Is Guilt Selfish? Regret, Shame, and Relapse
27 November 2016
Since guilt is cited as a frequent relapse trigger, we need to uncover the layers of internal regret.
Looking back over journals from different periods in my life, guilt has always been a major character in my evolving chapters of self-destruction. I have heard it said that alcoholics tend to think they are the piece of shit the world revolves around. I don’t know about other people, but that certainly sounded like me. I would engage in negative actions to punish myself for both real and imagined transgressions. In a list of excuses to escape into a boozy fog, guilt was a frequent entry.
Generally speaking, we tend to think of guilt as a wasteful emotion. When I typed “guilt is” into Google’s search engine, the first auto suggestion was “guilt is a useless emotion.” Pinterest is flooded with inspirational memes telling us to have no regrets and to let go of guilt. Meme after meme gives the same message: “Focus on yourself, forgive yourself.” Guilt is painful, but letting go of it is not easy.
Cognitive psychology says guilt is a mixture of emotions, it’s the feeling that you are the reason something bad happened. R. D. Laing, an influential 20th century psychiatrist, said there were two kinds of guilt: true and false. He ascribed false guilt to what other people think about you and true guilt to be what you know internally about yourself. Freud proposed that humans should build up their defenses to protect against future guilt. It is not as easy as it sounds. How do you defend against something you don’t understand?
In my experience, guilt is easily mistaken for other feelings. I cannot count the number of times I have been weighed down because of unnecessary guilt trips. I have been afraid of failure, so I felt guilty for not trying hard enough. Fear of other people has often been mixed up with guilt about saying no to social invitations. When my father passed away, my grief was tied up in judging myself for not being able to save him. I have confused being a victim/survivor with guilt, and I know I am not alone in that. Shame has often been thrown in the mix as I struggle to accept my shifting sense of morality and feel bad when I cross murky boundaries between right and wrong.
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