quickly come to his own defense. He was tired; it had been a long night – the excuses would have been endless. But it was the softness of her gaze, the patient understanding that really unnerved him. He kept telling himself he should pay attention, should be responsive … after all, what else does she have but these infrequent encounters. And yet, at the very same moment, he resented feeling so obligated.
The more uncomfortable he became, the less able he was to listen to her words. Even her smiles made him self-conscious. Finally, the feelings of guilt became so unbearable he decided to leave, excusing himself with an obviously invented appointment. Nevertheless, she insisted she understood and kissed him affectionately on the cheek.
As he waited for the elevator, he felt even more peculiar … for he really valued this woman, alone and almost captive in a cold, cement high-rise world. But somehow, he knew his good feelings had been buried beneath the debris of his guilt and his discomfort had soured a formerly fun-filled event of warmth and sharing. He turned awkwardly to say good-bye as he slunk sheepishly into the elevator.
Another day. Another city. Another Option student, a young executive for a textile company, decided to stay late with his secretary in order to review and catch up on paperwork. Robert knew his prime motive was other than work, but he persisted in telling himself he was not thinking about what he was thinking. After all, he considered, work was an excellent reason for coming home later. It was the excuse he had presented quite innocently to himself as well as the girl he lived with. Within a half hour, the office was completely empty except for the two overachievers. Robert suggested they work in his office, where they could be more comfortable. After carefully locking his door, he began to mix his dictation with some light touching and body brushing techniques. She continued to write, obviously open to his advances.
Within minutes, the two were on the floor between the file cabinets. The pencil and pad rested on the deep pile rug just beside their bodies. After finishing their encounter, they left the office together hand-in-hand. In the lobby, they parted in a perfectly businesslike manner. As Robert began to walk toward the entranceway, he was intercepted by the woman he lived with. Visibly upset, she confronted him, her eyes filled with disappointment and anger. She explained to him how she decided to surprise him with a visit to his office and had heard his entire performance on the office floor.
Trapped and feeling transparent, Robert began to apologize. “Logistics are crucial,” he thought to himself. “I have to convince her that I feel bad about this … and yet I do and don’t.” His excitement about his adventure was dissipated by his intense feelings of discomfort. He saw himself as having “caused” his lover’s agony. Guilt pervaded him as he began to realize he had jeopardized something he valued. The worse he felt, the more he assured himself and his mate that he would never do it again.
Guilt is what a “good” person feels when he has done something “bad.”
Doing something bad can also include not doing what we believe we should have done. If our training was classic, as soon as we realize our trespasses, we immediately feel bad. This great internal whip is a system of checks and balances that supposedly helps us stay within the rules.
There is the person who regrets having an affair and calls it bad so he will make sure not to do it again. The young man who feels guilty of participating in making his girlfriend pregnant and is willing to buy the Empire State Building to help her (and to neutralize his guilt). The executive who begins to feel very bad about slacking off and suddenly has a burst of energy.
These people are feeling guilty and are acting out of their guilt. They are functioning within the first goal area of guilt: To help themselves do what they believe they should do or stop themselves from doing what they believe they shouldn’t do. In effect, like other unhappiness, guilt is used to motivate or unmotivate as the case may be.
When I feel guilty about neglecting to help a friend or about being angry with my lover, I am saying if I did not become unhappy about what I “should” have done or “should” not have done, I just might not correct my undesirable behavior. The self-inflicted psychic pain acts as a deterrent or an incentive. Here again is the emergence of the word “should.” When I believe I “should” have behaved in a certain fashion, I am articulating an expectation (I must always be ready to help my friends or I must be loving all the time with my lover). These “shoulds” are then further compounded and supported by guilt.
The second goal of guilt serves a different, well-accepted function. Guilt is the way I show my “humanness” to myself and others by feeling appropriately bad in certain circumstances now so that I can feel good later. In this way, I am paying my dues. We are also much more willing to forgive the remorseful wrongdoer than the one who exhibits no repentance because we believe the person who feels guilty about an action is less likely to repeat it in the future.
This is more than just a question of taking responsibility. It is labeling (judging) my actions as bad and feeling as well as displaying anguish. It is a form of penance, self-judged and self-executed, in which unhappiness becomes a cleansing vehicle. Although often displayed to others in order to earn a pardon, at times, guilt can be suffered in silence and secrecy as we attempt to satisfy our severest critic … ourselves.
The third goal area of guilt is using the threat of guilt as an enforcer of a promise, whether it be implicit or explicit. Instead of wanting to be successful at a job or love affair, marriage or a competition, we turn it into a need by creating a promise. I promise to make a lot of money. I promise to make you happier and be gentle. I promise to be a great husband or father. I promise to love you forever and ever. These promises are commitments to perform, whether they be said to others or to ourselves. We also have our “not to” promises. I promise not to be unfaithful. I promise not to steal or cheat. I promise not to lie.
Why do I make promises? Ultimately, it is a tool to motivate. It heightens my concern, energizes my commitment and creates an obligation. I say to myself or another that I must do this or that, otherwise I will suffer unhappiness (wanting becomes needing).
If I fail to deliver what I promised, I hold myself responsible and feel guilty for “breaking” my promise. This is again my way of letting myself know that I missed and am punishing myself so I won’t do it again. This is also an example of me punishing me, as if I believe I would not do what I want unless I promise and hold the threat of guilt over my head.
An essential fueling belief for guilt is that I am responsible for another’s unhappiness. If someone gets unhappy or upset because I did not perform or deliver, I often believe I did it . . . I made them unhappy, “caused” or “created” their unhappiness. Yet, if each of us creates our own happiness and unhappiness in accordance with our own beliefs, I could not be responsible for someone else’s disappointment and despair. Another person’s anger or sadness is theirs, which they choose for their own reasons. If doing the best I could at any moment was not enough for them and their expectations, they make their own judgments for their own purposes. If a young boy has performed poorly in school, the scolding and angry parent was not made unhappy by the child. Their discomforts say nothing about their son, but everything about themselves and their own disappointments.
It’s fantastic that guilt is not limited to any one area or subject. I can feel guilty about anything: too much sex or too little, love, money, marriage, business, infidelity, social injustice, etc.
Yet, guilt has its own self-defeating qualities. Reinforcing my behavior with doses of self-inflicted pain and anguish often brings very distracting side effects. As a result of my guilt, I feel trapped to do “this” or “that” in order to absolve and avoid my uncomfortable feelings. And although I might, indeed, want to alter my actions, I tend to resist being pushed . . . even if it’s my own pressure.
In more extreme cases, guilt might actually push me away from the very thing I want. If I was rude and abrupt to a friend, I might feel guilty so that I will be sure not to do it again. What I really want is to be warm and cordial. But as the embarrassment and pain of my guilt grows, I choose to avoid my friend. The less I see him, the less opportunity I have in achieving my desire to be warm and helpful, which is what I was trying to enforce in the first place. In effect, the mechanism has backfired!
This is the stop-start of unhappiness. My original goal in using guilt or the threat of guilt is to intensify my wants … so I would try harder. The irony is by passing judgments on myself and in not permitting myself to miss the mark, I sometimes extinguish the original desire by creating tension that inhibits my free movement.
Why the short circuit? Guilt is moving away from what I don’t want rather than clearly moving toward what I do want. It is a negative movement away from pain. I am afraid if I do not feel guilty, I might continue to do this bad thing or not do the things I should. The implications are dramatic. The implicit statement is “I do not trust myself.” I am suspecting I might purposely go against myself …and do what is bad for me. Therefore, I feel guilty to ensure I don’t. Touchdown with a prime belief: if I would be bad for myself, then there must be something wrong with me.
Is there an alternative? Yes, I can question my belief about guilt like any other unhappiness. When I am aware of feeling guilty, I can ask myself … Why am I guilty? and what am I believing right now that makes me guilty? By tracking through the beliefs, I can uncover the “why” of my feelings and herein lies the opportunity to discard or change the underlying belief.
If I could want without needing to get or make promises, I could want almost anything I fancy. If my happiness was not dependent on getting, I could go after everything I want without anxiety or fear. In fact, I would increase my clarity and energy effectiveness in getting what I want because I would not simultaneously be battling with my fears and anxieties.
In eliminating the judgments of “bad” and the pressure of promises, I eliminate the usefulness of guilt and the threat of guilt. I do not have to worry about delivery if I never said I “had to” or if I didn’t judge it bad to have not delivered. I could try. If I miss, I could accept it and still be motivated to improve my aim for the next occasion.
If I know I am not bad for myself or others, I would not feel guilty. I do the best I can according to my current beliefs. The results of my actions are lessons, not indictments. And the lessons I learn from unproductive actions can help me focus on what I really want for myself. Being in touch with such an awareness would make guilt indispensable and unnecessary.
No matter what anyone judges as the “appropriate” guilty response, we could know that we celebrate our humanity not in our unhappiness, but in our loving and caring.
The Think Page (Kiss Your Guilt Goodbye)
Questions to ask yourself
- Do you often feel guilty about your thoughts and actions?
- When you are feeling guilty, do you let others know how you feel? If so, why?
- If you didn’t feel guilty about doing something you believe is wrong, are you afraid you would do it again?
- Do you expect others to feel “bad” when they do not deliver what they promised?
- Do you make promises? If so, why? What are you afraid would happen if you no longer made promises?
Option concepts to consider
- Guilt is unhappiness used to motivate, un-motivate and to pay dues.
- Not trusting ourselves is often symbolized by guilt.
- A promise is our way of making sure we do something we are not sure we want to do or trust we will do.
- If our happiness was not dependent on getting, we would go after everything we wanted without any fear.
- The results of our actions are lessons, not indictments.
- Our humanity can be celebrated by our loving and our caring.
Beliefs to consider discarding
- Guilt is what “good” people feel when they have done something “bad.”
- Guilt is necessary to keep people honest.
- If I don’t feel guilty, I might do it again.
- The only way to count on someone is to make him promise.
- When I let someone down, I’m responsible for his unhappiness.
Sixth Dialogue – Guilt
Q. What are you unhappy about?
A. About what i did.
Q. What did you do?
A. When my husband tom was away at a convention, gary dropped by. He wasn’t aware that tom wouldn’t be home. In fact, he had just come specifically to see him. You know how good friends don’t have to make appointments. And then i was alone with nothing to do and he was really free for the evening, having planned to spend it with tom and me. So … So i suggested he stay. That seemed harmless enough. Maybe it was the drinks?
Q. The drinks?
A. Yes, i poured some sherry for both of us and one glass led to another. Then, i guess, it just happened. I mean it wasn’t planned or anything. I’m not even sure i even really wanted it. I just can’t believe i would do that . . . It’s just not me. I feel so cheap.
Q. What do you mean by “cheap?”
A. My husband is out breaking his neck while i’m home in bed with another man … And not just another man, a dear friend. Sounds like some silly daytime soap oper
A. (crying) but it isn’t, you know; its me.
Q. What about that makes you so unhappy?
A. That i slipped, that i was out of control.
Q. Why is that so disturbing?
A. I guess it shows me when i let loose, play it by ear, i’m really terrible. I’m not that classic dissatisfied woman looking to shack up. I really have a reasonably decent relationship with my husband … It’s not perfect, but certainly not bad enough to warrant cheating behind his back. (sobbing softly) i mean for just one lousy night over three months ago, all this …i’ve been paying ever since.
Q. What do you mean?
A. I mean i feel terrible, i can’t stand myself. If i could only take it all back, i would.
A. Because i shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t set out to cheat on my marriage and i certainly don’t want my life filled with lies.
Q. I understand that’s not what you are now wanting, but why do you feel bad about what you did three months ago?
A. Why do i feel bad about what i did? (long pause) when you do something wrong, you naturally feel bad.
Q. Possibly … But why do you “naturally” feel bad?
A. (Smiling) you know, i really don’t know why. That sounds silly. I was going to say it’s automatic, but that doesn’t seem right. I guess feeling bad is another way to say i feel guilty.
Q. Okay, fine. It you define your feelings as guilty, why do you feel guilty?
A. Why? Wouldn’t anyone feel just a bit guilty after cheating on their husband in his own bed with, no less, a family friend.
Q. Maybe, but each of us would have our own reasons for feeling guilty. What are yours?
A. Well, i guess i see it as betraying a trust. If tom and i had decided to have an open marriage, with each of us going our own way from time to time, then it would be okay. It’s the undercover part that i feel guilty about.
Q. What do you mean?
A. I think i’d feel better if he knew. It would be in the open. I guess, in a way, that’s also what i’m most afraid will happen. I don’t really know how he’d react … Especially since the man was gary. Damn, i don’t know why i let myself get into this. I was so incredibly stupid. First, i blamed gary; but he didn’t drag me into the bedroom. We both went hand-in-hand. Two very consenting adults. Why the hell did i do it? I’m furious with myself.
Q. Why are you angry with yourself?
A. I shouldn’t have done it; it says something about my character. I wouldn’t want tom doing the same thing. Everything is upside-down. Mostly, i’m unhappy and feeling so guilty that i ever did it in the first place.
Q. What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t feel guilty about having the affair?
A. That i might do it again and again. (startled expression) wow, did i say that? I never realized i believed that before.
Q. Are you saying that by being guilty about having an affair, it will prevent you from entering into other ones?
A. Yes, that’s exactly what i mean. If i weren’t remorseful about it, i might do it again … Wouldn’t i?
Q. Well, maybe we can explore it. Do you want to have another affair?
A. No, really and truly no.
Q. Do you believe if you were not unhappy or guilty that you would?
A. As i think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. Even if i don’t feel guilty, i still know that i don’t want to hop in bed with anyone other than tom. That seems so clear now. I guess i was afraid that if i wasn’t guilty, it meant i wanted to do it again or i just might slip again. (smiling) that’s beautiful. I see why i’ve been feeling so guilty. But … But isn’t it normal to feel bad when you’ve done something wrong?
Q. What do you think?
A. I don’t know any more. I guess i’m believing if i don’t feel guilty, maybe it means i’m callous that i don’t care.
Q. Why do you believe that?
A. Because … Just maybe that’s what i’ve been taught. If you do something wrong or bad, you’re supposed to feel bad.
A. I thought i answered that … You are supposed to.
Q. Sure, but why are you supposed to feel bad when you do something “wrong”?
A. I guess to punish yourself. Retribution. It’s a crazy learning process that i’ve done for years.
Q. Do you need the punishment of feeling bad or unhappy in order to learn?
A. No. Of course not. I see that now. It’s strange. I don’t feel at all guilty right now and for the first time in three months, i’m absolutely clear. I don’t want to go outside my marriage and i’m not afraid that i will. Before, i felt so guilty i couldn’t even get to what i wanted. I just kept beating myself up.
Q. And now?
A. Well, i guess, whether i feel guilty or not, it doesn’t change what i did. I guess hating myself was my way of making it all right you know the old story … After you pay for your transgressions, everything is okay again.
Q. What do you want?
A. (Visibly drifting … After several minutes, no answer)
Q. What are you feeling?
A. You know what popped into my head? I thought i’d like to tell tom everything, but for the life of me, i couldn’t come up with a reason. I guess i also think if i tell him without being totally broken-up and frightened, he would think i was terrible.
Q. What are you saying?
A. That i’d like to tell him, but i’m afraid if i don’t seem guilt-ridden and miserable, he wouldn’t accept it. Look, i sure don’t want to ruin my marriage over anything like this.
Q. Do you believe you would?
A. I wouldn’t. (smiling) in many ways this whole thing has just reaffirmed what i want … Which is my husband. I guess my marriage does have some real problems … Especially communication problems. Maybe that’s what this was all for … Bringing things into the open. Without guilt, i even feel freer to really try to understand. I guess before i was too afraid.
Q. What do you want?
A. To feel good, which is exactly what i’m beginning to do right now for the first time in three months. It never occurred to me that i didn’t have to feel guilty … That, in fact, i made myself guilty. Strange, how my response felt so automatic.
Q. And now?
A. I see how i used the guilt. I guess i can feel good about myself and be a loving, caring wife without punishing myself. Funny … Now that i’m no longer unhappy about what i did, i’m much more willing to look at it.