Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Good Guilt Trip

Take a trip with me for a minute.

Imagine that today you decided to shoplift. 

If you are like me, that thought makes you edgy and nervous. If you are not like me, you can consider it with no feeling of discomfort at all. If you are a regular shoplifter, it might even give you a bit of a thrill.

It makes me feel bad. Why?

My great-nephew lived with me for a while. He believed that if he felt bad, it was incumbent upon everyone else to placate him. He would stage elaborate tantrums, public meltdowns, and crying fits. Creating feelings of guilt or shame in others was his reliable strategy. He was nine years old and never had to do anything he didn't want to do, or eat anything he didn't want to eat (at 9, he had never eaten a sandwich, soup, or vegetable until the 9 months he lived with us).

Certainly, the kind of guilt that my relative used was a self-serving, manipulative, control strategy. It's not uncommon. I have known adults well into their sixties who were still trying to appease the voices of their decades-long-past parents who used guilt and shame to condition them.

It's a sad when guilt is abused but it is so fundamental and so easily leveraged that guilt must have some primal, legitimate use. If we all have it, and have a lot of it, then the ability to feel guilt must bestow some evolutionary advantage.

Why does it work?
Why are we so prone to accept guilt and to act on it?
Why do I feel bad if I merely consider doing something unfair or unkind?

Diana Larsen talked at Agile2014 about "taking care of your tribe" and this resonated with a lot of people. "My tribe" became the catchphrase used in conversations the rest of the week.  As social animals, we form connections and "tribes." We have a drive to preserve and deepen our relationships.

I find that my guilt feelings are indeed social. They warn or remind me of a risk of not living up to an agreement or expectation. It is clearly relationship-based.  I want to "take care of my tribe." I don't risk hurting my tribe-mates.

Javan Lutung
Social Animals
I think that feelings of guilt or of possible guilt are self-protective and socially responsible. When I consider taking unfair advantage or hurting someone else's reputation, the feelings I get warn me that I am at the edge of betraying a trust.  I like that warning. There have been times that it caused me to think about my actions and consider a more appropriate and fair action.

If the feelings are really a social "spider sense" that warns us of betrayal to our tribe, then they are good feelings to be cultivated and honed. They are not to be avoided or remedied, but to be trained and leveraged by us.

Merely choosing to "not feel bad" by refusing all guilty feelings leaves my decision-making apparatus with a social handicap as indeed it has done with my young relative, who refused feelings of guilt without becoming socially responsible and "fair."

These feelings also must be inspected, lest they become an easy control mechanism for a manipulative other.

I started to inspect my own guilt feelings with curiosity and openness and to take a more clinical view of them. I've been deepening a few understandings:

  • Inflicted social guilt is manipulative, often used to gain an advantage. It can be rejected.
  • The sense of guilt can be over-sensitive; betrayal can be felt only on the side of the oversensitive person.
  • The social guilt is sometimes imaginary; the "others" we fear disappointing do not have the expectations we think they have for our behavior..
  • The social guilt is sometimes real and reliable. As long as it is in "future tense" it's easy to work around fairly. Even in past tense, there are ways to remedy guilt and move forward.
  • Some actions really are a betrayal of trust, and I can usually "just say no." When there is a fact of betrayal, feelings of betrayal are perfectly valid. 
  • If you realize it is a social sense, you can learn to forgive as you are forgiven. It is not a permanent shame.

If these feelings are a good and useful adaptation to living socially,  I'm interested in information that will adjust or inform my opinion about this sense of social responsibility and how to grow and use it ever more responsibly and socially.

I am not a psychologist. I'm just trying to work through this stuff.

I don't know if this is universally true, I only know that it is working for me (so far).

Some images presented here are originally from

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