Guilt is a tool for control. The subversive messaging that most of us are inundated with is one that demands an adherence to socially sanctioned standards of conduct. Most of us become aware of deviations from these standards by others through gossip. This is the entire purpose of gossip. It is to identify who is guilty of deviating from the sanctioned rules so that we can then surreptitiously or publicly shame that person.
Shaming is a form of emotional assault on another designed to penalize an individual for their unsanctioned behavior. Sometimes shame is a hollow attempt for someone to feel or enact power or control over another. Regardless of the motivation, the fact that humans are social creatures always gives others the power to penalize through rejection, ridicule, or ostracization. This dance of guilt and shame creates a box around each and every one of us. If we individuate from others in a way that denies them control of us, we will feel guilty and we will be shamed. This is why the vast majority of us will look upon our lives at some point and feel as though it does not belong to us. The dance of guilt and shame always boxes us in to socially sanctioned choices that bear little resemblance to who we are.
Having a strong conscience and sense of personal responsibility are among the greatest of human virtues, however without individuation these virtues can be used against us. This occurs in both societal and personal dynamics. With societal dynamics, our sense of responsibility demands loyalty to various groups. We often feel that when we take a side, or join a team, others are depending on us—we feel needed. This group now has the power to make us feel guilty, thus shame us if we have the audacity to deviate from their sanctioned standards of thought and or behavior. We are now the property of the group and are conditioned snuggly within their predetermined box.
With regards to our personal relationships, these dynamics are more difficult to dissect. Our early messages in life have great influence on our entire sense of self. For good reason, we are consistently told that we must follow rules. Things become complicated when we are taught that the reason we should follow rules is for the purpose of avoiding punishment. This would appear to be responsible parenting advice because the best rule followers tend to be the people that end up actualizing their goals. This, however is the surface manifestation of this message. Internally, the fear of punishment is the prevalent motivator. This is the life we live. The constant fear of punishment (guilt/shame/failure) permeates our identity therefore all our choices.
This can be particularly damaging if our early messages were brutally and or arbitrarily imposed. If we had parents that were simply temperamental and took their stresses out on us, we may find ourselves being punished for things that we did not do or made to feel shame for problems that were not our fault. Not only did that early caregiver get the benefit of our compliance over time, they incidentally gained control over how we viewed ourselves. If punishment was the vehicle of choice our parents used for ingraining values, and these punishments were doled out arbitrarily, the message we receive as children isn’t “I guess I better follow rules”, the message is…
“I’m just a bad person that must be punished for their innate badness, and my only chance to make up for this badness and possibly avoid punishment is to try to be perfect.”
If the person finds they can’t be perfect, they may decide to play the part of the villain for which they have been cast or simply stop trying at life all together. There is no in-between when guilt and shame are involved. Either you meet the standard, or you are punished. There is no forgiveness.
This is the power of guilt and shame. Its psychology 101. If you want to control a person, break down their sense of self, and reprogram them with doctrines of your choosing. This is not to say that most caregivers consciously have this goal, they are likely just repeating patterns they experienced as children. This is simply learned behavior that is remarkably affective. In our relationships we will use these same dynamics of guilt and shame to control each other. We will withhold our approval or support at the slightest inkling that the other person is not under our control. This in turn makes the other person feel guilt or shame due to this punishing behavior. This is the dance that keeps them in our box.
We must learn to individuate. Guilt and shame have no value in our psyche. If we make a mistake we must own our own ability to address it as we see fit. There is no rule book that says that others should dictate to us how we process our own actions. We can choose which values are important to us and dismiss those values that are not. We can live outside the box if we choose, but this choice requires that we look others in the eye with a strong sense of self and say, “no”. This choice also requires that we look at ourselves with a strong sense of self and say, “yes”. This is individuation. It requires that we live within our emotional selves and determine what we want and who we are. It requires that we withstand the hostility that this may incur and continue to change course. It requires that we not just take responsibility for others, but that we look in the mirror and take responsibility for the person standing in front of us. Our own unique gifts and desires must come first, because without cultivating these parts of ourselves we only live to follow others. This is what a lost sense of self looks like.
No one is innately bad. Every person has unique value that doesn’t require that they do something to earn it. We can take time to just be. We can be gracious with ourselves in this way. We can be gracious with others in this way. We can all share in the restoration of the grace and forgiveness we may have been denied.
Our true selves are always benevolent people. We don’t have to prove that, we can just accept it as something that simply is. Our negative emotions of rage, sadness, jealousy, and fear are part of us too. We can still be good while having these feelings. These feelings are part of our humanity and it is only those that want to control us that will try and make these emotions shameful. We can’t allow others to use our humanity against us. We can’t depend on others to give us the seal of approval that we are worthy. We deny our own power in this way which is perhaps the deadliest sin to enact upon ourselves.
We all have something to contribute to this world that is uniquely ours. When we give our power away, we eventually lash out against whoever we feel possesses it. This is because we have subjugated our purpose to fit into someone else’s plan. This is the source of that feeling of emptiness that seems to be spreading like a disease. We have an obligation to nurture who we are. The good, the bad, and the ugly. That feeling of emptiness is derived from a refusal to look deeply into our whole selves. We can’t feel whole because we don’t even know what’s in there. Individuate and find out.