Chapter 5

MASTERING GUILT

© 1994 Donald E. Watson

Nearly everyone feels guilt after a loved one dies, and many people blame themselves for any other kind of crisis: losing their jobs, health, special objects, or promising opportunities. Until we free ourselves from these feelings of blame, we can't heal from our losses, or enjoy our future treasures. That's because guilt is like an anchor that chains us to the past.

As children, most of us are taught to let our conscience be our guide. This would be good advice if consciences were uniformly healthy and helpful. Unfortunately, they aren't. For example, healing after a loss is a healthy expression of our natural instinct to live, but the consciences of some people harangue them that they don't deserve to heal. The damaging clashes between the healthy instincts of these unlucky people and the cruel diatribes of their consciences paralyze them, preventing their healing.

Lucky people can easily recognize whether or not their guilt feelings are deserved. If they feel guilt for realistic reasons, they can find forgiveness. But if their guilt is merely superstitious nonsense, they can lift their anchors, and proceed with their lives.

On the other hand, other people cling to their anchors whether they realistically deserve criticism or not. Many of these unfortunate people are prisoners of self-reproach--finding fault, not only with their actions, but with themselves. Self-reproach is devastating because it leads to endless cycles of self-blame and self-punishment. Guilt-ridden people accept the condemnations of their conscience without question, so they can't forgive themselves. And without self-forgiveness, they can't heal, much less gather the new rewards their crises offer. Instead, they invite depression, alcoholism, hostility, physical illness, and even suicide. Though they punish themselves to please their conscience, this tyrant is never satisfied. It continues to condemn them as inherently evil and worthless.

Because our conscience is a primitive, unthinking relic of our childhood, it can sabotage our future. Guilt feelings warn us of impending punishments for something we are about to do, or for something we have already done. These feelings are so distressing that a "guilty conscience" is itself a punishment. In fact, it is often the only punishment we receive. That's why our conscience is an effective controller of our mind and behavior.

Fortunately, we can learn to overcome the smothering voice of this unthinking tyrant. This chapter shows you how to achieve such mental fitness by exercising your reasoning mind. It begins with Calvin's story. For most of his life, Calvin had dragged the anchor of unreasonable guilt. Yet, after he learned to use his reasoning mind to forgive himself, he mastered his conscience, and healed from the depression that had long tormented him.

Calvin's Story

I was first impressed by Calvin's eyes. Sadness had sculpted them, molding his face into a forlorn portrait of silent sorrow. Though kindness showed in his eyes and sparks of humor would eventually light them, they introduced Calvin as a man frozen by chronic depression.

A self-effacing habit caught my attention next. As he walked from the waiting room into my office, Calvin brushed against a jacket that was hanging on the coat rack. He absentmindedly turned and bowed his head to the coat. "Excuse me," he whispered.

Immediately realizing the silliness of apologizing to a coat, he faced me slowly with a self-conscious smile and explained, "Well, it never hurts to be polite."

His habitual remorse suggested that Calvin felt worthless, and apologized for living. However, I wasn't to discover the reasons for his repentant demeanor until after we had visited at length.

Calvin painstakingly scanned my office before selecting a chair, they picked the recliner and sat down. But he wasn't ready to relax. He sat forward, unable to hide his tension as he worried about not knowing how to act. He had never before visited a psychiatrist.

We started our session slowly. I asked Calvin how I could help him. He didn't volunteer any personal information, so we engaged in small talk until he appeared more at ease. Then I pointedly asked Calvin how he had been feeling.

"Not bad," he responded in a guarded monotone.

I waited for him to elaborate. He, in turn, waited for my guidance. He acted as though he didn't want to trouble me with his problems, fearing perhaps that I would find him bothersome.

"Your family doctor referred you to me. What did you see him about?" I asked.

"I've lost a lot of weight, so I thought I should have a checkup. The doctor couldn't find anything wrong with me, so he sent me to you."

"Did he explain why?"

"He said I might be depressed." Calvin smiled sardonically and continued, "So, what's new?"

"Are you depressed?"

"Sure. My family says I've always been depressed."

Calvin's Recent Depression

I asked a question that I hoped would shed light on Calvin's recent depression.

"When did you start losing weight?"

"About six months ago. I used to weigh about one-ninety, but I've dropped 25 pounds. I just haven't been hungry. That probably explains it. Haven't been sleeping too well, either."

"What happened in your life six months ago?"

"What do you mean?" Defending himself, Calvin wouldn't volunteer more until he knew where my questions were leading.

"Did anything sad or unfortunate happen to you about six months ago?"

"Yes," Calvin said without emotion. "My wife died."

"Oh! I'm sorry to hear that."

Calvin looked at me skeptically, as though he didn't believe a stranger would care. "It's okay," he said, downplaying his loss. "I'm doing all right."

"But you've lost 25 pounds and you're not sleeping well. That's not `doing all right.'"

Calvin seemed surprised that I connected his loss with his symptoms. He looked away abruptly, assimilating this idea. After a few seconds, he looked at me again and asked, "You think that's why I lost my appetite?"

"I'm not sure, but it wouldn't surprise me. It would be entirely normal," I assured him.

Calvin relaxed a bit, allowing his shoulders to settle. His gaze dropped to the floor and he wiped his left eye slowly with his finger, taking time to reflect. Finally, he spoke spontaneously.

"She was a wonderful woman. I never understood what she saw in me." Tears silently filled his eyes as he continued. "I was never good enough for her." He looked up at me and stopped talking, waiting for a response.

I inferred from his self-judging comment that Calvin carried a guilty secret, and I pursued this idea. "Why do you say that you weren't good enough for her?"

He looked away again, preoccupied, struggling with his thoughts. Then he spoke.

"I wasn't there for her. She had to die alone." His face contorted and he started sobbing.

I waited silently, encouraging Calvin to share his feelings non-verbally.

After Calvin had cried for a minute or more, he looked at me with a hint of surprise, suddenly remembering that he was with a stranger. He stopped crying and regained his composure.

"I'd cry, too, if my wife had died." I tried to keep Calvin in a sharing frame of mind.

"You don't know . . . You can't know . . ." he protested haltingly.

"Perhaps you think that nobody else can feel as awful as you do. Try me."

Calvin started crying openly again, this time looking directly at me. Evidently, he trusted me enough to let me see him cry. Even more meaningfully, as he would show next, he trusted me with his guilt feelings.

Calvin's Guilt Feelings

"She died . . . I was at work . . . Bonnie died . . ." As Calvin held back his tears, he also choked off his words. He sighed several times, relieving his tension. Then he pressed on with reddened, but dry, eyes.

"She was in the hospital. She told me to go to work, that she'd be all right. She knew I had a report to finish; she was always thinking of me. I went to work."

He started crying again. Forcing words and phrases between sobs, he continued. "She died that afternoon . . . alone . . . I wasn't there . . . I should have been . . . with her."

I didn't interrupt his crying. I wanted him to vent the pressure of his anguish.

Calvin's Unreasonable Beliefs

I surmised that Calvin berated himself unfairly for leaving Bonnie. I decided to address his unreasonable beliefs first, to show the absurdity of his self-blame.

"Do you always know what's going to happen in the future?"

Calvin looked perplexed. "Of course not. Why?"

"Unless you knew that she was going to die while you were at work, you can't blame yourself for leaving Bonnie. And you didn't know."

Calvin weighed this, and then argued, "I didn't know she would die, but I did abandon her."

"Intentionally?"

"Of course not!" he snapped, defending himself against his own charges. This was healthy, and both of us knew it. He had started to forgive himself. We smiled together briefly.

"And Bonnie knew that you didn't abandon her intentionally, didn't she?" I asked.

"I'm sure she did. She probably worried about my feelings. That's the way she was."

Our first session was ending, so I mentioned a few topics for Calvin to think about until I saw him again.

"We always feel guilt when a loved one dies," I told him. "Most of the time, we don't have anything to blame ourselves for, so we make things up. As you did.

"The worst thing about guilt feelings is that they interrupt the healing process. People who hold on to guilt feelings can't heal normally. They continue in a state of grief forever. They get depressed. As you did.

"Losing your appetite and losing your sleep are common signs of grief. This is normal for the first few days or weeks, but it becomes abnormal if these symptoms continue for months."

Calvin appeared relieved by the end of our session. "Maybe my appetite will improve this week," he said, reflecting cautious optimism.

Calvin's Boyhood Guilt

The next week, Calvin entered my office with the same reticence he had shown before. When I asked him how he felt, his answer was curt.

"I'm not eating. And I'm still not sleeping." He looked worried that I'd disapprove of him for not losing his symptoms.

"That means we have more work to do," I observed.

Calvin's continuing symptoms of grief suggested to me that he was grieving for other losses he had suffered. I explored this idea.

"Tell me about other loved ones who have died."

Calvin showed me a mystified frown, then averted his gaze and paused a few seconds before telling me, "My brother, Tommy, drowned when he was 15. I was at school, and he went swimming alone without telling anyone. When it was time for dinner, we didn't know where he was. We . . ."

He blocked at this idea, suspending his story in mid-sentence. His blocking at this critical point told me that we'd opened a meaningful doorway.

Calvin, however, looked bewildered, searching my face. Then he continued. "My parents were mad at Tommy for disappearing like that. After we found out, of course . . . Well, we all felt bad then." He faltered.

"All of you felt guilty for being mad at Tommy?"

"Sure. If we'd only known . . . "

"You and your brother were close?"

"Very close." He started to cry.

"Excuse me," he offered, embarrassed by his tears.

"No need to apologize. Your tears tell us that we are discussing something very important. Tell me more about your brother."

"Tommy was two years younger than I. We were the only kids. We were always close." Calvin measured his statements carefully to keep his tears in check. "He always looked up to me. He was always around. We were best friends."

"It sounds like you loved each other a lot. Was he ever a nuisance?"

"Never!" Calvin answered too emphatically. Undoubtedly, he harbored ambivalent feelings toward Tommy, but wanted to hide the negative ones.

"Did you ever resent him? I ask this because sometimes parents seem to favor the younger child over the older one. Did you and Tommy ever fight?"

"Sure. Like brothers do. But we always made up."

"Of course. Do you remember a time when Tommy started a fight and you got blamed for it?" I was pressing to uncover his ambivalence.

Calvin answered without hesitation. "When I was ten, Tommy broke our father's favorite fishing rod, and Dad was really mad. Tommy accused me of breaking it." His tears had dried.

"What about your feelings toward Tommy? Did you ever forgive him?"

"Sure . . . eventually." Then Calvin whispered solemnly, "But I hated him that night. I wished he would die."

These revelations carried the tone of a confession. Calvin obviously felt guilt about wishing his brother dead. Though he had forgiven Tommy for unfairly blaming him, he hadn't forgiven himself for his unfair self-blame.

"Did your mind return to the fishing rod incident after Tommy died?" I asked.

Calvin responded by breaking into tears again. After a minute or so, he stopped crying and spoke with the moral certainty of a 10-year-old.

"I wished him dead, and he died. I killed him."

Absurd Death Wishes

This type of unreasoned guilt about death wishes is common. I reassured Calvin by appealing to his sense of humor.

"Did you know that you were that powerful?"

"How powerful?" he asked, returning to his adult mentality.

"So powerful that your wish could kill?"

Realizing the absurdity of his magical beliefs, he smiled and considered my question, "Could my wish kill? I guess not. But I've never told anyone about wishing him dead before this."

"Have you carried this guilt with you for all these years?"

"I don't know. I cried at his funeral. I was mad at him for going swimming alone. That made me feel worse."

"You were not angry at him," I corrected. "You were angry because he died.

"You blamed yourself for getting angry at Tommy for drowning, and you blamed yourself for wishing him dead years earlier.

"You still haven't forgiven yourself--you still haven't let go of your self-reproach. You rationalized to blame yourself. That's why you're still grieving for Tommy 40 years after he died."

"What do you mean, rationalize?"

"Rationalizing is finding a reason for our behavior after we've done something we can't explain. Rationalizing is the opposite of rational thinking. Rational thinking is finding a reason for our behavior before we act."

"I feel so stupid. I hate to talk about this." Calvin looked away from me, expanding his self-reproach.

"You're not stupid. Just blind. And blindness is nothing to be ashamed of. Show compassion for yourself. If you could have talked about these things 40 years ago, you would have, and they wouldn't be problems now. But you didn't know how."

Next, following my hunch that Calvin's sleep disturbance was caused by bad dreams, I asked, "Do you dream about Tommy?"

"Yes. For the past few months. Several times. Always the same dream. Like a nightmare.

"Tommy is drowning and I can't reach him to save him. I wake up scared, trying to catch my breath."

"You couldn't save Bonnie, either, could you?" I consciously connected the two deaths, as Calvin had been doing unconsciously.

Self-Forgiveness

"Your recurring dream keeps Tommy's death current by endlessly replaying your distorted version of your guilt. Your guilty conscience can't help you to forgive yourself."

"Forgive myself? How can I forgive myself?" Calvin asked.

"By realizing that you've been blaming yourself for something you didn't do. You didn't drown Tommy. And you couldn't have saved him. You were miles away from him.

"Besides, I'll bet that you would have risked your own life to save him if you could have."

"That's true."

"You wouldn't have been willing to risk your own life if you really wanted him to die."

"That's true, too. I would have done anything to keep him alive. I would have died myself if I could have saved him. I still feel that way."

I leaned back in my chair, expecting Calvin to brighten with his new insight. Instead, he became morose. His jaw dropped and his shoulders collapsed. His fingers lay passively on the arm of the recliner. Tears spilled over his lower eyelids and streamed down his cheeks as he stared at the floor. A new chapter had been opened.

"What is it?" I asked, leaning forward again.

Calvin's Dreams

He said nothing for several seconds, showing the same hesitancy he had shown before his last disclosure.

Finally he said, "I have other bad dreams, too."

"About Bonnie? Or Tommy?"

"No." He raised his eyes to look at me, this time with more confidence than contrition. "About my buddies. I hadn't had those dreams for years."

Having no idea who his buddies were, I said nothing and waited for Calvin to elaborate.

"In Korea. We were captured--five of us. We were on a patrol and we were surprised. The enemy took us to their camp near the front and put us in a makeshift cage. We never got to a prison camp."

"What happened to you?"

"We weren't tortured . . . no brainwashing or anything like that. They ignored us. We might have welcomed a little torture. At least, they would have paid some attention to us. We ate when they remembered to feed us. We would have collected rain water, but it didn't rain. We became dehydrated fast.

"When Gus got badly dehydrated, he got sick. When we asked a soldier for help, the soldier just laughed. Gus didn't get help, and he died the next day."

Calvin had changed. Instead of showing reluctance to discuss his war experiences, he spoke freely of them. His hands clenched in fists, and his eyes flashed a hint of anger when he told how his captors had treated Gus. I listened intently as he continued.

"Bobby was next. He was the youngest. He was so scared. We nursed him the best we could.

"After Matt and Chuck died, I knew that I would die soon.

"It was strange, though. I was too weak to get upset about dying. I wanted to die. I felt lonely. I felt guilty because my friends had died before I did. I wanted it to end."

"Why didn't you die?" I asked.

"All I know is that I was rescued. I was so weak and sick, I don't remember what happened. I passed out. I woke up in a M.A.S.H. unit."

Survivor Guilt

"Did you feel grateful?"

"I didn't feel anything for about a week. But I never felt grateful. I felt guilty--like I did after Tommy died."

"Survivor guilt," I noted.

"What's that?"

"Survivor guilt is the kind of guilt that many people feel when they survive an ordeal that killed their companions. They feel unworthy of living. Many concentration camp survivors suffered from survivor guilt."

"`Unworthy.' That's pretty close," Calvin observed, looking to me for more information.

"The problem with survivor guilt is that there is no `act' to forgive. Living is the only thing you did `wrong'--the only thing you can blame yourself for. And dying is the only cure for living. That's why survivor guilt is disastrous."

"I guess I've felt like that most of my life," Calvin said as he began to comprehend the extent of his illusory guilt.

"I think so, too. That's why your family has said that you've been depressed all your life.

"You felt survivor guilt after Tommy died, too," I continued. "And to complicate things, you were the only son left. How did this make you feel?"

"I tried to be perfect, but I couldn't be."

"It's hard to feel perfect when you feel worthless, isn't it?"

Calvin smiled, gladly accepting my empathy. He was learning to forgive himself, partly because his feelings of guilt could be explained, partly because he understood that he could master them, and partly because he realized that he wasn't alone--that his kind of tormenting beliefs were shared by many people.

"Thank you," he said warmly. He stood and reached to shake my hand. "Thank you for understanding."

"Instead of thanking me, thank yourself for your courage," I said. "It's not easy to confront your guilt feelings. But it's vital for you to do so.

"Your job is even harder because you are grieving for Bonnie, Tommy, and your army friends at the same time."

In the next few weeks, we explored many facets of Calvin's long-held guilt feelings and other aspects of his grief, particularly how he had felt guilt for his anger.

Calvin, like many others, found it challenging to learn to manage his anger, but he accomplished this, too. He forgave himself when he realized that he wasn't angry at Tommy, but he was angry because Tommy had blamed him for breaking their father's fishing rod.

As he became more comfortable with his feelings, Calvin's appetite returned and his bad dreams disappeared. He could fall asleep without fearing them.

He had learned the skills of grieving.

He knew that he was grieving because he had lost his morbid preoccupation with his unreasonable guilt. He told me happily that he had forgiven himself for living, and that he had found new reasons for living.

He still missed Bonnie, of course, but most of the time, he was happy in savoring his precious memories of the times he had shared with her. And he wasn't afraid to cry as he had been before.