July 13, 2009

Guilt: Minding the Gap

Guilt has been utilized for centuries to get the masses to cooperate. On a more personal level, mothers, fathers, teachers, children, clergy, friends, employers, and partners use the powerful tool to control one another. But guilt forces people to depart from their true, authentic natures and adopt a falsehood. If you participate in this inauthentic way of being, it likely eats away at your healthy sense of self - a constant reminder of your being “less than.” You’ve done something wrong. You are not ok.

In order to assuage the discomfort of the feelings that go along with having misbehaved or displeased someone, including God, what people typically do is change their behavior in order to regain approval. This change is usually a mask, an act of sorts, designed to make you appear to be more acceptable by whoever or whatever it was that originally placed judgment on you.

Sometimes these masks and acts (which I see as inauthentic ways of being) are donned at a very early age. I am reminded of a time in kindergarten when I casually tossed my uneaten sandwich into the girls’ bathroom trash. The teacher saw it, discovered it was mine, and proceeded to speak to me in such a way that I felt humiliation. To avoid future episodes of being shamed by teachers, I quickly learned to be more sneaky and secretive. I’d be sure to get rid of future kindergarten grub in a way as to not draw attention to myself. I would simply appear to abide by the rules, but would go on rejecting any lunch I deemed unsuitable for my 5-year-old taste buds. As a result, I would do things my way but feel guilty about it because I knew I was behaving falsely. My appearance belied the truth.

This is a mild example, but in a basic way it shows how inauthentic ways of behaving are linked to guilt. When someone comes to me asking for assistance with feelings of guilt, I look for the gap between what is true for the person and what is their “act.” When this gap is bridged, guilt begins to fade away. Guilt is the gap between our true selves and that which is false.

It can be humbling to face where we have been inauthentic. In the example I gave about my sandwich episode, in order to feel no guilt I could have owned up to a few things about myself.

1. I didn’t want to do what I was told. I had a defiant streak.
2. I wanted to “do lunch” my way.
3. I wanted to be seen by those in authority as “good” so I could avoid the discomfort that goes along with humiliation, shame, and judgment.
4. I didn’t always fit the model of “good” even though I thought I should.

I did eventually own these truths about myself and realized they were not the end of the world. I found I didn’t feel guilt anymore (because these same four points related to many things in life, not just the sandwich).

It’s a liberating process to free yourself from guilt. Facing the truth of what is, of what is the truth about you, is like unlocking the door of your own self-imposed prison. Then, learning that the truth is what it is, that you behaved in ways that are deemed undesirable by the standards you accepted for yourself, and that you felt ashamed of it, this is what is truly freeing. It is a heavy burden to hide your authenticity from others.

When you begin to recognize your gap and your own truth emerges you get to trade the old burden for something more empowering: personal responsibility and integrity. Nowadays when I don’t want to eat something for lunch I just say it. I’ve got a “picky” reputation. My mother has a hard time with it. People sometimes roll their eyes. I’m not easy to travel with. And that’s ok.

1 comment:

  1. EXCELLENT article and one I really needed to see ...RIGHT NOW...you are amazing as always..paula