Occasionally a client will look back over the holidays and admit to me that interactions with family, grown children, aging parents and old friends were often tinged with one, common feeling: Guilt. In spite of all the jokes (‘What? You can’t call your mother once in a while? Fine. I’ll suffer!’), countless negative emotions and psychological problems can arise because of guilt — specifically, unearned guilt. Unearned guilt happens when you take responsibility for something over which you have no control and that you did not directly cause.
The distinction between earned and unearned guilt is quite logical, but many of our cultural institutions are not always so logical. If we fail to think critically about the issue of guilt, we can develop symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
I see over and over how the vast majority of individuals who are psychologically distressed tend to take too much responsibility for things they can’t control, and too little responsibility for things they can control. A man drinks to excess, for example, because he worries about whether he’ll be able to send his infant son to college — in eighteen years. A woman worries about whether her new boyfriend will cheat on her, and in the process she becomes obnoxious in his presence. A student obsesses on what his final grade will be, to the detriment of his concentration.
Once you have a grip on what you can and cannot control, the issue of responsibility becomes less of a problem. As a result, the man who drinks too much will realize that he can’t control future tuition fees. The woman who worries about her boyfriend cheating sees no evidence of infidelity, so she resolves to enjoy every moment with him. The student who dwells on his final grade will understand that his grade will come from the attention he applies to his schoolwork.
There will always be people who will try to ‘guilt’ you. For example, imagine that you are offered a good job, while a friend with whom you graduated is having a hard time finding a job. He says, ‘IT MUST BE NICE to have a good job lined up!” And you feel kind of guilty. If you fail to examine this feeling, you might be tempted to downplay your achievement, and you’ll always feel a little guilty for your success. Not a good thing!
If you look at yourself and your friend objectively, you might discover that you sent out twice as many resumes as he did. Or, maybe you made a better presentation at an interview. The point is that you earned your accomplishment. While you might feel some compassion for your friend’s struggle to find a job, you will not — and should not — feel any guilt. There is no virtue in feeling that way.
In order to avoid unearned guilt, question your assumptions. If someone says to you, ‘IT MUST BE NICE to have such a big house,” and you feel guilty, then ask yourself, ‘Did I really earn this nice house?’ Or, if your child says, “You are an abusive mother,” question that statement before you let yourself feel guilty. Is your child calling you abusive because you truly are, or because you won’t allow her to use the car until she does better in school? Seems simple, but most people don’t take the time to question these basic assumptions.
The slippery slope of unearned guilt has powerful cultural roots. From an early age, many of us are carefully taught that we are not only responsible for our own errors, but also for the errors of those who went before us. Ideas such as these are deep-rooted, even if we don’t think of them very often. Many people carry these invalid assumptions into their adult life where they produce unnecessary stress. But with a little work and vigilance, you can choose to think differently, and treat yourself to the happy rewards of a life free of unnecessary guilt.