Beneficial Guilt

Wendy's guilt was harmful to her and to those she loved. However, not all conditioned guilt is harmful. We can also learn beneficial guilt in childhood by conditioning. For example, most of us were conditioned not to steal the property of others. This is a helpful rule because, in following it, we help society and we don't hurt anyone--including ourselves.

Emphatically, however, having learned beneficial guilt does not mean that we are intrinsically good people. It merely means that we were lucky in our upbringing.

If you weren't lucky in learning beneficial guilt, you can still become a compassionate parent to yourself. Rear yourself again--this time, with understanding and reasoning.


Guilt as Superstition

When Wendy eventually examined her beliefs, she realized that she would not have learned them if she had been thinking realistically. She would have known it was absurd to think she could have killed her mother by playing. Similarly, if Calvin had used his reason, he could have easily realized that his anger was not all-powerful. For example, he would have noticed that his North Korean captors didn't die even though he hated them.

Unfortunately, however, our primitive consciences are neither guided by reality nor molded by reason. Instead, they are filled with superstitions--false beliefs that are learned in fear and ignorance. Wendy's superstition was, "If I enjoy myself, I'll kill my mother." Calvin's superstition was, "If I get angry, I'll kill someone."

Calvin and Wendy acquired their superstitious beliefs by conditioning. Like the rest of us, they were conditioned to associate their behaviors with punishment early in life, long before they had the mental capacities to realistically assess their thoughts and feelings or the events that evoked them.

Conditioning creates the belief that a given behavior inevitably results in a particular consequence. As a result, it creates an unrealistic pairing of behavior+consequence in our minds. Because conditioned guilt is based on these linked pairs, the first members of the pairs--the "behavior" parts--are often turned into commandments or prohibitions, and the "consequence" parts don't need to be stated.

For example, Calvin associated his brother's death with his anger for Tommy's going swimming alone. Thus, he believed that his pair of anger+killing amounted to a prohibition against anger. Thereafter, he lived under the commandment, "Don't be angry." It was not necessary to state the second part, "or you'll kill someone," because, in Calvin's mind, his anger inevitably killed someone. Since he obeyed this superstition blindly, he couldn't heal.

Moreover, his anger was so dangerous in his mind, Calvin didn't face it on his own. Instead, he followed another superstitious commandment, "Don't speak ill of the dead." The consequence of this familiar superstition is unstated, lost in history, as it is with most common superstitions. If the consequence of breaking this commandment were stated, what would it be? Would the dead suffer? Would the dead haunt us? Would others condemn us for our thoughts?

It is essential to ask such questions about the commandments held in our consciences. By questioning his conscience, Calvin ultimately discovered that his anger had not hurt Tommy. Thus, he was able to forgive himself. Moreover, Tommy did not return to haunt Calvin after Calvin forgave himself. On the contrary, Calvin had been haunted for years by his superstitious guilt. This haunt disappeared after he forgave himself.

Similarly, Wendy believed that her pair of fun+killing prohibited her having fun. She learned the commandment, "Don't have fun," expecting that if she enjoyed herself her mother would die. Indeed, after her mother died, Wendy was punished, not by an external agent, but by her internalized antisocial guilt.


Think Realistically

We cannot live our adult lives effectively if our mind is controlled by superstitions and unrealistic beliefs we learned as children. Fortunately, we can change these beliefs, for nature endows us with a mind that can reason, a gift that enables us to recognize the difference between reality and fiction.

For our reasoning mind to be useful in changing obsolete mental patterns, however, we must fully develop its potentials. We accomplish this through a disciplined training program of exercise. Exercising our mind cultivates mental fitness just as exercising our body produces physical fitness. In turn, mental fitness fosters mental health as physical fitness promotes physical health.

Knowledge and reality testing are the two main elements of reasoning that we exercise. These factors were essential to the mental fitness of Calvin and Wendy, who had falsely believed that their suffering made them better people. Both of them eventually came to realize that their beliefs were unrealistic superstitions that benefitted no one. This knowledge allowed them to replace their primitive beliefs with reasoned beliefs.

Identify Your Responsibility

After a crisis, your conscience may harangue you, "You are responsible! You are guilty! You are responsible! You are guilty!" To analyze your true culpability during these tirades, stop to think. Rely on this reasoning: You cannot be held responsible for something you cannot control. Your conscience cannot distinguish between things you can control and things you can't, but your reasoning mind can. Use it to determine whether you can possibly be guilty.

Sort out your responsibilities by making an inventory of your guilt feelings in your journal. Make a list of several things for which you feel guilt. For example, Calvin might have identified leaving Bonnie to die alone.

Next, pick one of these events. On a fresh page, write down all the ways you could have controlled it. Include everything, even if it seems absurd when you write it; after all, your conscience doesn't think it is ridiculous. Calvin could have written, "I should have stayed with her."

Now apply the test of reality to this list: If you have lost a loved one, as Calvin did, ask yourself, "Did my control over the event depend on my knowing the future?" Remind yourself that you don't have a crystal ball.

Finally, ask if you have made a different decision if you had known the outcome ahead of time. If so, use your reasoning mind to let yourself off the hook. Calvin did this because he knew he would have stayed with Bonnie if he had known she was going to die that afternoon.

This exercise is useful for overcoming guilt for a particular crisis, but it doesn't necessarily prepare you to cope with the next one. That's why it is practical to extend your mastery of your primitive conscience by replacing it with your ethical conscience.

Monitor Your Beliefs

Bear in mind that replacing the superstitions of your primitive conscience is not the same as removing them. Instead, it is like replacing a native language with a second one: The native language remains, but it is covered over by the new one. Similarly, our irrational conscience always lurks beneath our reasoning conscience. That's why it is necessary to monitor our thoughts and beliefs constantly, even after we have once replaced a superstition with a reasoned belief. This habit reinforces mental fitness by keeping our minds in shape.

When our reasoning minds are fit, it is easy for them to know the difference between superstitions and the truth concerning reality. For example, because the guilt response is automatic, many people believe that their suffering is imposed by nature. This is nonsense. Nature does not punish us for breaking its laws for one simple reason: Unlike the laws of humans, the laws of nature can't be broken. Prove this for yourself: Try to break the law of gravity.

A fundamental biologic law of nature requires that the needs of individuals are subordinated to the needs of the species. That is, humanity exists to sustain you only to the extent that you can help to sustain humanity. No human law or doctrine can repeal this law. Remember this and you won't find it difficult to think ethically.

Think Ethically

Ethical reasoning often entails dilemmas--conflicts between differing wishes, values, or viewpoints. That's why resolving the conflicts between your individual needs and the needs of society requires critical thinking. Your lazy, flabby, primitive moral conscience can't resolve these dilemmas, but your reasoning mind can. Start addressing the conflicts by assuming that society's needs will eventually be served, one way or another. Your task is to ensure that, if possible, your needs are also served. Then, you can turn a win-lose possibility into a win-win situation. This strategy creates true altruism.

Soldiers, police officers, and fire fighters sometimes surrender their lives for society. However, it is unlikely that you will be expected to risk your life for the benefit of society. It is more likely that you will have to decide whether or not to suffer from guilt and depression merely to please the ignorant half of our society. And there is nothing heroic in that.

The mental exercises in the sections below are designed to help you to attain mental fitness by cultivating healthy mental habits. (Other types of mental habits that serve mental health are discussed in Chapter 9, "The Skills of Healing.") Keep a journal to practice these mental exercises. Many of them require extensive thinking, and you will need to return to your ideas several times. Keeping them in writing is much easier than holding them in your memory.


Question Your Conscience

Mastering your conscience means taking control of it, rather than allowing it to enslave you. That is, instead of letting your conscience control you, you should turn the tables on it. The exercises in the next section emphasize reversing the processes that created your superstitious beliefs originally. The process of internalizing your external critics, for example, is reversed by externalizing your internal critics--exposing them to the light of day. And your conscience's shaming you is reversed by ridiculing its unrealistic beliefs--replacing them with reasoned, realistic beliefs.

The first step of mastery is questioning your conscience. Disregard the idea of letting your conscience be your guide, for your conscience does not always operate for the good. Indeed, guilt is often quite antisocial. Look critically at the big picture for context. After all, most of the world's problems are fostered by fanaticism--slavish obedience to a primitive, conditioned conscience. Remind yourself of Huck Finn's conscience or Adolf Hitler's values and objectives. Figure out whether your conscience works for or against society. Then, use your reasoned thought and careful reality testing to guide your conscience.

Remember also that mastering your conscience doesn't stop with subduing your harmful guilt. It also includes keeping your beneficial conscience. You wouldn't want to discard this because its habits are helpful and convenient. Your life would be seriously complicated if you needed to stop to think each time you encountered a traffic signal, or if you needed to pause each time you were tempted to take another person's property.

Externalize "Them"

Questioning your conscience begins with realizing that it consists largely of the collection of internalized images of the adults who criticized and shamed you while you we were a child. These internalized models include the ever-present "they:" mental images of the family members, friends, pastors, teachers, neighbors, and strangers that you imagine judge your behaviors. You may ask, for example, "What will `they' think if I do this?" The realistic answer is, "`They' will do nothing, because `they' don't exist. `They' are merely mental images that have been created by internalizing them."

Because "they" are part of your world-image, you believe "they" exist in the real world because "they" exist on your mental map of the world. Worse, to the degree that "they" contaminate your self-image, these internalized critics seem like real parts of yourself. To put "them" in realistic perspective, reverse the process of internalization: Externalize "them" by exposing "them" to the light of day in your journal.

Create three columns on an empty page with vertical lines. Label the first column, "Behavior," and the second column, "They." Use the third column for your notes.

In the first column, write one behavior for which you feel guilt or shame. Wendy, for example, might have written, "Playing." In the second column, identify the persons you expect to judge you. You can include friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers, but it is far more important to search your memory to find the original persons who shamed or punished you. In her journal, Wendy could have identified her mother as this person.

In the third column, write notes to yourself about each critic you have identified. It is your turn to criticize. Write down the specific rights, special wisdom, or other qualifications, if any, that critic possessed for judging you originally. Then write down whether those qualifications apply today. For example, Wendy could have written that her mother was qualified to criticize her originally because "She was my mother, and she was sick." As for today, however, Wendy could have written, "I am a mother today, and I am a wise as she was. In fact, she is no better qualified than I am today, and she never was."

To remind yourself that each critic may have contributed something to your beneficial conscience, make the effort to write something valuable you learned from each critic. For example, Wendy might have added, "I'm grateful that I learned to consider the feelings of others."

After you have finished this exercise for one behavior, do the same for others. You will no doubt return often to your notes for practice and for other exercises.

In sum, the reason for externalizing your internalized critics is to show that they are not integral parts of you. Like your language, your conscience merely belongs to you; it is your property. The next exercise can help you to reverse another primitive aspect of guilt: shame. You will use ridicule to shame your conscience.

Shame "Them"

You are smarter and wiser than your conscience: It can't think, but you can. It can't learn, but you can. It is rigid, but you are flexible. Knowing these facts gives you the weapons with which to ridicule it. Like your conscience, show no mercy. For example, visualize your conscience as an external critic as you did in the previous exercise. Name it as though it were a real person, for example, Aunt Crabbe or Uncle Peevish. In your mental image, draw a vengeful, venomous scowl on its face. Remind yourself that this critic hasn't grown old and wise; it has just grown old. It hasn't lived many years, but one year, many times. Don't say, "I blame myself." Practice saying, "My foolish, superstitious old Aunt Crabbe blames me. Shame on her!"

Remember this image the next time your conscience bares its teeth at you. Check its teeth. You'll find they are made of paper. And paper teeth can't hurt you without your permission.

Test Your Conscience

To test your conscience's threats against reality, compare your expected punishments with actual events. You can use your journal entries from the previous exercise to accomplish this. Make three columns again, and label them "Behavior," "Expected consequence," and "Actual consequence." Now you are ready to test the teeth of your conscience.

Write one specific behavior in the first column as you did before. In the second column, describe what you expect as a consequence of engaging in the behavior. Then, write the actual consequence in the third column. For example, after identifying his anger as the behavior, Calvin might have written, "I expect someone to die every time I mad at him." With respect to reality, he could have written, "I was mad at our enemy captors when they mistreated my buddies and me, but they didn't die."

The purpose of comparing your expectations with reality is to expose superstitions. In the children's fable, Chicken Little didn't consider reality in assessing his superstitious belief that the sky was falling. If he had bothered to look up, he would have noticed that the sky showed no signs of falling.

We resemble Chicken Little when we hold ridiculous beliefs that we don't test against reality. Examine your guilt. If you discover that you hold a superstitious belief, check your "sky" from time to time for signs of its falling. Each time you do this, you weaken your superstition.

Laugh at Your Superstitions

Though exercising your reasoning mind requires discipline, it doesn't have to be dreary. Make it fun by enlisting your creativity and sense of humor. The following example shows how Wendy might have mastered her superstitions. For your own, be creative and improvise.

First, identify one of your superstitions. Wendy might have picked her belief that someone will have a heart attack if she enjoyed herself.

Second, convert this belief into a childish saying such as, "Enjoy myself and play today, and make my mother go away."

Third, compare this superstition to others that you know are ridiculous, for example, "Step on a crack, and break my mother's back."

Fourth, laugh at the superstition. You can even laugh at yourself, but do so with compassion. After all, you learned your superstition honestly.

Join the Real World

Of course, you are exercising your reasoning mind with paper and pencil to prepare yourself to live in the real world. Ultimately, you want to substitute your mental fitness for every aspect of your unreasonable guilt. However, you would probably be overwhelmed if you tried to accomplish this all at once. So, pick your challenges carefully, then practice mastering them one at a time.

Review your exercises mentally each time you are afraid to enjoy yourself. For example, if you are like Wendy, you could test your omnipotence by asking yourself, "Who would it kill if I enjoyed myself today?" Then check it out: Have fun, and see if that person dies. Chances are, he or she won't. (If that person actually dies, you may be all-powerful after all. Or, more likely, just unlucky. Try again, this time with a healthier test subject.)

For practical purposes, it isn't possible to totally eliminate a superstition, for unlearning it would be quite arduous. In fact, conditioned responses are refreshed easily by even a hint of a reward, but they aren't diminished by punishment. Besides, suffering might be your reward, as it was with Wendy.

Since your superstitions can't be eliminated, they must be superseded--covered up with realistic thoughts. That's why it requires practice to master conditioned guilt. Practice recognizing the superstitions and their absurdities. You may have to do this dozens of times before you begin to bury your superstitious conscience with reason.


Forgive Yourself

Forgiving your guilt is essential for you to heal from your losses. Forgiving is something we do for ourselves, not something we do to someone else. Forgiving is letting go. It is releasing a grudge that serves no useful purpose.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to forgive ourselves, for our instinct for revenge compels us to hold grudges, even if they are against ourselves. Yet grudges hurt us, and don't help anyone else.

One reason we suffer with our obsessive grudges is that we believe "they" make us feel guilt, and "they" won't forgive us. The second part of this belief is true: "They" can't forgive us, because "they" don't even exist. For the same reason, however, the first part is false: Since "they" don't exist, "they" can't make us feel guilt or shame. Our primitive consciences do this. This is the most important reason to learn to recognize the internalized authorities that originally conditioned us.

To forgive yourself, use your reasoning mind to discover and turn off your conditioned, antisocial, superstitious guilt. First, use the exercises above to discover whether or not you feel antisocial guilt or beneficial guilt. Then ask yourself realistically whether or not you have actually hurt someone.

If you actually have hurt someone, you might need reassurance and support from that person. If that person is dead, hold an imaginary conversation with him or her in your head. If the person had been very close to you, you will know which responses to expect. For example, Calvin knew that Bonnie would have reminded him that she had urged him to go to work. She would have supported him if she could have, and Calvin knew this. Your loved one will likely reassure you the same way.

On the other hand, if you haven't actually hurt someone, you are suffering from antisocial guilt--the kind that hurts you and helps no one. To simplify your task of mastering antisocial guilt, see this guilt for what it is: a ridiculous superstition that you learned by conditioning. Then laugh at it. Humor is a wonderful way of coping in the face of a difficult situation.

Finally, it is essential to remember that, on average, one-half of the people in our society encourage unreasonable guilt. This provides you with an important warning: You may have to forgive yourself without the support of your family, your religious community, and your usual circle of friends.

Ask yourself about your own family and friends to discover their attitudes toward guilt and depression. If you mention your guilt feelings, for example, do they scold, "You've probably done something wrong to deserve your guilty feelings." If you complain of depression, do they order you to "Snap out of it," or do they berate you with accusations such as, "You're just feeling sorry for yourself."

If your family and friends give these common unforgiving responses, you will likely need to find other sources of support to overcome your unreasonable guilt feelings. If you are seriously depressed, you can find help from a professional helper as Calvin did. Otherwise, you may find support in a group that is dedicated to helping people to cope with their crises. You can find such a group through a local hospital, a self-help group, or your family physician, as suggested in Chapter 10, "If You Need More Help."