Overcoming Guilt and Acknowledging Our True FeelingsKate Kent, R.TCMP, R.Ac. June 1, 2017
Every animal is afraid of pain and will do anything to avoid it. It’s natural. But this avoidance creates a whole host of problems. In my former article on anger, I showed how anger, if not experienced in a functional way, can also create a host of problems in one’s health and relationships. This article will explore how counselling can deal with guilt, which is a powerful emotion that can stifle joy and well-being.
Guilt is there for a reason. It acts as a moral guide, signalling when some rule or law has been transgressed. It tells us when we have done something wrong; it should guide our choices, not abuse us.
A counsellor cannot isolate and focus on just one blocked emotion, because it can often be one or a combination of several that are inhibited that leads to the problem.
For example, for many people anxiety is paired with joy. The experience of joy can be accompanied by the anxiety that it won’t or can’t last, or that the joy is undeserved. One can also experience guilt about feeling anger at someone we care about. The actual emotion of anger feels good, but this kind can be painful because we suppress these feelings and instead experience self-criticism and guilt.
In When the Body Says No, author Gabor Mate writes, “A therapist once said to me: ‘If you face the choice between feeling guilt and resentment, choose the guilt every time.’ If a refusal saddles you with guilt while consent leaves resentment in its wake, opt for the guilt. Resentment is soul suicide.”
However, I have seen plenty of cases where guilt is just as crippling. Take the example of a mother who suffers from a chronic illness and uses her illness in a manipulative way to get the attention she craves from her daughter. The daughter may feel tremendous guilt about getting on with her life and leaving her mother behind. Can she imagine herself in five years down the road, happy and successful, while her mother is still ill and depressed? Can the daughter feel compassion and sadness about her mother’s situation and still get on with her life, or is she more likely to feel crippling shame and guilt?
Only a very mature person could have a frank discussion about all this without the deprecating self-talk that says she shouldn’t feel the way she does. On the other hand, how does the mother feel? Is she also tortured with guilt about needing her daughter’s attention so badly? What in her history makes her so needy?
In some cases, people use disease as a punishment by accusing themselves of being deserving of their illness. Or there could be guilt about being sick and a burden to others.
The counsellor is constantly watching for signals that don’t compute. For example, if the patient smiles when he talks about his sick mother, the counsellor will challenge the smile. Or a patient may talk in a monotonous, dead tone while recounting a situation she feels guilt about. The counsellor will challenge that lack of emotion. It’s all about challenging the defences against painful feelings, and bringing awareness to the surface.
I had a patient who was tortured by so much guilt and self-loathing that he lived like a hermit. He had his own inner judge and jury, which condemned him for something that had happened in his childhood, over which he had no control. This guilt carried over into his adult life and made it impossible for him to stand up for himself because he always judged himself in the wrong – whatever the situation. His girlfriend had just left him due to his inability to connect emotionally, and he ended up in my office knowing that something was wrong, but was not sure how to fix it. He did not consider himself deserving of happiness and believed that any show of emotion on his part meant he was emotionally unstable. He lived a life of doom and dread, with tight control over his thoughts. His case was difficult because he truly believed that he was bad, unworthy, and deserved to be punished.
So we undertook an examination of each of his beliefs: whether each belief was truth or fantasy; or whether it was a valid belief for that person’s life, or worthless when examined. Was this or that belief truth or fiction? What evidence could he find that would back up this belief?
At first he could only accept on an intellectual level that his guilt was self-inflicted. We had to dig deeper to get to the part of him that really believed he was bad. We had to work slowly to help him distance himself from his guilt and to see it for what it was worth.
Gradually, he stopped sitting hunched in his chair, stopped looking like a condemned, crippled man, stopped the talk in his head that was always self-condemning. A crack appeared in his gloomy outlook on life, and slowly he was able to embrace the good that was around him and know without doubt that he deserved it.
We tend to be unaware of the ways we unconsciously suppress emotions. We are not born with suppressed emotions. Such suppression or avoidance is a learned response taught by our caregivers and the world around us. What we counsellors do is try to help the patient acknowledge the real feelings she has and not what should be and, most importantly, to accept them – however unpleasant.
We are born perfect, but we are not born with a set of instructions. If we have been brought up imprinted with the wrong information from our caregivers or society, we can change it and take control of our life again. As Shakespeare wrote: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”