This is the second of a six-part series of articles on guilt, emphasizing specific examples, and how to deal with them. Written by a psychologist.
In most cases of guilt, the antidote is to create another (meaning, your) standard, other than that implied by committing or omitting something, or by conforming to the speaker’s wishes or arguing on the speaker’s terms only, or by conforming to the expectation (laws, values, norms), or worse, by just holding it all in and saying or doing nothing. We also have to challenge, and then negotiate the “rightness” or “wrongness” of THE standard. To do this, we have to become aware of the underlying forces acting upon us from the outside and our internal reactions. In common language, to reduce the guilt, we have to ask ourselves what it is WE want, not what is being imposed upon us. We have to think independently of the implied or real manipulation of the guilt-inducer. If we are paying attention to guilt-inducing communication, we will immediately “get” that we have been judged and that some set of standards has been or is about to be imposed upon us. If we are in tune, we immediately and consciously feel anxiety because there is conflict, and likely frustration, resentment or anger underneath. Now we know our feeling and if we are assertive, we can put our feelings into words and say something. In addition, when we speak, hopefully there will be something in our communication about the attempt to manipulate us (the cause of the anger); thus, we will defuse the indirect controls inherent in the guilt ploy. This is also articulating some process, not just the underlying feelings. (If you are not skilled at introspecting and then speaking up, see this author’s ebook, The Five Steps of Assertiveness.) The ambivalence is made conscious and we begin to think of “handling” the underlying conflicts and judgments through a different behavioral mechanism, most often employing simple assertiveness.
In the example when I went to the store to buy groceries, I might have interrupted the guilt-inducing comments with my own, more assertive and direct retort. “Yes honey, I see I forgot the milk. I am sorry. By the way, where did you get the idea this means I don’t love you?” I have exposed the manipulation. Then I might have said, “I’m sorry. If you need milk right away, I’ll go back to the store and buy some. If not, I’ll stop by a store later when I go out again. Is that OK?” Now, I have stated what I want, or in this case, what I am willing to do to fix the problem. I am willing to take care of the problem because it was my forgetfulness that led to my wife’s complaint. But, I am also standing up for what I want by suggesting a solution that better fits my needs, and in this case, better fits reality. I am functioning on MY terms. While my wife and I may debate which “plan” is better, at least I was assertive. I created an “alternative” behavior. I created the third standard—mine, which, I believe, is equally right. I teased out the irrationally linked concepts, separated and dealt with them overtly by saying something. In this instance, the transaction was about buying milk, while the interaction and dynamic were about being loved, or not. These are two entirely different dimensions. So, the first thing I try to do, and did in this example, is to separate the two dimensions, which in this case I accomplished by asking my wife how she “figured” I didn’t love her just because I forgot the milk.