Fear is debilitating; it stops us in our tracks, locks us in a house to which we have no key until courage (or, as we shall see, logic) comes to our rescue. Fear is unemotional and detached; what fear says goes and that’s that. Guilt, on the other hand, is the nagging spouse that never shuts up. Guilt constantly reminds us that we’ve caused hurt, we’ve sinned, and because we’ve sinned we deserve punishment.
Guilt comes in two varieties,
…the first of which I call “true” guilt. True guilt could be the result of an affront on anyone; punching your little sister in the nose, lying to a friend, cheating on your spouse or blowing up a building full of innocent people could all produce true guilt. Sins against self may also qualify. Have you ever lied to yourself? Have you ever caused yourself bodily harm through negligent consumption? Perhaps you offended your personal integrity by betraying a trust someone confided in you. All of the above are offenses that in a sane individual will produce the necessity of overcoming guilt.
Guilt in either form is poison to the mind and certain death to the actualization of our highest self.
How then can we find an antidote to this toxin so that we may vanquish the ego and return to our sanity and sanctity? In the case of true guilt the remedy is forgiveness by the offended party. Bear in mind that sincere remorse mustmotivate the seeking of forgiveness. Remorse is a by-product of guilt; without it there was no guilt in the first place. And to ask forgiveness without feeling remorse for our action is a shallow ploy to win back the favor of the offended for egocentric reasons. Throw religion in the mix (as it often is) and forgiveness becomes a two-edged sword.
Many religions teach that if we affront a child of God we have offended both that person and his Creator, God Himself. Catholicism, a religion with which I am intimately familiar, provides an excellent example of how the forgiveness process works.
You have sinned and in doing so you offended God.
God is a big deal and now that you’ve caused Him pain you feel guilty. Overcoming guilt and getting back on God’s good side requires that you confess your sin and ask God’s forgiveness.
…I used to pray. And as I knelt in that dark little confessional I could only imagine what terrible price would be extracted from me for me having enjoyed touching something that so obviously belonged to me. But then the man behind the screen mumbled something in Latin, doled out the appropriate punishment (which usually consisted of saying a few devout “Hail Mary’s”), assured me I was forgiven and told me to go forth and sin no more. I left the confessional, knelt before the altar and served my sentence. Hallelujah! Atonement had been made and my guilt had magically vanished! Despite my resolution never to touch myself, swear, or envision Sister Mary Elephant climbing out of the shower I knew I’d be back next week for the same stuff. But for now the terrible burden of guilt had been lifted, God and I were pals again and my heart and soul sang a joyous duet! Overcoming guilt had been accomplished!
Okay, that gets you off the hook with God. But what about the little sister you punched, the friend you lied to or the affront to your personal integrity when you gorged yourself on chili-cheese nachos during a night of binge drinking and lost the next day to the brown bottle flu? Once again the formula is the same.
You remorsefully admit your transgression, you ask forgiveness and you pay whatever price the wronged party deems necessary for your guilt to vanish. Often, of course, there is no price to pay other than admission of error and willingness to face the consequences of your actions. Your little sister will probably let you off the hook with no penance to pay at all. The court that convicts you of blowing up a building will likely dole out a considerably stiffer sentence!
True guilt’s flip side is false guilt.
And as destructive as the “true” variety can be, false guilt is a subtle, insidious demon whose purpose is to keep us in an emotional prison based on totally trumped-up charges. False guilt is the ego’s stranglehold on its victim and it drives him farther and farther from everything that is good, holy and sacred about himself.
False guilt is guilt that is undeserved.
It is the guilt that plagues innocent victims of sexual abuse and those who were physically or mentally abused while still impressionable enough to accept false accusations from what seemed at the time to be a credible source.
It is the kind of guilt that Doris gifted Rudy and as he accepted it in larger doses over the years he became increasingly morose, his confidence waned and his self esteem hit rock bottom. Rudy began to believe that he was incapable of succeeding and more importantly, unworthy of success. And as these feelings began to dominate his psyche he came to accept them as his reality and define himself based on the undeserved emotions the ego had cultivated for years.
Rudy provides us with a demonstration of the false guilt dynamic in its early stages. He’s told Katherine how Doris would often blame him for her arguments with his father, saying things like “See what you did? Do you see what you caused?”
“Ouch!” Kate said, “That had to hurt!”
“Hurt? Yeah Mama, it hurt, it hurt real bad. And that hurt led to hate, an emotion that up to that point was foreign to me.”
“So you started to hate your mother?” she asked.
“I never knew my mother, at least not until now.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. But no, I didn’t hate her; that was unacceptable in the Krause house and the Catholic Church. ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’, you know? I didn’t hate her, but I had to hate someone for causing all this pain. It was my fault, she told me so; so I started hating me.”
But even as these feelings and emotions were defining Rudy’s self image he still heard the faint voice of reason. It said…,
“The guilt you are feeling is undeserved. You know you did not cause the discord at home; you were a child at the time and incapable of such manipulation. You are a good man and if you rid yourself of these feelings you can become the person you know you are capable of becoming.”
While Rudy understood this voice at an intellectual level his ego rejected the voice’s advice. To accept it would have major repercussions.
The ego, as vile as it had become, was familiar and as such provided a comfort zone of sorts.
To accept his inner voice’s logic would mean moving into unknown territory and to get there he would have to abandon the guilt, hate and frustration that served as reasons for his lack of success and personal fulfillment. And Rudy knew that once those excuses were gone, once the ego was dead, he would be faced with the terrible reality of personal responsibility.
So what’s to happen to us if, despite the logical prodding of our true persona, we continue to accept the lies of the ego and forgo overcoming guilt? Quite simply, we’ll go nuts.
Sigmund Freud posited the “pleasure principle” which states that human motivation is guided by one’s desires to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And sadists/masochists aside, most of us will do more to avoid pain than experience pleasure.
Guilt causes pain so we want to get rid of it and we know that confession and subsequent forgiveness will do the job. But again, if those remedies are not available we must choose another alternative or risk losing our mind. So, like testing a strand of spaghetti for doneness, we throw our guilt onto someone or something and hope it sticks. And if it does we are able to attack them and blame them for our sin. Viola! Guilt appears to be gone and is replaced by a new set of emotions, namely hate, resentment and the need for revenge. Pretty, eh?
Early in the meeting with Katherine we see Rudy demonstrating the sin/guilt/projection/attack process. Here’s the replay:
“I’m [messing] up my life, I have been for years, and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know where to turn, who to turn to.”
“And that’s why you cried out for me?” she asked.
“Yeah”, I wanted my mommy!” he said sarcastically.
“And Honey, what do I have to do with all this?”
“Nothing, I guess, it’s really all my fault…” He looked back down at the table and suddenly felt a surge of anger. Looking back up at Kate he said “No Mama, wait a minute, that’s not true. The fact is, you had everything to do with it. Mama, why did you leave me, why did you have to go?”
We see Rudy confessing his sin of personal betrayal (guilt directed at self) to Katherine, the sin of “messing up” his life. He follows with an admission of guilt, feels the sting of an all-to-familiar pain for a few seconds and then angrily attacks his mother, telling her that her death and the absence of her love played a major role in his perceived failure.
In our first example of the guilt dynamic Rudy has yet to project the guilt he feels, he’s simply keeping it bottled up inside. And as an interesting corollary we see that Doris has uncorked her bottle and her attack on Rudy (“See what you did? Do you see what you caused?”) is an attempt at getting the spaghetti to stick to him. Though we’re not told the particulars of her transgression, she is obviously dealing with some guilt of her own. In the next paragraph we learn that Rudy eventually found a cure for the pain of his guilt and self-loathing and when Kate presses him on the issue of hating himself Rudy tells her:
“Yes ma’am, I suppose I do,” he replied. “But I eventually came around to being generous with my feelings. Because of the self-image she has caused me to nurture within myself, I’ve come to hate Doris too.”
And so the ugly cycle of sin/guilt/projection/attack is once again complete.
Unfortunately, there is no confessional for false guilt. What then, is the remedy for overcoming guilt that is undeserved? In part 3 I will teach you a 4-step process for overcoming guilt and liberating your true persona once and for all (or till the next time you punch your sister in the nose!).
Return to Find Your “Self”