This is the first of a six-part series of articles on guilt, emphasizing specific examples, and how to deal with them. Written by a psychologist.
In its most healthy and appropriate sense, guilt is an emotional warning sign that most people learn through their normal childhood social development. Its purpose is to let us know when we’ve done something wrong, to help us develop a better sense of our behavior by being aware of how our behaviors affect ourselves and others. It prompts us to re-examine our values, principles and ideals so that we don’t end up making the same mistake(s) twice. This thinking, as should be obvious by now, has an upside and a downside. Here’s some every-day, down-to-earth “situations,” and then discussions about how to deal with each by creating a third standard, not necessarily accepting the one mandated by the guilt-perpetrator. The response to some of these examples is in subsequent articles, so be sure to read all six in this series. (Also, see the previous articles on ambivalence and guilt, the psychology of guilt and dealing with guilt by this author.)
We speed on the freeway and rationalize the behavior. We tell ourselves, “I’m just keeping up with traffic.” There is ambivalence because we know we are driving faster than the speed limit, but at the same time everyone else is doing it, so it must be OK. This rationalization works to reduce the anxiety in our own minds, until we look in the rear view mirror and see a flashing red light. The cop shows us the number on his radar gun, and “now” we not only acknowledge guilt but also experience it acutely in the form of an admission of wrong doing, often followed by pleading our case to the policeman. We also experience anxiety. We imagine the price of the traffic ticket, think of the inconvenience of attending traffic school and paying higher insurance premiums. If we are lucky, the officer lets us off with a warning and we go our way, vowing not to speed again, or at least until the cop disappears.
Your mother tells you to always wear clean underwear when leaving the house. Why? “Because if you get into an accident and are taken to the hospital, the doctors will think you are a slob.” Ambivalence occurs because you know the doctor might think this but you also don’t want to give in to your mother’s demand. So, you don’t change your underwear just to spite your mom, but you drive extra carefully that day.
Your husband treated you badly, ignored you and thought only of himself for years. You had an affair because you no longer could stand the neglect and because you were angry to the core. You didn’t tell anyone and never got caught. Yet, you felt guilt, even though at deeper levels you justified your behavior. You had needs and they went unmet way too long, and even though your needs were legitimate, your behavior gave you “pause” (hence the ambivalence).
Your doctor said to stop eating fatty foods and to lose weight. That night, you are out with your best friends, celebrating graduating from college. The menu arrives and there are lots of yummy choices, plus a few calorie-restrictive ones (that taste like cardboard). You may feel guilty tomorrow, but not tonight. Will power is overruled by other powers. You know the correct thing to do (THE standard) because somewhere in the back of your mind are your doctor’s words. Yet, you order steak and lobster, butter, sour cream, chives, and a cheesecake chaser. (There were a few side vegetables somewhere on that plate, weren’t there?) Yum.
You got an “A minus,” not an “A” on your term paper, because you used a few incorrect forms of words. You beat yourself up. “Why didn’t I see that ‘their’ and ‘there’ are not the same? And, I used ‘to’ instead of ‘too.’ I wasn’t perfect and I ‘should’ have known better.” Ambivalence in this case might stem from knowing THE standard but also not caring sufficiently to use the right words at the time because of competing interests, or just laziness.