Lesson 1 of 7  - free your true Self to guide you

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Options for Reducing
Excessive Guilt
to Normal

Where Guilt Comes From,
and Ways to Reduce It

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this two-page article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/wounds/guilt.htm

  Updated  September 20, 2013

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      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 1 in this Web site - free your true Self to guide you in calm and conflictual times, and reduce significant false-self wounds One of six psychological "wounds" that stress survivors of low-nurturance childhoods is the combination of excessive shame (I'm a worthless, unlovable person) and excessive guilts (I do bad things). This article focuses on assessing for and reducing excessive guilts.

      This brief YouTube video previews what you'll read in this article. The intro mentions 8 self-improvement lessons in this site - I've reduced that to seven.

      This article offers perspective on...

  • what guilt is, and what causes it (you may be surprised!),

  • how excessive guilt may affect your relationships and behavior,

  • options for reducing excessive guilts to normal, and for avoiding unwarranted new guilts; and...

  • options for adapting to other people who are excessively guilty.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

      Reflect for a moment - what are your favorite guilts? Have you ever devised a strategy to reduce significant guilts? Do you know anyone who has? Premise: excessive guilts can be intentionally reduced to normal, healthy levels. Do you believe this? This article may have more meaning for you if you look at photos of yourself as a child, and each minor or grown child in your life now.

colorbutton.gif  What is Guilt?

      Premises: guilt is an automatic mental + emotional response to believing that we have "done something wrong" - i.e. we have violated someone's rules about "proper attitudes and behavior." Guilt and shame usually occur together and feel similar, but have different roots.

       Moderate guilt is a healthy, useful response, for it regulates our self-nurturance ("I better brush my teeth.") and our social behaviors ("I should apologize for being late.") Excessive guilt indicates significant psychological wounding, and promotes personal and relationship problems.

colorbutton.gif  Where Does Guilt Comes From?

      See if some version of this example is familiar:

      As a young girl, Sharon was taught a powerful rule by many people and media characters, in different ways "You should always be nice." There were many variations: Mom said "Nice girls are never rude." Grampa Larry often said "Your brother Nick is always so thoughtful and polite." The minister praised Bible characters and congregational members for being courteous, respectful, obedient, humble, and charitable. Girlfriends scathingly criticized peers for being "stuck up, gross, and selfish." 

      From parental scoldings, praises, and modeling their values, young Sharon began the life-long process of accumulating rules for relating to other people: shoulds, oughts, musts, cant's, supposed to's, and have to’s, Among her personality subselves, her budding Historian collected and stored these perceptions. Her tireless Librarian subself indexed what became thousands of behavioral rules to cover "How Sharon should or must act" in all kinds of solitary and social situations.

      To win daily approval and acceptance at home and school, she developed tireless Inner Critic, Perfectionist, and Moralizer subselves, who often teamed up. These zealous personality parts formed her “conscience.” They assumed the protective responsibility of comparing Sharon's daily and past thoughts, decisions, feelings and actions to these rules, and rendering judgments on them "for her own good."

      To guard against painful disapproval and possible rejection, Critic studied Sharon’s parents, and copied their words and voice dynamics to chide and scorn the girl whenever she broke any rules. The adults’ voice dynamics and body language were often sarcastic, angry, pitying, scornful, exasperated, and disapproving.

      Like Sharon’s (wounded) parents, her Inner Critic didn’t praise her for following the rules. Critic learned to feel “That’s just what’s expected, so it doesn’t deserve any praise.” Critic heard the minister say "Pride is a sin, (and sin is BAD).” The girl's Grandmother often tsk-tsked about people with "swelled heads" who were "full of themselves." Critic dutifully rebuked Sharon for feeling self-satisfaction for “being nice.”

      As we all do, young Sharon grew a Guilty Child subself. When this subself activated, it infused Sharon with the feeling of guilt and related thoughts. This happened every time an adult or her Critic pronounced or implied that the girl had broken some rule.

      At the same time, another young subself was learning to feel and store her shame. Fairy tales helped that subself grow, when kids were sternly told by adults "You should be ashamed of yourself young lady for ___")

      In her early years, Sharon didn't know many family and social rules, so she broke them often. Her siblings, relatives, and caregivers told her that, often, "for your own good" (and their comfort). Fueled by her People-pleaser subself's  need to be “good” and "nice," (liked and accepted), Her personal library of behavioral rules grew and grew.

      As Sharon decoded thousands of judgments from her outer and inner Critics during her childhood (including some praises), her Shamed Girl grew the conviction "I'm real bad. I always break the rules. I am SO stupid and dumb. No one could ever love me!"

      When Critic delivered scathing lectures on how she'd broken another rule again, her Shamed Girl and Guilty Girl would disable Sharon's young true Self, giving Sharon thoughts like "I did a bad thing (broke a rule)” and guilt feelings; and/or she thought "I am a BAD girl." and felt ashamed.

      When she thought people around her knew she did and felt these things, she felt embarrassed. Pretty soon, all it took was certain people looking at her, rolling their eyes and sighing, or just saying "Sharon..." and her internal Guilty and Shamed Girls spasmed. The guilty and shamed thoughts and feelings tended to merge and feel the same, as the Earth circled the sun.

      Because these feelings hurt, Sharon also automatically developed a Hurt Girl subself. Her sole job was to bring Sharon the useful emotion of pain. Some related Guardian subselves developed too. They included an Idealist/Optimist, a crafty Liar, a persuasive Procrastinator, a Magician, an hysterical Catastrophizer, a Sneak, a shrill Worrier, a powerful People-pleaser, and a Loner.

      Their specialized 24-hour jobs all aimed to guard the Guilty, Shamed, and Hurt Girls from perceived sources of inner and outer pain. Sharon also grew an Angry subself, who developed over time into an adolescent Rebel. But that one impulsively broke too many rules in the social world, so the Guardian subselves tried to paralyze her - in public, anyway.

      All these Guardian personality-parts worked tirelessly with Librarian and Historian subselves to decide what actions might produce significant pain. Sometimes they'd invoke Critic to sternly rebuke and lecture Sharon like her parents, hoping she would avoid pain and injury.

      Based on their inherited (unconscious) libraries of social and parenting rules, Sharon’s Mom and Dad believed they were raising their daughter well enough. They had no awareness of the group of subselves their daughter was developing, or how often she was tormented by her vigilant Inner Critic and Perfectionist because of their rebukes and sarcasms. They occasionally worried over "how hard she is on herself."

      As Sharon grew, her increasingly knowledgeable, wise, far-seeing true Self was often disabled by her reactive inner kids and their Guardian subselves. That resulted in her Self doubting her own wisdom and inner-family leadership ability (which was her real talent). Most other subselves ignored and/or dis-trusted the girl's developing Self.

      Sharon wasn’t aware of her subselves and their goals and traits. No one ever talked about normal adults and kids having dynamic "inner families," or encouraged her to discern what her personality was and how it "worked." She was aware of feeling crazy and confused at times, when various agitated subselves took her Self over and gave her conflicting thought and feelings.

+ + +

      This is a skeletal sketch of where (I think) excessive guilt and shame come from. Does it seem credible? The keys are:

      Very young kids instinctively seek to earn vital adult attention and approval by evolving a complex array of good-bad, right-wrong rules on how they’re “supposed to” behave. They expand these rules to get approval and acceptance by their playmates and schoolmates.

      Most early rules (shoulds, musts, have-to's, cant's, etc.) develop from perceiving adult responses to a young child's behaviors. Rule-building starts automatically before a child's vocabulary and coherent thinking develop - e.g. "If I smile, (the big person) smiles and makes nice sounds."

      To avoid the agony of caregiver rejection and abandonment (i.e. potential death), kids develop Guilty and Shamed inner kids, a tireless Inner Critic, and an array of other protective Guardian subselves. Unless aware caregivers intervene, these normal personality subselves get used to distrusting and disabling the child’s immature true Self. They generate "guilty thoughts" and feelings.

      Depending on many factors, a child may grow up to become dominated by guilty, shamed, and self-critical subselves - situationally or all the time. Typical adults aren't aware of how their subselves cause this in themselves or other people. Excessive guilt and shame can self-amplify if the child was taught “I shouldn’t feel so guilty,” and “I should love myself!” (rules).

      People dominated by shamed, guilty, and fearful subselves unconsciously choose each other as mates and associates. In Millennium America, over half of them develop relationship and parenting problems and divorce psychologically or legally. About 70% are parents. From cultural, ancestral, religious, and parental training (rules), their Inner Critic or Blamer insists the divorced parent is bad (shameful) for breaking fundamental rules ("Good parents never divorce!"). This causes significant guilts.

      How can excessive guilt affect key relationships and daily serenity?

colorbutton.gif Common Effects of Excessive Guilt

      Adults who allow their Inner Critic, Perfectionist, and Shamed and Guilty inner children to dominate their thoughts and behaviors risk...

      1) not living from a realistic "Personal Bill of Rights." This is a primal set of beliefs whose theme is "I am a unique, worthy, dignified human being, and I have a set of unarguable rights to use in making my decisions - even if others resent, criticize, or disagree with me."

      Typical kids raised in low-nurturance (neglectful and shaming) homes are usually not taught or encouraged to develop a realistic set of personal rights, which means they have to intentionally develop a Bill of Rights as adults. Until they identify and authenticate their personal rights and reduce their wounds, they will endure... 

      2) ineffective communication. Excessive shame and guilt cause people other than sociopaths to unconsciously adopt an "I'm 1-down (inferior)" attitude in their thinking and interacting with some or all other people. This attitude may be amplified when communicating with self-confident, aggressive, self-centered, or controlling (1-up) people. Common results are...

  • ineffective assertion of current opinions, values, needs, and boundaries; and...

  • feeling timid, anxious, incompetent, frustrated, and pessimistic.

Excessive shame and guilt cause behaviors which amplify inferiority and strengthen other false-self  wounds, until the person hits personal bottom and commits to recovery.

      A related impact of excessive guilt is...

       3) automatically adopting a defensive and/or apologetic attitude with some or all other people - specially those who are aggressive and judgmental, and some or all authorities. A symptom of this is the compulsion to over-explain and justify personal opinions and behaviors whether other people challenge them or not.

      Another symptom is apologizing all the time, even for things that could not be controlled ("I'm sorry it's so humid in here.") Overfocusing on explaining (defending against inner or social criticism) usually inhibits productive assertion and problem-solving.

      Another tragic impact of excessive guilt and shame is...

      4) ineffective or harmful parenting. Excessively guilty (wounded) parents and caregivers are often perfectionistic, rigid, and over-critical of minor kids and grandkids. Without meaning to, this promotes the young people developing overactive Guilty and Shamed inner children and related Guardian subselves - repeating the toxic wounding cycle. Excessive guilt can cause parents to be oversensitive and over-reactive to others' opinions of their children's character and behaviors. ("I'm SO sorry my klutzy son spilled his drink!")

      5) Parents who separate or divorce often feel excessive guilts related to the pain their minor kids and/or parents have experienced. This and other toxic traits can promote significant problems in trying to coordinate childcare with an ex mate.

      Excessive divorce-related guilts and shame also can stress relationships with new partners (step-parents) by promoting chronic conflicts. ["My child will always come first with me (because I feel so bad for what I've done to her/him)."] These primal emotions also hinder providing effective child discipline, which causes a web of secondary family-system problems.

      Because each wounded person and their situation is unique, you may experience other guilt-related personal and relationship problems. Though the details may differ, the themes are constant.

      Problems like these are really caused by a mix of psychjological wounds and some key unawarenesses, not just excessive guilt. The latter is a major contributor, and needs to be intentionally reduced as part of an overall wound-reduction program.

      So what can Sharon and you do to reduce or avoid guilt-related problems like these? To begin answering that, try this...

Reality check - pause and reflect: on a scale of one ("I never have problems with guilt") to ten ("I constantly feel guilty about many things"), how much of a problem is guilt in your present life? Is "reduce my psychological wounds, including major guilts," among your top five current life priorities?

      I use guilts (plural) because each major broken rule needs to be  examined individually,  and most of us have a collection of significant guilts. Is this true of you?

colorbutton.gif Options for Reducing Excessive Guilts

      If you feel excessive guilts, do you think you can reduce them? Once committed to reducing their psychological wounds, I have seen many inner-family therapy clients...

  • permanently reduce excessive guilts to healthy levels, and...

  • consistently avoid excessive and undeserved new guilts.

You can do both of these things if your true Self (capital "S") is free to guide your other subselves! Notice how your dominant subselves react to that idea now - is your (their) glass half-full or half-empty?...

       Basic options for permanently reducing excessive guilts include...

  • Prepare yourself with the options below. A key is committing to reduce the psychological wounds that promote excessive guilt and other stressors;

  • Prioritize current or chronic guilts (minor > moderate > major)

  • Identify and evaluate each broken rule that causes you major guilt, one at a time. For each rule that someone else taught you, define your own rule, and give yourself permission to live by it - even if it causes other able people discomfort;

  • Patiently coach and retrain your subselves - specially your Inner Critic, People Pleaser, and Guilty and Shamed Inner Kids - to accept that it's healthy and good to stop living by other people's rules and start living by your own rules;

  • For each broken rule of your own that has significantly hurt someone else,

    • own your responsibility honestly, without shaming yourself,

    • forgive yourself, and...

    • where possible, apologize sincerely - ideally in person.

      Notice how your subselves react to these options...

       Let's look at each option briefly, before looking at how to avoid unwarranted new guilts...

1) Prepare Yourself

      See how you feel about acting on these options now vs. "soon"...

    Learn how to tell whether your Self (capital "S") is guiding your personality. You're far more apt to succeed in reducing excessive guilts and shame (and other wounds) when s/he leads your other subselves.

    Define your goals: Remind yourself that "excessive guilt" is a symptom of the core problem - a disabled true Self and distrustful, disorganized personality subselves. So your main target is to meet and harmonize your subselves (recover) over time. While you're doing that, important secondary targets include...

  • identifying and intentionally reducing specific toxic (excessive) guilts,

  • guarding against unwarranted new guilts,

  • learning how to react to excessively-guilty (wounded) adults and kids (p. 2), and...

  • teaching and encouraging any dependent kids in your life to learn these three things. 

Try saying these goals out loud ("I need to identify and reduce my excessive guilts"), and notice if you need to rephrase or edit them to make them your goals.

      Assess yourself for false-self dominance via Lesson 1. If your true Self is often disabled, commit to a personal high-priority recovery program, while balancing the rest of your life. To begin, identify the subselves that comprise your unique personality and which ones usually lead them! Then patiently work to empower your Self, and reorganize and harmonize your other subselves.

      Commit to improving your thinking, communicating, and problem solving by working patiently at Lesson 2. Over time, this will help you...

  • harmonize your subselves, and...

  • reduce many current stressors in your life - including excessive guilts.

If you’re not sure whether you need to commit to this vital work, try this quiz and review these common communication problems.

      Clarify your definitions of guilt and shame. Then list on paper the specific past and present things you (your subselves) feel excessively guilty about. Expect to reduce these things one at a time (below).

      Learn the difference between superficial and core attitude changes, and read this article about reducing excessive shame. Reducing excessive shame and guilts to normal are related but separate attitude changes, like permanently deciding to end an addiction without relapsing or starting a new one.

      Coach yourself to clarify things you can change or affect, and things you can't. Typical kids in low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") homes are trained to feel guilty for things they can't control - e.g. "You're bad because you wet your bed again and made me clean up after you!"

      Decide whether you believe that every able adult is responsible for their own comfort and happiness. Believing this without ambivalence frees you to act on your own integrity (personal values and rules) even if it causes other people discomfort. Not honestly confronting people who are too scared or shamed to fill their own needs is called enabling.  A classic example is not empathically confronting a chemically-dependent (wounded) person to avoid "making them feel bad" or "causing a conflict."

      More preparation options for permanently reducing significant and chronic guilts...

      Affirm "My guilt is a normal, healthy emotion which - in moderation - helps me to make wise life decisions. I am not trying to become guiltless, I'm going to reduce excessive guilt to a moderate (non-crippling) level."

      Seek and use a “guilt hero.” Do you know anyone who has really freed themselves from (vs. denied and repressed) excessive guilt? If so, learn from them. If you don‘t know anyone, ask other people if they do. Clergy, counselors, and coaches may be good models and/or referral sources.   

      Identify your specific rights as a dignified, worthy human being, and use them to evaluate the rules someone feels you’ve broken. See if you agree: “As a child, I was taught 'You must accept and obey our (adult) rules.' As a mature, unique adult, I’m responsible for devising and living by my own rules, and for the results from that."

      Review your expectations about psychological-wound reduction, including reducing excessive guilts. Do they include "I can and will reduce the excessive guilts that burden me," or something else? If "something else," reflect:

Have I changed at least one other core aspect of my personality before? (e.g. “I used to: laugh when I hurt / lie, at times / never say ‘no’ / never call the doctor / fear sex /...”)

How did I make that change? (e.g. consciously, or "It just happened"? With help, or alone? Gradually, or suddenly? Because of a painful trauma, or just "It was time to change"? With tools like affirmations, prayers, reminders, images, or not?; etc.

      A final preparation-option is…

      Identify the specific benefits of reducing your excessive guilts. If you're not clear yet, try identifying the specific personal or relationship discomforts that your inflated guilt causes you. Then vividly imagine your life to be free of those. Keep this vision, or a written description or symbol of it, where you can remind yourself along the way of why you're making this powerful wound-recovery change.

Continue with options for reducing major guilts and avoiding unwarranted new guilts.
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