Its a nasty little creature but it does have a good purpose. Assuming you’re not a sociopath you know what it feels like. We all do. Who hasn’t done something wrong in this life and felt awful about it? We’re supposed to feel bad when we do something bad…. The healthy feeling of guilt prods us into making amends. For example, you’ve had a lousy week at work and realize you’ve been very cranky to your Person ( I happen to like this word much better than “significant other”. Its shorter and …well…more personal.) So when you realize this, and feel appropriately guilty, you apologize. Hopefully you have a healthy enough relationship that your Person accepts the apology and you’re both done with feeling offended and feeling guilty. And you move on.
But there’s another kind of guilt where the guilt creature turns into a monster that rules your life…not the kind that prods you to make amends, but the kind that takes over your life and relationships. A logical, cognitive solution that helps some of my clients, and maybe will help you, is this:
Imagine yourself in a court of law, where your guilt must be proven so that appropriate punishment, or amends, can be decided. You’re the defendant representing yourself because no honest attorney worth their salt would represent you in this case.
Judge Judy, who has moved up to a higher court in her career (no I’ve never watched her in my entire life and I don’t feel guilty lying about this either) : Ok, so its the State vs. You. What exactly is the crime we’re trying?
You (possibly stuttering at this point!): Uh, not a crime…..I just feel really guilty….
Judge Judy: Where’s your lawyer?
You: I couldn’t find one to defend me.
Judge Judy: Well why not? That tells me already that no one even thought you had a case.
You: Well….my therapist told me to come.
Judge Judy, rubbing her eyes: Oh my dear God, why do therapists always send their clients to me? Do I look like a therapist???? What crime does your therapist think you commited?
You: Well….nothing…that’s why she told me to come here.
Judge Judy: Fine. So she wants me to do her work?
You: Well, actually I think she wants me to do the work….
Judge Judy with a flamboyant sigh : Ok, lets get on with this. What crime do you think you committed?
You: Well, not a crime, exactly….I just feel guilty about….everything….
Judge Judy: Could you give me an example?
You: Well, my son is unhappy a lot…actually he’s depressed…so I feel guilty all the time for being a terrible mother.
Judge Judy with confusion on her face: How old is your son?
Judge Judy (sighing and with even more confusion on her face) : Ok…so….what exactly is the crime that I should convict you of?
You: Well, I didn’t say I committed a crime.
Judge Judy: But you did say you feel guilty. Guilt by definition indicates wrongdoing of some kind. What did you do wrong?
You: Well….I’m not exactly sure….but I must have done something wrong to be feeling so guilty. If I’d been a good mother maybe he would’ve turned out happier.
Judge Judy: Did you take algebra in school? From what I’m hearing, a + b is not equal to c here.
You: Excuse me?
Judge Judy: You have not convinced me with any logic at all that you are guilty of anything. Feelings do not necessarily imply cause and effect. What has your son chosen to do about his depression? Does he see a therapist? Is he on medication?
Judge Judy: Why not?
You: He just….won’t….he flatly refuses.
Judge Judy: Are you supportive? Do you love him?
You: Of course!
Judge Judy: So what are you guilty of? (She raises her hand in the air, to stop any possible interruption). And please don’t tell me about his childhood stuff. That’s your stuff you’re consumed with here, not his. He’s a man now and its his choice how to deal , or not deal with, the effects of his childhood. Did you do the best that you knew how when you raised him? Have you apologized for any serious mistakes you made?
You: Yes! But if I could, I’d go back and do things differently now….
Judge Judy: Wouldn’t we all…thus the old saying “if I knew then what I know now”….But you have not convinced me of any crime worth the guilt you’re carrying on our back like a boulder. What was your crime? What should I convict you of?
You: I could’ve been a better mother.
Judge Judy: I cannot convict you of youth and imperfection. Would you convict a mother of that?
Judge Judy: Then what are you guilty of?
Judge Judy: Whose responsibility is it for your son to get help? Can you pick him up and carry him into a therapist’s office? Can he still fit into a car seat? How big is he?
You: Too big (and now the light dawns…)
You grab Judge Judy’s gavel and slam it yourself. Case dismissed.
So think about it…if you will….and tell me….of what crime have you convicted yourself?