Feeling guilty about something is such a common occurrence. Most of have learned to feel what we call guilt from the messages our parents gave us. Our parents’ responsibilities required them to teach us boundaries of acceptable behavior. We were taught what was allowed, what was not allowed and what was forbidden. When we were very young, they utilized a number of different tools for controlling our behaviors and teaching us to control our feelings. Depending on the values of your family and on the skills of your parents, you may have been controlled with physical punishment, the withdrawal of attention, affection and/or approval. Perhaps as your parents disciplined you they included such statements as: “I can’t believe you did that!” “What kind of person are you?” “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Have you ever given thought to what they were trying to do and how well they may have done it? Their disciplining behaviors may have been reflexive and automatic for them. Your parents may not have used thoughtful processes to determine what they should do and how they should do it. In all likelihood, they were most often responding to something we call the “parental introject.” The parental introject is something that all of us internalize around the age of four or five. It consists of a tape of messages about right and wrong, along with supportive statements such as; “You should be ashamed,” “Who do you think you are?” and “You are so selfish and self-centered.” Your parents attempted to “message” you so that you could internalize these messages into your very own parental introject to carry around with you 24/7 for the rest of your life. (It is your very own Jiminy Cricket to sit on your shoulder and keep you out of trouble.) Being able to internalize the parental introject is an essential element for socialization in any culture.
All cultures seek to transmit their value systems and behavioral controls from one generation to the next. Part of the goal of parenting is to teach these values and repeat them to the point of internalization by their children. Our children must learn how to behave and function within the constraints of our cultures. It is our jobs as parents, teachers and clergy to imbue these values with a panache that draws our offspring into a reflexive “knowing” of right and wrong which will then provide constraints around their behavioral choices. If our children become bound by those values, they will internalize the culturally held knowledge of right and wrong.
Let me give you an example of the kind of thing I am talking about. I am in my mid sixties, my friends and I were talking about how you are “supposed” to dress for church. My adult children laughed at us and said, “If you are there, it is enough, the rest does not matter.” Our conversation moved on to the current cultural fad of getting a tattoo or a body piercing. When I was in college studying things like anthropology and sociology, I was taught that anyone with two or more tats was displaying strong indications of being a sociopath. Today, that lesson would not hold! So very many people have moved to the “dark side” and gotten tattoos that having two or more is pretty common, and becoming more so. Now, it is not uncommon at all to find professionals, successful adults who have what are called “sleeve” tattoos that cover entire strips of their skin in a solid block of tattoos. I mention this to make the point that values change and the standards over time change with them. In my great-grandfather’s day, women did not wear pants, they wore dresses. Women were not even allowed to smoke in public without the danger of being arrested! They were taught that these standards were “right” and that they should reflexively and innately “know” what they could do, what they should do, and what they were forbidden to do.
In situations that are not emotionally charged, these internalized senses of “right and wrong” are what we call ethnocentric mores. Mores are values, identified with a culture or an ethnic group within a culture, that were transmitted between generations. These mores allow or support the picture of what to do that “feels right” and consists of reflexive behaviors that we do without thinking. We just “know” what we were supposed to do. Until were able to internalize the parental introject, the discipline and the controls were in the hands of our parents and our teachers (secular and religious.) Once we had internalized these values and they worked automatically within us, we needed less external monitoring. The monitor (the parental introject) had been programmed into us and we listened to its messages as we made our behavioral choices.
Those of us who have ever been tempted to do something that our introjects told us was wrong has had to listen to the message and feel the feelings of guilt. We may do what we want to do, but afterwards, we feel guilty, we may also feel ashamed because we know we have been “bad.” So many parts of our social system utilize the tools of guilt and shame to regulate the way we think and the way we behave. Others are often happy to point to the error of our ways and shame us, or guilt us, into behaving as they would have us behave. This may be about the way we dress, how we speak to our parents, whether or not we open doors for the elderly, are nice to strangers, go to church on Sunday, etc.. The goal is to restrict our options and cause us to be more “like” what we are supposed to be than we would otherwise want.
Many of my clients who have come from really dysfunctional families are severely blocked by their overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame. Their families will send them aggressive messages about their rejection because they have been “bad.” Many of these clients struggle night and day with guilt and shame. They vacillate between anger and despair at their sense of helplessness. They have a want or need to do something that they know their families will “be ashamed of them” for. When they act on what they want, they feel trapped and ashamed, they feel they are a bad person because they did not do what they “should” have done.
I try to teach them the difference between guilt and remorse. I believe that it is perfectly legitimate to be self-aware enough to know that you feel badly that you have hurt or disappointed someone. It is appropriate to know that sometimes you impulsively act in ways that are not thoughtful and considerate. Other times we want something so badly that we choose it even when we know it is “wrong”. Afterwards, how do we deal with having done it? We feel guilt, which is closely tied to shame. I think those feelings are usually driven by cultural demands and by the efforts of others to control us and our behaviors. I do not fault them for wanting to control us, but I believe that we are free moral agents who are capable of making our own choices.
Sometimes after I have made what I later determine is a mistake, I feel remorseful about it. I especially feel this way when I have hurt or disappointed someone I cared about or was responsible for. This feeling of remorse is very strong, and encourages me to remember and not repeat what I have done. I think it is more than a semantic distinction to make to call it remorse rather than guilt. Words do matter, and how we frame our internal monologue says a lot about our mental health. I find that clients who are burdened by the oppression of guilt and shame are not doing well with making self-owned choices. They are less likely to be independent and self-aware, they are more likely to be controlled and limited by the values of those who are important to them. I think good mental health requires that we become aware of the distinction between guilt and remorse and choose to frame our monologues in terms of healthy remorse, rather than unhealthy guilt or shame.
So, I tell my clients not to do guilt or shame. Rather take adult responsibility for your actions, even when they are impulsive, and do remorse or sadness. Follow these feelings with an honest conversation about whether or not you will continue to commit these acts knowing your level of choice making, your level of integrity and responsibility. You cannot remain a child, impulsively reacting or acting out, followed by cycles of guilt and shame as you maintain your ultimate innocence because you “did not know.” Your parental introject knows and it will kick you in the rear with guilt and shame. As an adult, you can reject this reflexive, automatic, culturally created response and make choices that are based on what you truly want with a willingness to pay the cost of your choices.