The Anatomy of Guilt
Here’s my take. On the surface, guilt is another form of anxiety. It is an uncomfortable feeling. It tends to be a little vague. Like that experienced with panic or phobia. Anxiety has been described as fear without an object; that is, we don’t always know what makes us uneasy. Guilt is a little like that. We don’t always have in our awareness the cause of what is bothering us. We just know “something is not right.”
“Its a sort of waking dream, which though a person be otherwise in sound health, makes him feel symptoms of every disease; and though innocent, yet fills his mind with the blackest horrors of guilt"--William Heberden
Guilt occurs when we either did something we should not have, or we did not do something we should have. These are “sins” of commission or “sins” of omission, and both involve our reactions to at least one of what I call the seven deadly words or phrases. (These are described in detail in my ebook, “Why Relationships Fail.”) “Should” or “Should not” are the most common offending deadly words but any of the seven deadly words or phrases can set up guilt. (The others are “Always,” “Never,” “Must,” “Have to” and “Need to.”) Should and Should Not are probably used more to do this, so I’ll use these two to generally describe how guilt works.
In guilt-inducing communication, one or more of the seven deadly words or phrases is used directly or indirectly to criticize. This means pointing out our failings, usually through more subtle means. If I say, “You should have cleaned up your room,” I am implying but not directly stating YOU are messy, inconsiderate or perhaps just a slob. If you respond to such a guilt-inducing communication, you feel “crummy” and are motivated to correct the situation to reduce your anxiety. While procrastination sometimes involves this, procrastination is more about being ambivalent in general, and it manifests in time. Guilt almost always thrives on judgment and criticism, and is set up by being angry, though usually not consicously.. Think being a parent, scolding a child. In judging someone, the speaker evokes some standard, real or imagined, relative to some behavior(s) or values. The speaker who induces guilt judges the recipient to have failed to live up to some way of behaving or some way of thinking that the speaker believes to be THE (meaning, right) standard. Because of the conflict, the recipient then feels some amount of anxiety, which is a direct result of how much the recipient directly or indirectly accepts THE standard, stated or implied.
"How tedious is a guilty conscience!"--John Webster
Because psychological pain is something to be avoided, the recipient is motivated to reduce their discomfort (conflict, indecision, anxiety). The speaker implies they can do that by conforming to THE standard (again, the speaker’s standard). The listener is “influenced,” albeit negatively. One of my many mentors over the years defined guilt as “any way I can control you.” Guilt is manipulative, and in this case more indirect, i.e., covert, but controlling.
“Guilt is anger directed at ourselves—at what we did or did not do. Resentment is anger directed at others—at what they did or did not do.”--Peter McWilliams
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