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The Guilt Button


I suppose if I have one attribute that I wouldn't want to be without, I suspect that "the key to my success" (such as it is) might be that I, quite early, learned to disconnect my "guilt button." God knows I've been worked on by experts, and yet there is something going on in me that causes manipulation to run off of me like water off a ducks' back.

A few definitions. Guilt is different from "accepting responsibility when I've made a mistake." I notice when, on the few occasions J that I screw up, I'm pretty quick to own up, apologise and do what I can to make amends. Personal responsibility is a big theme in my life, and I easily own what is mine. On the other hand, I have a real nose for when people are making a move in the direction of trying to "make me" responsible for their stuff.

Ben & Jock, in The NEW Manual for Life, differentiate between guilt and shame. They indicate that guilt is always based upon transgressing an externally applied norm. Shame, on the other hand, is related to the feeling one gets when one realizes he or she has not been "all that they could be" in a situation. In other words, shame is directly connected to a failure in personal responsibility. Guilt is related to a wish to divert attention away from the self and also relates to a resistance to making personal change.

Two of this week's stories relate to my mom, who, in addition to a ton of great attributes, was an expert at "doing guilt." Part of her shtick came from a profound sense of entitlement. Until the day she died, she assumed that the importance of how she saw herself and what she wanted should take precedence over the life choices of anyone else. "How can they treat me like this?" was shorthand for "Don't they know who I am?"

I guess that growing up and watching mom do the "guilt thing" to get her way steeled me against the wiles of the guilt trap. I still remember a call I got from my mom, back when she and dad were in their 70's. The whole point of the call, mom being in tears throughout, was to let me know that dad had finally said "no" to her. "I can't believe it! I never thought I'd live so long! He said, 'no!'"

Now, of course, if the things requested by "guilt button pushers" didn't, at some level, make sense, they'd have no effect on us. The hook is in the underlying message. The underlying message is, "I want you to violate yourself, so that you'll do what I want you to do." This differs from a request, which goes, "Here is my preference. What do you choose?"

A mom and son were in the office the other day. The mom is a "guilt machine." She almost never comes up for air. She has a picture of how her 18-year-old son should be, and she continually badgers him to, "Do it for me. I'm your mother." She is not afraid to state her message aloud. "I am in charge here. I know who you are and how you should behave. Your opinion doesn't matter. If you love me, you will always defer to me and my wishes." Her son refuses. His issue is that he hasn't learned to disengage the guilt button. When mom pushes it, he gets angry. Enraged. So, in a sense, she's controlling his emotions, as opposed to his behaviour. (Yes, I know that he pushes his own buttons and that she has no effect on his emotions. From his place of understanding, this is how he sees it.)

He needs to learn to be self-responsible, and to continually turn to his mom and say, "That you want me to be a certain way is interesting. I choose to be the way that works for me. Whether you choose to hurt yourself over that or not is your choice."

Most people never get to this place.

Why? Because people put more store in the opinions of others than in their own self-understanding.

My dad has been pretty good at dealing with reality without expectation - good at disengaging from guilt. He has always been eminently self-sufficient, and has dealt with life as it came. He dealt (and deals) with his emotions directly and efficiently.

Back in the early 70's, he was working at Radio Shack, and the store got robbed. Dad would have been in his 60's at the time. The robbers tied him up with speaker wire, threw him to the floor, and stole his wallet and engagement ring. Then they sat on his back and clicked a gun next to his ear, and threatened to kill him. They left after 15 minutes, and a customer found dad trussed up several minutes later.

Initially, dad was really pissed off at every person of the racial group of the people that had robbed him. He railed against "them," and started using racial epithets. I listened and encouraged him to dump. After 3 months he bought me a cup of coffee and said, "Wow. That was weird. I almost became a racist over the actions of two guys. I could have spent the rest of my life hating. Close call, eh?"

So, it was interesting, last weekend, that dad attempted to push my "guilt button." After mom died, (as mom returns, in another form) we sent her body off, as per her Living Will, to the University of Toronto Medical School. Having a rather macabre sense of humour, this has become the basis of several interesting one liners. Anyway, they work on the body for as long as three years. Dad chose not to hear that information, and instead thought I'd said 3 months. So last weekend, 18 months after mom died, dad began to wonder about her ashes.

I indicated that they were at a cemetery in Toronto, and had been for some time, awaiting pick-up. Dad said, "This is your mother. What are you going to do about her ashes? A good son would care about his mother and fix this." I replied, "It's not my mother. It's her ashes. And the decision about the disposal is yours." He tried to pass the buck a couple more times. To both Dar and me. We resisted being "guilted" into deciding.

Friday, I picked up the ashes. I let dad know this morning. This time, as he tried to pass the buck, he was smiling. Because the attempt was no longer serious, I suggested a place she loved where the ashes could be scattered. His smile deepened. "She'd like that. She loved that place."

For me, the difference is in the sentiment. Dad initially tried to play on my emotions. "She's your mother, and you're being disrespectful," was the ploy. The message was that there is a certain way I was to act, based upon a societal norm. My message, in return, was to notice, aloud, that dad was using guilt to pass the buck, thus avoiding a difficult decision he didn't want to make. Now, I don't mind making difficult decisions. This week, dad, in a sense, asked me to. As opposed to trying to manipulate me into taking over by pushing the "guilt button."

Emotional blackmail is rampant in our society. Saying, "I'm emotionally upset and having difficulty deciding. Please offer your opinion," is different from, "If you were a decent person, you'd stop being a jerk and bail me out." The first is a self-responsible asking for assistance. The second is an attempt to manipulate through guilt.

Here's a last, short example. A couple came in last week. I asked them why they were there. Silence. I asked again. The woman sighed, and said, "I got caught cheating on my husband." For the rest of the session, she sat in silence. Occasionally, when pressed, she said, "I don't know why. Everything was wonderful."

Her husband is hurting himself, and she's stonewalling. She's deeply in her guilt and doesn't, at any level, want to deal with her issues, her choices or her guilt. She's wearing her guilt like a shield, and the message is, "Can't you see how bad I feel? Now drop it, and move on, and let's get this thing back to the way it was. And if you really love me, you'll assure me that you trust me."

No self-responsibility. No shame and embarrassment. In a sense, her guilt, as she said, is over being caught. Now, I don't particularly think that her fooling around is such a big deal. That being said, she needs to take responsibility for causing this mess in the marriage. She needs to self-explore and say what was up for her - what she wants. She did offer that the other guy paid attention to her and flattered her, and refused to say that this was missing from the marriage. Her husband is hurt and confused, and so am I (not that that matters.) Her husband wants to talk. She wants to look pathetic enough to stop all conversation.

Guilt is an interesting thing. It's always linked to someone not wanting to take responsibility - to someone trying to use emotions to get someone else to fix their messes.

Think about your experiences with guilt. Do you use guilt and manipulation to get your way? Are you victimizing yourself when others use guilt with you? The way out is simple.

Self-responsibility, once again.

As always.

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