Master Your Guilt

Calvin's story illustrates how he mastered his guilt by learning to examine his conscience, and by realizing the limits of his personal responsibility. He felt guilt for leaving Bonnie to die alone. He overcame this by testing his self-blame against reality: If he could have foreseen the time of her death, he knew he would have stayed with her. He also felt guilt for surviving his wartime trauma when his buddies had not. He mastered these feelings by learning that "survivor guilt" is a common, but unrealistic, response to such shared crises. And as a child, he had blamed himself for his brother's accidental death, and he carried this burden of self-blame throughout his life. After he realized that his self-reproach resulted from his normal ambivalence and his unrealistic fear of his anger, he finally let go of it; he forgave himself.

 Like Calvin, most people can learn to master guilt by suppressing or subduing the feelings of shame or expectations of punishment. These feelings, which automatically accompany unwanted crises and catastrophes, are the unrealistic, unreasonable products of the most primitive parts of our minds. To overcome them, we must use our reasoning mind. This process begins with learning about guilt--why we need it, what it is, what it does, and where it comes from.

 Though this sounds simple, it is not. As children, we are taught not to question our consciences, and this early training is difficult to dislodge. Moreover, strong social attitudes pressure us not to tamper with the childish responses generated by our consciences.

 Most of the beliefs we develop in childhood don't hurt us, and some of them help us. It is essential, not only to recognize which of our beliefs hurt us, but to know how we learned them. Otherwise, we can't eliminate them. In other words, knowing why we believe something is more important than knowing what we believe.

 For example, few of us were taught realistic facts concerning guilt and anger, the most common obstacles to coping with crises. These two sources of powerful emotions are similar in two ways: They occur automatically, and they can be used either destructively or constructively.

 On the other hand, guilt and anger also differ in two important ways: First, anger benefits individuals, but guilt benefits others. That's why guilt is essential to our survival as a species: If we couldn't learn to comply with rules against hurting others, we couldn't sustain a social structure. Laws against murder would be useless if no one could learn them, and they would be unenforceable if most people didn't automatically obey them.

 Second, unlike the inborn anger response, guilt is learned. And because it was learned in the first place, guilt can be modified, or even unlearned. Yet, because we learn the lessons of our consciences early in our lives, long before we can question them, we can't change them by reason alone.

 As children, we learn whatever is taught to us about good and bad, whether these ideas are well reasoned viewpoints, arbitrary values, or nonsensical superstitions. For example, many children are taught falsely that anger is bad. In fact, anger can benefit both individuals and others; for example, a mother's anger can energize her to protect her children during a crisis. Nevertheless, many people feel guilt every time they are angry, blaming themselves for harboring a natural emotion that is evoked by each problem they confront. Instead of using their anger-energy to solve their problems or those of others, these unfortunate people turn it against themselves to feed their depression and self-reproach each day of their lives.

 Further, many children are taught falsely that their conscience is good. In fact, the conscience can be antisocial: Unrealistic, unreasonable guilt helps no one, and can hurt many. Despite this, the false idea of a benevolent conscience is routinely exploited by parents, teachers, religious leaders, and government officials who manipulate the antisocial conscience as an efficient method of mind control. This type of maneuver is so common it has a name: "laying guilt."

 Social attitudes also encourage the depression that results from unrealistic guilt, as revealed by recent polls: Approximately one-half of the people surveyed believe that depression results, not from disorders of brain chemistry or harmful beliefs, but from moral weakness. This means that about half of the people around you are ignorant and superstitious about depression. As a result, they don't care if you suffer the consequences of harmful guilt feelings, though they prefer that you suffer in silence.

 Despite social attitudes, it is essential for your reasoning mind to know this: If you don't master your guilt, it will master you. Learning to master guilt entails three steps: Learn why, learn how, and practice.

 "Why" you should master your guilt is straightforward: to ensure that your conscience is valuable to yourself and others. This goal is obvious enough, but you will encounter many difficulties in trying to achieve it. These are discussed in the following sections. "Accept Your Ambivalence" discusses the most common difficulty people face when they are grieving for a lost loved one. The next six sections discuss guilt from different perspectives: "Three Levels of the Conscience," "Guilt as a Conditioned Response," "Guilt as Internalized Shame," "Antisocial Guilt," "Beneficial Guilt," and "Guilt as Superstition." At first, reading these discussions in six parts may seem confusing, but the views don't conflict. They overlap, and the ideas interrelate. The topics are discussed separately because you might find one viewpoint more helpful than another. Reflect on all of them, then decide on your best strategy.

 "How to" master your conscience is covered in the final sections of the chapter, beginning with "Think Realistically." The discussions entitled "Question Your Conscience" and "Forgive Yourself" draw on previous discussions to guide you as you develop your own strategy for learning how to master your guilt.

 The third element of learning is up to you: Practice, practice, practice. You didn't learn your guilt response overnight, and you can't expect to unlearn it quickly. Since it isn't always easy to be mindful of the lessons, it is helpful to keep a journal for writing notes to yourself. By adhering to your goals and strategies, and by practicing your mental exercises diligently, you will make yourself mentally fit. This fitness will relieve yourself of the strain of your tyrannical, punitive conscience. In the process, you will reward yourself with an advanced, ethical conscience on which you can rely to cope with future crises.


Accept Your Ambivalence

Calvin's story illustrates the most common single source of guilt feelings after the death of a loved one: ambivalence toward the one who died. Ambivalence means holding positive and negative feelings toward a person at the same time.

 When he was a child, Calvin loved his younger brother, Tommy. Yet he felt anger at times because Tommy's behavior created problems for him. This anger did not diminish his love, but after Tommy died, Calvin lost sight of his love, and could see only his anger. He blamed himself for hating Tommy and for wishing him dead. He felt the guilt of ambivalence.

 Feeling guilt about ambivalence is senseless, for ambivalence is universal. No relationship, no matter how rewarding, is free of ambivalence. That's because we wish for conflicting things. A mother loves her infant, but--if she is honest with herself--she knows that there are times when she would rather not be bothered by it. An adolescent loves his parents, but there are many times that he would rather make his own decisions. And a husband loves his wife, but there are times he would prefer to be independent.

 In each of these examples, the positive feelings outweigh the negative ones most of the time in most situations. In other words, we accept a few disadvantages of a relationship in order to enjoy its many advantages. Realistically, then, our ambivalence doesn't create any problems.

 However, the unconscious mind doesn't always see the big picture. Instead, it has tunnel vision. This restricted view blinds the unconscious to many facts, and thereby prevents a reasoned assessment. Moreover, the unconscious scatters problem-solving ideas in all directions, regardless of their merits. Naturally, seizing one of these ideas and dwelling on it can create new problems. This occurs regularly during crises, when we narrowly focus our attention on our negative feelings. Frank's dream illustrates how the unconscious mind works with ambivalence.


Frank's Dream

Frank's wife, Melody, had been stricken with cancer. Though her life was extended by radiation and chemotherapy, she was often taken ill suddenly with side-effects of her treatment. As a result, Frank and Melody were home-bound, and Frank missed many nights' sleep caring for her. The couple had originally consulted me to help them cope with the stresses they felt over her illness and her treatment.

 I had been seeing the couple for a few weeks, when one night, Frank awakened from a dream in a panic, gasping for air, his heart pounding. The next morning, he asked me for an appointment. I met with him alone at his request; he was ashamed of his dream.

 "I dreamed I killed Melody! I was preparing her medicine and I knew it was poison. But I gave it to her anyway."

 Frank was tormented with guilt because he interpreted his dream to mean that he wanted Melody to die. I interpreted it differently.

 "First of all," I said, "Melody's medicine is poison. And you know it makes her sick, but you give it to her anyway. Why do you do that?"

 "Because it fights her cancer, and I want her to live."

 "Does that sound like you want her to die?"

 "Of course not. I want to poison the cancer, not Melody."

 Frank smiled with this insight. Then I added another twist to his dream.


Frank's Ambivalence

"Would it solve any problems if Melody died?" I asked him.

 Frank looked at me steadily for a few seconds before answering. "I don't want to think about that."

 "I'm sure you don't, but go ahead and think about it anyway. Would it solve any problems?"

 "No." Frank said flatly. He would not acknowledge any benefit from Melody's death, so I prompted him.

 "I'll tell you one problem it would solve. If Melody died, she wouldn't suffer any more."

 "That's true. I've thought about that many times. Melody has thought it, too."

 "Here's another problem that would be solved: You would be able to sleep through the night."

 "I'd rather keep her alive even if it meant I'd never sleep again," he retorted.

 "I'm sure you would. But I asked what problems would be solved if she died--not what you would prefer."

 "That doesn't make sense," he observed.

 "You're absolutely right. It doesn't make sense. But that's the way the unconscious mind operates. It isn't reasonable and it isn't realistic. And it only looks at one thing at a time. The unconscious mind doesn't always see the big picture.

 "Your dream showed you one possible solution to your problem," I explained. "Certainly not the best solution, and not the only solution, either. Problem-solving dreams don't necessarily indicate what you want to happen. So, remember, it's only a dream. It doesn't show what you want while you're awake and thinking."

 I suggested to Frank that he tell Melody about his dream, emphasizing that it wasn't shameful. I added that she would probably mention other problems that her own death would solve. Later, he did this, and the three of us talked about Frank's dream when we met again. They told me they had even laughed about it.


Death Wishes

Death wishes, even during wakefulness, are common problem-solving wishes. They are rarely actual death wishes, but they are expressed as such because of the ways we think about death as children.

 Before we are five or six years old, we don't know what death is. To children playing "cops and robbers," for example, or to children watching cartoons on television, death is a temporary condition. To them, death means merely that the dead person is out of the way for a while.

 Death also means that the problems associated with a person are out of the way. Hence, to a child, death is a convenient problem-solving method. As we grow, we learn other ways of solving problems, but our unconscious minds never outgrow this device.

 Frank was confronted with his ambivalence while Melody was alive. Ambivalence toward a loved one can also appear after his or her death. I was startled when I encountered my own ambivalence after the death of my son, Scott.

 Scott and I had long maintained a feud about his borrowing my tools. Each time he borrowed a tool, I insisted that he return it to its proper place, and each time he agreed to do so. Yet he rarely did.

 A few weeks after Scott died, I was looking for my drill to fix a chair. When I found it in its right place, I was delighted. I said to myself, "I'm glad Scott isn't here."

 As soon as I realized what I'd said, feelings of guilt seized me. How could I have thought such a thing?

 Quickly, however, I was able to put my thought in perspective, because I knew how my unconscious mind works with ambivalence. I knew that Scott was far more important to me than a mere drill. Knowing this allowed me to let go of my guilt feelings about my unwanted thought. But I haven't forgotten it.



Three Levels of the Conscience

Our guilt feelings reside in the part of our mind we term the conscience. Though the conscience is usually considered a single coherent aspect of the mind, it is actually layered. As we grow and mature, our conscience changes substantially, with newer ideas overlaying older ones. By the time we reach adulthood, our conscience reflects three levels of maturity: primitive, empathic, and ethical. Each of these levels corresponds to a distinct mental process: conditioning, empathy, and reasoning.

 Because we learn our primitive conscience by conditioning, it drives us to obey rules blindly. Inflexibly following rules is considered good behavior, so children who slavishly obey rules are identified as "good" or moral children. Thus, the primitive conscience corresponds to morality.

 Many religious, legal, and political doctrines teach that morality embodies the highest standards of human conduct. This is a false belief. In fact, morality is so primitive, we share it with lower animals. Like "good" children, "good" dogs are moral animals. A well trained dog follows rules without questioning them. A dog shows signs of a primitive conscience when its trainer scolds it: It hangs its tail between its legs, and turns its head away while keeping its gaze on its trainer. Moreover, its morality does not depend on whether the dog is trained to tend children or to attack all strangers, including children.

 Unlike morality, which is self-serving (that is, protecting ourselves from punishment), ethics is altruistic: It is concerned with the actual impact of our behavior on others as well as on ourselves. Therefore, a dog applying ethics would attack an adult intruder, but protect a lost child--even if the dog had been trained to attack all strangers. In other words, unlike morality, which is blind and slavish, ethics is concerned with reasons for rules and the real consequences of obeying or disobeying them. And unlike morality, ethics requires reasoning and reality testing.

 In contrast to the primitive conscience, the ethical conscience is the mature, realistic, reasoning alternative to morality. The mental functions of reason and reality testing, which are decidedly higher than primitive conditioned responses, are not shared with lower animals. In other words, unlike the primitive moral conscience, the ethical conscience is uniquely human.

 Because the ethical conscience develops from reasoning and reality testing, it can present us with uncomfortable dilemmas and difficult choices. However, since this discomfort is offset by the benefits of healing, we must discipline ourselves to think ethically. This, in turn, allows our mature ethical conscience to overrule our primitive moral conscience.

 Empathy is the third element of our conscience. Empathy is not learned, nor is it based on rules. Instead, it is derived from our social instinct, which allows us to feel compassion for others. Unfortunately, however, empathy doesn't require compassion for ourselves. In fact, our empathic conscience can be used against us. For example, when we are children, adults can convince us that their needs are important, but ours are not. If we submit to this manipulation, our potential for altruism becomes perverted into what is termed altruistic surrender--totally giving up our own interests in favor of the interests of others.

 Altruistic surrender was behind the survivor guilt Calvin felt after the deaths of his army buddies. Unconsciously, he reproached himself, "They didn't deserve to die. I deserve to die." Wendy, whose story is told below, also suffered from altruistic surrender.


Guilt as a Conditioned Response

We must use our reasoning minds to develop our ethical consciences. This does not mean eliminating our primitive conscience. Instead, it means learning how to overlay our harmful guilt feelings with helpful thoughts. To this end, it is useful to know why primitive guilt is often harmful.

 Conditioned guilt is the irrational fear of punishment--a painful, even savage, consequence of a behavior. We learn this response when our parents punish us for breaking a rule. After this, we continue to carry the unrealistic idea that breaking a rule invariably brings unpleasant consequences.

 As a child, for example, Calvin developed the belief that every time he experienced anger, someone had to die. His belief developed in three steps: First, he was conditioned to expect punishment for his anger. Second, he felt anger after Tommy's death. And third, his unconscious mind linked the two events--his anger and Tommy's death.

 Our conditioned conscience is not only unreasonable, it is unrealistic. Realistically, for example, we know that breaking a rule may or may not bring punishment; that is, consequences don't necessarily follow behaviors. This is because a behavior and its consequence are two separate and distinct events, each having its own boundary. However, our primitive conscience ignores the boundary between a behavior and its consequence, and therefore makes no distinction between the behavior and its result. Therefore, according to our primitive conscience, certain punishment invariably follows breaking a rule. In reality, this horrifying anticipation is usually the only punishment we suffer. That's why guilt feelings themselves are punishment.

 Calvin's primitive conscience punished him whenever he felt angry because he believed that his angry death wishes would inevitably kill someone. Since he automatically felt anger every time he had a problem, he believed that he was an uncontrollable killer. It was this self-reproach that made him apologize for living, even to a jacket.

 Calvin didn't know that it was normal to feel anger every time he suffered a loss. Therefore, his guilt was activated each time a loved one died: He felt morally responsible for their deaths.

 Obviously, Calvin's adult reasoning and reality testing wouldn't have allowed him to learn this kind of guilt. Of course, he didn't start his life with his adult mind. That's why many years had to pass before he learned to apply his adult reasoning to master his cruel, absurd, conditioned guilt and the depression that accompanied it.

 As Calvin did, most of us learn moral behavior during our childhoods, long before we are capable of reasoning. This conditioned guilt response protects us from punishment when we are children, but it often works against us later in our lives. As adults, we must deal with many more rules than those our parents laid down, and we must address many situations that aren't even covered by rules. We can't cope with such situations by relying on our childhood morality. The only way we can adapt is to use ethical reasoning.


Conditioned Guilt vs. Reasoned Guilt

Many differences separate the kinds of guilt that are learned by conditioning and by reasoning. Conditioned guilt does not require rational thinking; reasoned guilt does. Conditioned guilt develops through experience with real events and real punishments; reasoned guilt is learned by words and other symbols. Conditioned guilt is rigid, habitual, and repetitious; reasoned guilt is flexible, creative, and adaptable. Conditioned guilt is learned in early childhood; reasoned guilt reflects mature reasoning and reality testing.

 Conditioned guilt is aggravated by two characteristics of infantile thinking--grandiosity and self-centeredness. Infants perceive that they live at the center of the universe, and that everything revolves around them. As a result, they imagine that everything that happens is caused by their thoughts or wishes. If they don't master these grandiose self-images by the time they reach adulthood, they are likely to feel guilt, not only for breaking rules, but for every calamity.

 His grandiosity was a serious burden for Calvin: He believed that he was responsible for every catastrophe that occurred around him, notably the deaths of his brother, his wife, and his buddies. His grandiosity was reinforced by another primitive belief from his childhood: that thinking bad thoughts was the same as doing bad things. That's why he believed that his all-powerful death wish killed Tommy.

 If Calvin had learned about right and wrong by reasoning instead of by conditioning, his conscience would not have contain these superstitions and other harmful nonsense. That's because reasoned guilt makes sense--which is the ultimate reason we should override our conditioned guilt with reasoned thoughts.