"Every time I ask for something for myself, she just sends me on this guilt trip. It's not worth it!"
"He always makes me feel so guilty!"
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"He doesn't think it's right; I feel so guilty whenever I do it."
"I feel guilty even when I just disagree."
Guilt is, perhaps, one of the most powerful of human emotions. It can motivate us to do -- or not do -- all sorts of things that rationally make little, if any, sense.
In the work I do as a therapist, I often hear statements similar to those. They are problematic, primarily because they are based on two false assumptions about guilt and the place it has in our lives.
First, such statements assume that other people "make" us feel guilty. Any time we believe other people have the power to make us feel anything, we are not only giving them a power not rightfully theirs but also misunderstanding how emotions work.
Our emotions are a response to what we are experiencing or thinking. If we see a sad movie or think about something sad, we often feel sad. If are surprised by a phone call from a good friend or remember a pleasant time spent together, we feel pleased, happy, etc.
The point is that our emotions come from within us. They are our response, and other people do not make them happen. That doesn't mean we can wish or think them away, it just means that nobody but us has the power to make us feel.
With some work, we can even change our emotional response to a person or situation. If we feel guilty, then, it is our feeling. It is probably linked to a whole host of past experiences in which we learned to feel guilty, but we have the power to change our guilty feelings.
But unless we give it to them, no one has the power to make us feel guilty.
Second, the statements above assume that others can set standards of guilt or innocence for us. Guilt is not just a feeling, it is also a judgment we and others make about people. If someone robs a bank, he or she is guilty of violating a standard most of us accept. Their guilt is not just an emotion -- in fact, they may not feel guilty at all. It is a judgment made against them by the rest of us.
We are all sometimes guilty of not living up to such standards. And if we are reasonably mentally and morally mature and healthy, we know it ourselves. We rationally acknowledge to ourselves that we are guilty.
There may be no one in sight when we barrel down the expressway at 100 mph, but we probably still experience some guilt for violating a standard to which we generally all agree.
Guilt as a rational judgment must ultimately come from within us. All civilizations depend upon the individual's rational acceptance of certain standards and his or her acknowledgment of guilt if these standards are transgressed. There could never be enough policemen to enforce these standards unless a vast majority of us agreed to them.
We, then, determine our own guilt. We are not guilty simply by acting or thinking in ways that others disagree with. Certainly we must take their values into account, but eventually we must also make our own decision and accept the consequences (again assuming we are mentally and morally mature and healthy).
Whether we see guilt as an emotion or as a judgment about violating standards, ultimately we are responsible. We are not guilty simply for disagreeing. We are not guilty when someone else does not approve of our actions. No one has the power to make us feel guilty. No one sends us on a guilt trip -- we buy the ticket.