This is the fourth of a six-part series of articles on guilt, emphasizing specific examples, and how to deal with them. Written by a psychologist.
Guilt can be appropriate and act to protect us from danger. Using the example of speeding on the freeway; speeding, potentially, was dangerous. I was in the wrong, even though I rationalized my behavior by citing everyone else’s wrong behavior. (“If everyone else is doing it, it must be OK.”) The cop had a different perspective. He was enforcing the law, and that day, I just happened to be the fish in his barrel. In this case, the evaluation (vs. judgment) is not about me personally, but of a motorist going too fast. My personal reaction is another matter, but I probably don’t feel so judged, because my sin was not so much about me, personally, even though it was me behind the wheel. But if the consequence of my acts was major, or the policeman was looking for me specifically, then my sin would have been increasingly judged as such, probably legally, and the evaluation of my driving would have bled over into the judgment arena, and would have resulted in greater punishment. Imagine if my speeding caused an accident and someone was killed.
Regardless, my conversation with the officer, while tense, might have emphasized my need to get home early, that I was late because my son had a baseball game and I was the umpire, etc. I might have manipulatively complimented the officer on his nice shiny badge or how good it is that he was protecting the public. (These ploys don’t work on police.) I am manipulating, but it is in the service of creating that third standard–my need to be somewhere else in a hurry. While not necessarily true, I’m at least rationalizing that my need is greater in importance than the current standard–driving the speed limit. So, in this case, unless I’m rushing my wife to the hospital to deliver a baby, I’m at fault and guilty. So, sometimes, creating a third standard and standing up for it, assertively, doesn’t work very well, especially when the potential consequences are bigger and the standard I’m creating in my own defense is wrong. In less structured or smaller-consequence circumstances, this might work better, especially if the standard is not so clear.
Remember the example of wearing clean underwear? The third standard is, “I already have on clean underwear, so drop it.” The standard is, “Mom, what are the chances of getting into an accident while wearing this pair of underwear?” “Mom, if I’m in the hospital with a concussion, what physician is going to care about my underwear?” Not wearing clean underwear is an example both of sins of omission (I didn’t change before leaving) and commission (I’ve been wearing this underwear only a little while and I’m not going to change them). The “third” standard in this situation is created by being rational, using statistics, i.e., exploring the likelihood of a “bad” experience actually happening while I am wearing this pair of underwear. Because this event is a small one and has very little likely external consequence, and because it is between two individuals, now in a personal relationship, the rules of engagement are broader and more flexible. There is more opportunity to insert another standard or way of thinking and behaving, not having to conform to either of the two manipulative ones. I could even refuse to conform to the guilt-induced manipulations imposed by Mom all together. In this case the ambivalence is also about which path of action to take, not just the result of conflicting values. In this particular example, the dynamic of inducing guilt probably will remain more at the level of evaluation rather than judgment, one, because it is a small event, and two, because it is local, pertaining to intimate, personal information between two parties who more regularly interact personally.