- Why are some people ashamed to prove themselves?
- Why do some people like to become victims?
Guilt has two faces , one positive and one negative. Its brighter side is strongly associated with the feeling of empathy (it is often said that people who feel guilty are also usually more empathetic). It arises by perceiving the pain of the other, thinking that the origin of his discomfort is in some erroneous action performed by oneself and wishing to correct the damage caused.
Although it can lead to avoiding the situation for fear of facing what happened or to avoid probable punishment, usually the sadness for the damage caused causes the desire to apologize , amend the action and learn from that experience so as not to reproduce the failure.
When it is experienced in advance it has a self-regulating function , it acts as a "virtual simulator of the situation" that activates compassion and provides for harm, avoiding malicious behavior. This is interpersonal guilt, a social emotion that is essential for the good health of personal relationships and society.
In order for this reflection on the damage caused (or that could be caused) to be possible , complex cognitive skills are required : a good definition of the self, the ability to see oneself as separate from the other and to have clear internal norms of reference.
It is the intrapersonal fault , that in which the person contravenes "what must be done" according to their own canons of conduct. It serves to keep in touch with ourselves and assess our actions as correct or incorrect. Along with shame and pride, guilt belongs to the so-called self-conscious emotions that cause self-reflection . Associated with empathy motivates moral behavior.
Guilt thus has an unquestionable social value, but can cause collateral individual damage . By not doing "what is owed" the guilty assessment activates the feelings of anger for having failed, along with sadness for the pain caused and anxiety for the possible consequences. It is here that the negative character of this feeling can be activated.
The culprit settles in obsessive rumination , evokes again and again what happened and activates self-injurious patterns because by not channeling the guilt towards corrective actions he directs the aggressiveness towards the individual himself becoming self-written .
It is the depressive guilt that corrodes self-esteem and leads to the dead end of melancholy. In this case, as Erich Fromm affirms, feelings of guilt favor the manipulation of the subject and submission to the demands of others, from the family to the political sphere.
Also the person who feels guilty can trigger the defense mechanism of the projection . Here, the rage for the possible failure is directed outward, activating feelings of hostility towards the other person, considering them to be absolutely responsible for everything negative that happens and for the suffering itself.
It is the persecutory guilt that favors aggression against others , which becomes a destabilizing element of personal relationships, in some cases even dangerous (witch hunts). The effects of this feeling are even more pernicious if it is associated with shame.
The fault lies in what is done - in the behavior - while in shame the negative is in who does it - in the person - so that by focusing on the self leaves little room for empathy and compassion .
In this guilty loop Juan and Lola were entangled . She had been accused and rejected by her parents, especially her mother, a woman suffering from depression. No matter what he did, she was to blame. Now he must always be innocent, he fears too much that any mistake becomes punishment.
That is why, in the face of a difficulty or malaise, he activates the persecutory guilt and projects his anguish on Juan to the one who scolds and accuses for almost everything "you are a bad father, a bad husband, a bad lover, etc."
His case is the opposite; He is a patient of depressive guilt and in the consultation does not stop crying wrapped in great despair. He does not know where his guilt begins and when it is the responsibility of the other . It comes from a childhood story where he was overloaded with responsibilities that were not his own (being the oldest he took care of his many siblings).
That excess made him superresponsible and superculpable, or when he does everything perfectly he can be calm. Rolled in the mud of some regret you can never feel clean. At certain times he explodes and then the drama changes direction and it is she who is pointed out as crazy or useless, the absolute culprit, after all.
The neurotic loop can be in the same individual . Pablo is unfaithful to his wife for what he feels guilty because he loves his wife. He effectively renounces his escapades and after a while he feels locked up, lives his marriage as a source of sacrifices without compensation. This thought leads him to feel an intense hostility that poisons the family atmosphere, then returns to infidelity, the only possible compensation for so many useless resignations. In this way it returns to the dysfunctional cycle.
Many disorders and psychopathological processes are produced by the difficulty in handling this emotion. The feeling of guilt is present in the diagnostic criteria of depression, obsessive disorders, paranoids, in complicated grief, addictions, post-traumatic stress and in the disocial personality disorder where the basic rights of others or the norms are violated.
From a therapeutic point of view, if it is truly your responsibility (that is, in you there is the error and the capacity to respond) the best solution is reparation, intentionally directing the action towards activities that correct the fault .
Guilt causes pain, but as soon as it focuses on behavior, it is not so overwhelming or confusing. Many times when the amendment is not possible directly it helps to look for something significant that can be done by others such as being part of an association that supports people who have suffered a fact related to the guilt-generating action.
If it is not your responsibility or if you have already repaired the damage, it is best to activate self-compassionate behaviors that allow you to understand yourself, give yourself comfort and activate the indulgence to move on with life in freedom that would otherwise be impossible.
How to transform guilt with self-pity
1. Understand the fault. The fault is normal. It is the way in which the brain has to deal with the threat of disconnection from oneself, from others and from the norms with which we regulate ourselves.
2. Label the fault. Label the fault for what it is: an emotion. Putting a name helps you take distance between you and your emotion.
3. Replace the trial with curiosity. Try to evaluate your guilt experience with curiosity rather than judging it. Curiosity about your emotions can help change towards a perspective of care and understanding.
4. Recognize the inner critic. This will help you realize that your inner critic often likes to amplify your guilt. Remind that critical instance that you are working to progress and trying to advance the best you can.
5. Practice what is useful not harmful. Try talking to yourself as if you were your best friend. Ask yourself what actions are useful to recover from this experience rather than continuing with actions that will perpetuate it. If you are working on correcting an action you can offer constructive corrections better than blaming self-attacks.
Isabel Serrano-Rosa is a psychologist and director of EnPositivoSí.
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