Guilt

Additional Information for Chapter 4, page 47

Guilt is not dealt with in detail in The Compatibility Code; however, for many it is an omnipresent companion through traumatized or broken relationships. Let’s begin by talking about guilt at a more general level and then later make more specific application to broken (or traumatized) relationships.

Webster’s Dictionary defines guilt thus: “An awareness of having done wrong or committed a crime, accompanied by feelings of shame and regret.”  There are several other definitions (dealing with legal definitions of guilt), but the portion cited is the one that we consider here.

Guilt is largely dependent on the formation of conscience, an internal guide of what is right or wrong.  Conscience is something that is learned.  Psychological giants Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson both felt that the conscience developed roughly between ages 3 and 7.  The conscience, they felt, is largely fixed at that point but is subject to some modifications over the life span.  Freud felt that conscience forms as a result of resolution of the Oedipal (or Electra) complex, while Erikson argued that conscience is something that is learned from parents, or other people-of-influence in our lives.

Regardless of theory a conscience can be severely misguided as a result of erroneous teachings or models.  One of the classic examples of a misguided conscience is provided by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn.  Jim, a slave, has escaped and is travelling down the Mississippi River with Huck toward eventual freedom.  Huck really likes Jim but his conscience smites him cruelly because, what right does he have to steal someone else’s property?

This story provides us with concern #1:

If you suffer excessive or omnipresent feelings of guilt may be it because your set of internal values is distorted or erroneous?

We move next to the healthy (intended) function of conscience and guilt.

The conscience is an internal guide to behavior.  Rather than having to be corrected by circumstances or people outside of us, we have a resource that hinders violating society’s mores or our own concept of right and wrong. What would life be like if we ignored traffic signals, took what we wanted and had sex with “whatever” whenever the impulse gripped us? Clearly conscience has an enormously useful function.  Without conscience we would probably have to increase 1000 fold our police force.

Guilt is built into conscience.  When conscience is violated, guilt is the typical result.  The healthy function of conscience and guilt might be explained with the following simple diagram:

Violation → feelings of guilt → drives us to confess or seek restitution → guilt disappears

For all normal people the first two steps happen many times in our lives.  We ignore persons who are sociopathic (those without a conscience or feelings of guilt) because they are not the ones reading this. For the rest of us there may be problems associated with steps 3 and 4.  This provides us with concerns #2 and #3.

Concern #2: Guilt may continue to haunt us because we have not confessed or effectively sought restitution for our violation.

Concern #3: Guilt may continue to haunt us following adequate confession or restitution due to a variety of dysfunctional personal factors.

These three concerns essentially provide the map of where to search if you experience on-going, excessive or debilitating guilt.  We consider in great detail each of the three:

Concern #1: If you suffer excessive or omnipresent feelings of guilt may be it because your set of internal values is distorted or erroneous?

When you feel guilt, look at what caused it and consider whether it is logical.  For instance, many people feel guilt when they say “no”.  Clearly the ability to say “no” is an important function (Jim Carry in Yes Man aside) if one is going to live life free from the continual harassment of demands from others. If your pattern is “I say ‘no’ → I feel guilt.” Your problem is a distorted set of values.

It could also mean that you have not developed the appropriate skills at saying “no”.

If your values are distorted, you may or may not have the resources to change.  For some, awareness of the problem yields change.  For others awareness reveals a compulsive pattern so severe that it may take a skilled therapist to engineer the change.

If the problem is lack of skill, that can be learned.  Essentially we can tell someone “no” without violating or disappointing them (this excludes some neurotics who habitually feel violated) if we adhere to simple principles:

  1. We listen so well that they know we have heard them
  2. We consider carefully whether or not we are able to comply
  3. We provide our answer in a way that makes them feel valued
  4. We provide our answer in a way that helps them know that we care
  5. If possible, we provide them with alternative resources.

Some examples:

My colleague, Klaus Irrgang, asked me if I was able to cover his 1hr 20 min. class in Health Psychology on Tuesday, February 3, and Thursday, February 5, at 8:00 a.m. because he was going to be out of the country.  The topic was “stress management” something that I am very knowledgeable about—and actually enjoy presenting.  I eventually said “no” but look at how I related to the five steps.

  1. I listened carefully to his request, expressed my interest in the topic of stress management, and said that I would have to carefully consider my schedule and talk with my wife.
  2. I was teaching an extra class that semester (Statistics) and working hard with Elizabeth on promotion of the book and completing the icons of the website.  I eventually decided that it extended beyond wisdom to comply.
  3. I went to his office and spoke with Klaus face to face (e-mail or phone message would have been easier) and explained that while I appreciated his concern I was not in a position to comply.
  4. I verbally expressed my concern and suggested
  5. Why don’t you have Reuben Lorenson cover the class. Reuben had just retired, taught the same class before Klaus came and was in the area.

Feelings of guilt?  None.

Some other examples in less detail.

“Darren! Will you play special music in church [the service is 2 days away]?”

My response: “Thank you for the honor of asking me!  I appreciate it.  I would love to play special music, but there is a problem.  I need to be asked at least two weeks in advance so that I can prepare adequately.  So the answer is “no” this time but please feel free to ask me in the future and please provide me with enough lead time.”

Feelings of guilt?  None.

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