Monday, April 23, 2012

Emotional Intelligence (7): Guilt

Michelangelo's depiction of God, the Father, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

All this talk of emotions and how to manage them is fine in theory, but how do things work out in practice? I'd now like to examine some "challenging" states of mind, using examples from my own life. And "guilt" is a particularly pernicious feeling I've had continuing experience of.

Born into a God-fearing, Methodist family ruled by a strict and domineering father, I was soon acquainted with the notion of guilt and its effects. Although there are differences of emphasis and interpretation, all Christian sects and denominations believe in the concept of "original sin" — the belief that at birth we enter a world already contaminated by sin, the result of the Biblical Fall of Man and our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. From a rational, emotional and instinctual standpoint, I've now believed for a long time just the opposite: that we arrive in this world pure and innocent, and that it's the flawed human world which corrupts us. However, dubious attitudes and ideas drummed into us from early childhood are often hard to dispel. Or, more precisely, we may be able rationally to reject these attitudes and ideas, but the emotional toll they exact on us is often more difficult to reverse.

My parents, especially my father, dinned into me that I would be damned and rot in hell if I sinned.  My youthful crimes and misdemeanours were, on reflection, pretty mild and ordinary: telling lies, swearing, chasing girls in the school playground, masturbation, drawing rude cartoons of my father's lorry driver (which led to the lorry driver reporting this to my father who gave me a beating), being cheeky at Sunday School (again this led to a beating when my father got to know of it). Yet, despite the innocuous nature of these little vices, the corresponding guilt I felt was hugely disproportionate, and hung over me like a black cloud for much of my childhood and early adolescence. I don't want to exaggerate things, as I remember many happy times too: playing with mates, reading books, Christmas, holidays by the sea. Periods when this feeling of "guilt" seemed to subside, when I could overcome it by escaping outside my self. But I would always return wretchedly and with a sinking heart to what seemed at the time to be inescapably my "default" condition, a permanent background state of fearful guilt and anxiety.

Since I was brought up by my parents to be wary of the rough and godless village children, I also found it difficult for a while to mix in with most other normal kids of my age — though I always had a small circle of close friends. All this caused further debilitating feelings of shyness and acute self-consciousness. Much of my school life was therefore a bane to me. Luckily I was intelligent and assiduous, and retreated into my school work, which I found relatively easy. Which begs the question: was I hardworking out of fear of the teachers, out of a desire to please my father, out of an anxiety I might fail, out of guilt? As though hard work and "doing well" would help assuage my constant, irrational guilty state of mind? Because I knew that my father's leather strap was always waiting for me, lurking on a hook behind the tea towel in the kitchen?

I am glad to say that life improved dramatically in my early to mid-teens, and I changed unrecognisably — gaining confidence amongst my peers, with girls and with adults, and claiming my rightful place in the world. At the age of fifteen I walked and hitchhiked through the Swiss Jura. I stood up to my father and informed him that no, I would not be going to chapel with him on Sundays any more. I grew my hair. I read Orwell and Jung and books on Existentialism. I developed, I matured; I side-stepped as best as I could the tyrannical influence of my father. I asserted my true self. I did everything that is "normal" for an adolescent, and I began to love life with a passion and intensity which has never left me to this day. Yet even now — often, ironically, when I am engaged in transparently blameless activities — residues of guilt persist, like ancient dust still clinging to the bottom of a spring-cleaned wardrobe. Fortunately I have been able over the years to deal psychologically with these childhood traumas and irrational guilts and fears, though it has been a gradual process. I think that the seeds of all such long-learnt destructive feelings and emotions remain hidden somewhere deep within us, ready to germinate again if given the opportunity.


  1. You covered a lot of ground in a few paragraphs here. I enjoyed this post a lot and could relate to just about all of it, though fortunately the strap was a rarity at our place (actually our father preferred a stick) and church rarer still.

    Funny, I'd always assumed that it was just the poor Catholics who had to deal with original sin and all its effects. I'm grateful I was raised by non-believers - albeit ones who would always tell me to write "Methodist" on school forms etc as my religion! I've had enough guilt in the secular world to deal with without that burden.

  2. The rigid doctrines that drove me away from the "Christianity" of my youth are manifold. None is more troublesome, however, that the doctrine of "original sin," the notion that we are born into sin, that we are condemned at birth, that we have missed the mark before we have even discovered that target and taken aim at it. With due respect to the views of others, this doctrine has always seemed archaic and inconsonant with the concepts of grace, a loving God, and the biblical promise of abundant life. Iraneaus said that "the glory of God is a human being fully alive." One cannot be fully alive, however, and still carry the twin burdens of fear and guilt every step of the journey. I agree with you totally, Robert; we are born into purity and innocence, and the corruption is not in our original nature, but in the human conditioning that follows—conditioning like the doctrine of original sin.

    It's painful to hear about the guilt that was instilled in you during your childhood. To the extent humanly possible, however, you seem to have transcended the guilt. You have lived life abundantly and, in the process, you have helped others to do the same.

  3. Thanks, you both! Yes, that secular guilt is a whole different area, Goat! I fear I've not always been blameless there either . . . Oh, well, we're only human, I guess . . . And, yes, George, I have been able to transcend such potentially harmful legacies . . . Indeed, I often think that suffering can go two ways: it can destroy you completely, or it can be the making of you . . .

  4. Another rich post Robert - and insightful comments from your followers. All a delight to read.

    It is quite unfortunate how the story of 'original sin' has become a template imbedded in some form or other in the psyche of most humans. It can, if we do not make its internal codes/requirements conscious, govern beliefs about ourself and, therefore, our actions. This template can determine how we think about authority, freedom of thought, obedience, disobedience, initiative, responsibility, punishment, and of course, guilt.

    Guilt is such an interesting human emotion. It can be so valuable - alerting us to when we have invaded a boundary or committed a wrong and allow us to reconsider, right the offense, apologize and make amends. That is how healthy guilt operates.

    However, based on the primitive template of original sin - there can also be unhealthy guilt - where folks feel a chronic sense of guilt. The garden of eden template requires that guilt be met with punishment (being cast out of the garden and condemned to a life of hardship) and if we are unconsciously being governed by that template, we may (again unconsciously) find ways of punishing ourselves for the crimes we pronounce ourselves guilty of ...

    Instances of self-sabotage, being accident-prone, chronic or frequent illness, etc. could all (if investigated in depth) turn out to be ways we punish ourselves for our presumed sin or guilt.

    It is important to challenge our thinking when we become aware we are feeling guilty. If it is alerting us to an actual wrong committed - then right it and then let go of the guilt.

    IF you realize you have done NOTHING wrong, then you really need to work on challenging the notion and the unconscious template that feeds it - or you may unconsciously be compelled to punish yourself for your 'sins'. The original sin template demands that guilt be punished. We all need to root that nasty weed out of our psyche.

  5. All that beating... I never understand how "good Christian" folk don't see how ridiculous it is to try to beat religion into a person. You did well to break free!

  6. I often feel I owe my parents' lack of any serious attempt at religion during my childhood to my escape from this terrible burden of guilt. None of my Catholic friends escaped it, that's for sure. What you write reminds me of someone I think you'd enjoy knowing, if you don't already. A link to a post Mark Kerstetter wrote about his experience of his father can be found I find him, like you, always to be thoughtful, eloquent, and forthright.

  7. Thanks so much for this, Bonnie. I am indeed fortunate to have such readers as yourself, and comments of such quality. I understand exactly what you mean here. Particularly interesting is the idea that all kinds of self-sabotaging behaviour may have their unconscious origins in guilt. I think this is true. I have learnt along the way how to relax and enjoy life directly and simply, without background feelings of guilt and unease, but it was hard to do at first. Always this undeserved, uneasy feeling of guilt kept surfacing and resurfacing. Even on a walk in nature, things were often blighted by a feeling which just spoilt everything, a voice telling me: you're not allowed to enjoy this, to be happy, you don't deserve it! No matter how much I rationalised and analysed the reasons why I felt like this, I just couldn't rid myself of this negative, life-denying voice. But that is now a long time ago. Partly why I love walking and nature and the countryside so much now is because I appreciate enormously how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy them in a pristine and unadulterated way, without my "self" and any real or imagined "bad conscience" intruding and ruining the experience. It'a a bit like the idea that you need to go to the depths of hell first before you can really appreciate heaven, or that you need to suffer before you can appreciate joy.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Rachel. "Good Christian folk"! The violence done in the name of Christianity, and many religions, is truly staggering. Yes, I broke free, and the feeling is still delicious.

  9. I'll check out that blog, Susan. Thanks for introducing me to it. This blogging thing does give us the opportunity to be "forthright", doesn't it? It's one of the qualities I really appreciate in the blogs of others: a kind of frankness, directness and honesty.

  10. I think that what is instilled in us as young children is the most damnably hard to exorcise. I feel guilty every day, about things I needn't. What astonishes me about your story, and others', is that as a teen something triggered your confidence. You found your voice, your self, your confidence. I can honestly say it was not until my thirties and forties that my childhood demons started to be undone. I am awfully glad for you, and for me, regardless of my slight retardation in these things.

    (I would not have thought of using that word, except you brought it out in me. It seemed like something you might say.)

  11. Thanks for this, Ruth. This blog is about healing revelation, and I'm so glad you shared your thoughts and feelings here. I think, though, that if you read this post again, you'll see that I too found self-discovery a more gradual process than you might at first believe. Yes, I did make a quantum-leap foreword in my late teens, it's true. But, as my wife will testify, I had nightmares (usually involving dentists!) about my father until well into my 30s. And, as I replied in a recent comment to Rachel Fox on "The Solitary Walker", I was never truly emancipated from the restrictive bonds of my father until his death. And guilt lies waiting all the time, ready to strike if given the opportunity. The weird thing is, "negative" stuff like "guilt" is such a creative force. How could Kafka and a hundred other writers have achieved the artistic heights they did without a screwed-up childhood?

  12. i have often heard that guilt is a useless emotion. it has the same effect on our past that fear has on our future (and I'm talking about anxiety type fear here and not the 'don't touch the hot stove' type of fear).

    sounds like you've had quite a lot of experience with learning how to eliminate irrational guilt from your life. even if we learn how to manage guilt better, it is a sticky thing that tends to cling, requiring continuous processing. kudos to you for all the work you've done and may more people learn how to eliminate the excess, unnecessary guilt from their lives. the world will be a better place once we unlearn these products of our domestication.