The Web address of this
two-page article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/wounds/guilt.htm
September 20, 2013
Clicking underlined links here will open a
new window. Plain links will open an informational popup,
so please turn off your
browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site.
Follow underlined links after
finishing this article to avoid getting distracted and lost.
This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 1 in
this Web site - free your
to guide you in calm and conflictual times, and
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
This article offers perspective on...
what guilt is, and what causes it
(you may be surprised!),
how excessive guilt may
relationships and behavior,
reducing excessive guilts
to normal, and for avoiding unwarranted new guilts; and...
adapting to other people who are excessively
The article assumes
you're familiar with...
intro to this nonprofit Website and the premises underlying
for a moment - what are your favorite
guilts? Have you ever devised a strategy to reduce
significant guilts? Do you know anyone who has?
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.
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
guiltindicates significant psychological
wounding, and promotes personal and relationship problems.
Where Does Guilt Comes From?
if some version of this example is familiar:
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,
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.
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
To guard against painful disapproval and
possible rejection, Criticstudied 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.
(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
"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
dutifullyrebuked 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!"
delivered scathing lectures on how she'd broken another rule again, her
Shamed Girl and Guilty Girl would
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
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 ShamedGirls 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
Liar, a persuasive
Magician, an hysterical
Sneak, a shrill
Worrier, a powerful
People-pleaser, and a
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
- in public, anyway.
All these Guardian
personality-parts worked tirelessly with
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
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
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)
and shame come from. Does it seem credible? The keys are:
Very young kids instinctivelyseek to earn vital adult
attention and approval by evolving a complex array of good-bad,
right-wrong rules on how they’re “supposedto”behave.
They expand these rules to get approval and acceptance by their playmates
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),
Shamed inner kids, a tireless
Inner Critic, and an array of other protective
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 onmany 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
shouldlove 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.
can excessive guilt affect key relationships and daily
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...
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
unconsciously adopt an "I'm
(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...
assertion of current
opinions, values, needs, and
feeling timid, anxious, incompetent,
frustrated, and pessimistic.
Excessive shame and guilt cause behaviors which amplify
strengthen other false-self
the person hits personal
bottom and commits to recovery.
A related impact of
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
sorry it's so humid in here.") Overfocusing on explaining
(defending against inner or social criticism) usually inhibits productive assertion and problem-solving.
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
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!")
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.
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
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:
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?
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?
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
permanently reduce excessive guilts to
healthy levels, and...
consistently avoid excessive and undeserved new guilts.
can do both of these things if your
true Self (capital "S") is
to guide your other subselves! Notice how your dominant subselves
to that idea now - is your (their) glass half-full or half-empty?...
options for permanently reducing excessive guilts include...
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
For each broken rule of your own that has
significantly hurt someone else,
own your responsibility honestly, without shaming
where possible, apologize
sincerely - ideally in person.
Notice how your subselves react to these options...
look at each option briefly, before looking at how to avoid
unwarranted new guilts...
See how you feel about acting on these options now vs. "soon"...
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 yourselfthat "excessive guilt" is a symptom of the core
problem - a
disabled true Self and
your main target is to meet and harmonize your subselves
over time. While you're doing that, important secondary targets
identifying and intentionally reducing
specific toxic (excessive) guilts,
guarding against unwarranted new guilts,
learning how 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
If your true
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.
thinking, communicating, and problem solving by working patiently at
Lesson 2. Over time, this will help
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
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).
superficial and core attitudechanges, 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
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
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.”Doyouknow 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.
specificrights 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
and obey our (adult) rules.' As a mature, unique adult, I’m
responsible for devising and living by myown rules, and for the results
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,"
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
A final preparation-option is…
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.
with options for reducing major guilts and avoiding unwarranted new guilts.