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|08-11-2003, 12:23 AM||#1 (permalink)|
More info on guilt
dealing with guilt
for better or worse
dealing with, resolving, coping & surviving guilt
I felt so much guilt
over milk that was spilt
that I worked hard and trashed
the good will I had stashed
at work and with friends
til I was at my wits ends.
I was pretty darn sad
but more, I was mad
at myself for the cost
of the friends I then lost
and the loss of the job
(I just wanted to sob).
so I punished myself
by ignoring my health
and I felt I should pay
by trashing each day,
and I felt so much guilt
in the mire I built
that I punished my self
with a knife off the shelf.
but stuck in my head
was a saying once said
"over milk that was spilt,
should you feel so much guilt?"
and I slowly surmised
this was folly disguised
as a help for my hurts
that was making things worse.
so I went to a shrink
and I asked to be shrunk
to get cleansed of the garbage,
the crap and the junk.
and I went home to my bed
and layed down my poor head
and thought of forgiveness
and learning instead.
Most people experience guilt fairly frequently off and on throughout their life. Most people believe that the experience of guilt is negative, unproductive and disruptive. Many people believe that it would be helpful if they could rid themselves of guilt feelings that they are experiencing, and some might wonder about the use of hypnosis or medications to eradicate this form of discomfort.
As with anxiousness or pain, before one takes a medication or uses hypnosis to soften or stop feelings of guilt, some important considerations should be taken into account.
a primitive mental mechanism intended to protect and serve
Guilt is a simple debriefing and rehearsal process that the mind engages in after perceiving that something negative has taken place and has caused painful and/or anxious feelings. One's mind goes over and over the something negative and the painful/anxious feelings and forces us to again and again review what happened. This is NOT necessarily a completely negative thing to happen. It doesn't feel good -- true.
Why would we all (most of us) share such a common experience if there was no adaptive, helpful purpose for it in the first place? It is quite possible that guilt is simply a natural part of being a mammal. I can't actually tell if my dogs feel guilt -- and I assume if they do it isn't via some use of self-talk -- but it wouldn't surprise me if this experience of going over bad experiences again and again is common to all animals. But whether the dogs and deer feel guilt or not, it is certainly a mechanism common to humans. And as negative as most people are about guilt, it turns out that not having a functioning mechanism for guilt causes enormous problems. Mistakes and punishing experiences are not learned from and behaviors that most people would feel guilty about are engaged in without concern. Guiltless people are usually referred to as sociopaths or psychopaths -- so "ethically" messed up that they need to be locked away.
Guilt seems to be a very primitive mental mechanism that was programmed into us to protect us in the future from mistakes we made in the past. How one handles guilt can make the difference between a person benefiting and becoming much smarter versus making that person dumber and/or weaker. Since guilt is for most of us one of the undeniable facts of life, it is better to learn to live with it, monitor reactions to it and capitalize upon it by using it responsibly.
Guilt is a tendency, following something negative that impacts our lives, for us to go over and over -- and over again -- whatever it was that happened along with the feelings we had and have about it having happened. This feels crappy, to go over and over something negative that happened. But can you imagine, for example, being a deer. One day you're walking down a path and you see some nice vegetation on the next hill and as you're focused on it and passing a big boulder, a cougar jumps on your back and nearly kills you. You get away and run like heck till you are exhausted and can find somewhere to lick your wounds. And while you're licking your wounds, again and again you think about not paying attention as you walked past that boulder and as you remember the experience you re-experience the fear you felt when the cougar jumped on your back. The feelings it brings up again and again are very uncomfortable, but again and again it comes to mind. This goes on for several hours, perhaps off and on for days or weeks or even over months.
Does that make any adaptive sense? Yes. It does. Four years later, you (the deer) are walking down another path miles from that other spot where the cougar incident happened (-- which you don't ever go near again because for some reason just don't feel comfortable being anywhere near there). The path you're on wanders near a big boulder. As you near it, your little deer brain turns on the adrenalin in alarm and you immediately become anxious, uncomfortable and more vigilant. Why? Because the repeated rehearsal of the elements four years ago after you were hurt by the cougar has caused the creation of an alarm system that stays in place throughout the rest of your life if something isn't done to eliminate it. The alarm system that has been created in the brain is like the alarms they have in railroad tracks so that when the train is some distance from town and presses on the switch, the crossings gates in town come down to keep cars and people off the tracks.
|08-11-2003, 12:23 AM||#2 (permalink)|
for smarter or dumber, for better or worse
By forcing repeated reviews of a painful experience and the behaviors and elements leading up to it and associated with it, guilt essentially burns into our brains the connection between our behavior and the uncomfortable feelings we feel. It does this in a very basic way called "classical conditioning" -- like Pavlov's dogs. No complex thinking or self-awareness is needed. And then any time we go down that particular path again, our alarms ring and we come out of whatever other thoughts we were absorbed in and look for danger. Smart programming!
So does guilt make everybody smarter? No. No, because the human has the mixed blessing of language and complex thinking. With language we can manipulate concepts in ways that language-less mammals couldn't dream of. Guilt is the review and rehearsal process that is implemented whether we want it or not after a negative thing happens. But what we rehearse makes the difference between becoming smarter versus becoming dumber.
We humans can become smarter or dumber because we can choose the elements that we are connecting ("pairing") together in our minds. For example, take the situation where after staying up all night a guy falls asleep while driving and wrecks his car. If he uses the subsequent, naturally occuring guilt process to rehearse over and over that he is hopelessly stupid and helplessly flawed, he is burning into his brain the fundamental idea that he should not use his brain for thinking. He's going to make himself dumber than before the wreck. OR, if under the same circumstances, he uses the guilt rehearsal process to berate himself for forgetting his lucky rabbit's foot, he's not going to be any smarter and possibly not any dumber. (That's assuming that the rabbit's foot was not really lucky.) OR, if he uses medications, alcohol, drugs, hypnosis or any of the possible thousands of distractions to avoid feeling any guilt, he's not going to be any smarter. Missing out on learning from a car wreck is very costly because he is just as likely to do the same thing again as he was before the wreck.
BUT, if he uses the guilt to again and again berate himself for not getting enough sleep and then driving while sleepy, the next time these elements occur together he'll get nervous about driving before he gets into the car or he may even get nervous the night before about staying up late. Thus, he may have lost a car but he's much less likely to make such a mistake again. At least he gets something (learning that will protect him from similar or worse losses in the future) for the sacrifice of the car.
Also, the likelihood of guilt causing smarter or dumber is affected by the degree of intensity of guilt feelings and the degree to which we may feel that greater punishment than guilt is in order. Some people feel they should punish themselves with denial or self-sabotage as punishment when "guilty." They don't believe that the guilt feelings are punishment enough for their goof-up.
Sometimes it might help to deny or delay some reward or nice thing -- like grounding a child for a negative behavior might help reduce that behavior. Sometimes, though, self punishment beyond guilt feelings can hurt. To the extent that the punishment overloads the mind with negative feeling, any learning from the experience is clouded or lost. The only things really punished when punishment is too harsh are self-respect and awareness. Decreasing self-respect will make one more likely to not care about danger. Decreasing awareness is the same as decreasing one's intelligence. It isn't smart to make one's self dumber by being hostile to self.
I frequently see people in therapy who complain that their lives seem to be going downhill. It is often because of how they are mishandling guilt. All other considerations being equal, life should consistently get easier if you use guilt right.
guilt is a feeling, a mechanism -- not a blast of information
It doesn't necessarily follow that because guilt is experienced, there is something to be guilty about. Guilt is simply a feeling -- a mechanism -- a program our brain runs in response to a perceived negative outcome of some sort. It's not information. It's a brain response that sets the brain to thinking things over again and again. In the same way a chemist might analyze and reanalyze a substance to see if there are certain components in it -- even though there may be none -- a brain experiencing guilt may be trying to connect elements, behaviors and outcomes where there is no valid or valuable connection.
An example of this is the grief-with-guilt reaction that many people experience when a loved one dies. The survivor obsesses about possible things that could have been done differently that would have avoided the death. ("If I hadn't been at work, he wouldn't have died." "If I would have made sure she had a better breakfast, she might have had better reactions." "If I hadn't bought that black dress, this wouldn't have happened." "If I would have bought that black dress, this wouldn't have happened.") OR, the survivor obsesses about the feeling that there was a mistake he or she made that he or she is unable to identify. ("I know there was something I should have done differently, but I can't figure out what.") A similar problem occurs when an individual is involved in a serious accident that had nothing to do with what the individual was doing (i.e., a plane crashes into the house during the early morning hours; a crazed gunman sprays bullets into a fast food restaraunt). It would be normal to obsess about the experience, going over and over the events and actions prior to the catastrophe, even if one recognized that logically there could be nothing to feel guilty about.
dealing with guilt
be careful and wary in what you see wrong
Preferences can differ, but its advisable to clarify what you should feel guilty about -- or if you should feel guilty at all -- as early in the guilt experience as possible.
Help. The most helpful questions are, "what behavior should be different in the future?" and "what elements can be watched for more closely? The appropriate answer is probably never going to be as simple as "I'm stupid." Sometimes a good check (if one tends to be overly critical of one's self) is to ask one's self "if a friend was in the same position, should that friend feel guilty and if so about what?" If there is nothing realistic to change or watch out for, then the guilt feelings are just feelings -- just sort of a headache without purpose.
when guilt feelings are appropriate
When guilt is appropriate, avoiding it may feel terrible but it may be wasteful or even harmful to avoid it. Like any punishment, if the punishment is too intense, it loses all usefulness. The long-term problems of survivors of abuse and the kind of clients turned out by some of our nation's prisons are examples of this. So when guilt is appropriate...
Help. When guilt is appropriate, tell yourself that. You might modify intensity with anti-anxiety medications or relaxation exercises -- but if the bulk of the guilt feelings are avoided, so will the learning be.
when guilt goes goofy & lingers too long
When guilt feelings are way out of line with logic but they don't seem to go away or diminish, it can be a very frustrating, negative experience. This situation is uncomfortable in itself but it also often can corrode self-esteem, motivation, productivity and health. One can feel increasingly helpless, hostile to self and hopeless.
Help. It is generally very difficult to consciously change out-of-whack guilt feelings. The underpinnings of guilt lie in areas of the mind and thinking generally considered unconscious. If one can give one's self permission to stop the guilt -- which is pretty much required -- many forms of self-help tapes and programs (i.e., hypnosis, meditation, guided imagery, NLP, Reiki, etc.) can be very helpful. The focus of the self-help stuff should be on letting one's self grow from experience, trusting in one's own ability to be a better person, allowing one's self permission to make mistakes and go through losses, trusting in some form of higher power, etc.
Medications can be helpful in dealing with guilt feelings that are logically resolved but still very bothersome. There are some very good medications available now that keep one from experiencing the intrusive thoughts and the unwanted memories of guilt problems. Your family physician can prescribe them or you can consult a psychiatrist (an MD specializing in psychological problems).
It is not likely to be helpful to use self-help programs or medications to force one's self to stop feeling guilty or otherwise push attitudes or forgetting in ways that are in direct opposition to one's beliefs. Anyone unable to give him- or herself permission to give up guilt feelings after what seems like a reasonable amount of time, should at the very least find a close friend or two to discuss the situation with. If this doesn't do it, find a therapist to discuss the problem with.
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