Examples of Guilt–Part V

This is the fifth of a six-part series of articles on guilt, emphasizing specific examples, and how to deal with them. Written by a psychologist.

To continue…

More complicated is the example of the wife who had the affair. She committed a sin of commission. She did something at the same time both reactive and proactive, that on the surface was negative, and it had a bigger impact on hers’ and others’ lives. Was her behavior immoral? From the Christian standpoint, it was. From a psychological perspective, it was understandable. The former judges, the latter evaluates. We understand the pressures the wife must have felt. We know her motives but we also know the mores and can probably guess the transgressed wedding vows. Was her behavior illegal? No, not in the USA (not considering Blue Laws). It is not illegal to have an affair in the United States, even though infidelity is the second most often cited reason for divorce, so it is not a matter of violating law. But the judging side of us thinks this act is personally heinous.
In this case, the third standard would be to identify the dysfunction in the marriage and to assess the dynamics. Preferably this will have occurred before the affair, but this requires that the wife would have had the skills necessary to confront the pain of poor communication with her husband, his drinking, avoiding or worse, ignoring her. Likely, she had little or no skills in these areas, and maybe experienced mood problems and low self-esteem, either before or during the marriage, thus she probably tolerated such a protracted negative union way too long. A review of her personal history probably also would reveal flaws in the development of self-control. Thinking about all these aspects, likely, the wife had considerable ambivalence. Regardless, the third standard is to acknowledge all these possible scenarios and experiences and to act upon what they suggest in other ways. In this case, marriage counseling was indicated, and if that failed, divorce counseling. If the wife made conscious all these experiences, availed herself of the options and then had an affair, we might have had a much greater acceptance of her behavior, even though if she was still married, it would have been the same “immoral” act, viewed judgmentally. But, psychologically, her affair would have made sense and in some circles, would even have been adaptive; that is, it pushed her out of her comfort zone, beyond her limitations and paved the way for psychological growth. This illustrates the principal of re-framing; that is, pulling back and looking at the bigger picture. This is just another way of stating, pay attention to another or third standard, and don’t succumb to the pressure of accepting only one of the two limited viewpoints (sins of omission or sins of commission). In the future, this will help heal the “faulty soul” feeling, which will be invaluable in working with shame and self-forgiveness (the next ebook, which is part three in this series of ambivalences).
In the example of eating a big, calorie-rich meal to celebrate graduating college (despite my doctor’s warning), my re-framing will be to expand the viewpoint, vowing to change something in the future. “My doctor is right, but this is only one meal. I’ll go to the gym and start eating better tomorrow.” This is accepting the sin of eating fatty foods now, and putting off the treatment until later. This is also ambivalence, rationalizing and procrastination through “hyperbolic reasoning” (See the ebook on Procrastination). In this case, procrastination and guilt overlap. I then go on to accept the guilt, but propose a remedy; one that I’ll just not now employ, thus allowing me to enjoy the big meal in the moment with my friends. The third standard is to eat well and exercise later. I have introduced the element of time to reduce the severity of my sin of commission (eating poorly), and later I may or may not carry out my plan (statistics suggest that when it comes to food, the “plan” likely will not be carried out, but again, that is the subject of the Procrastination ebook).
Using this same example, another version of the third standard, is to reject the first two. “I don’t care what the doctor said, what does he know?” “I’m only twenty-two. I can eat anything I want because I’m young.” “My parents eat this way and they are still alive and healthy.” This strategy also works well in the next example, about getting an A- vs. an A. “I’m only in seventh grade. Colleges don’t even start to look at grades until high school (this is not always true, these days…). “I’ve got three more exams to make up that boo-boo, so I don’t have to worry about it.” “I’ve learned the difference between homonyms, so no problems down the road.” Ambivalence succumbs to rationalization, and then suppression, at least for the time being.
–Dr. Griggs
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