This is the second of a three-part series of articles on what a psychologist has to say about guilt. Please read the first article before reading this one.
Because psychological pain is something to be avoided, the recipient is motivated to reduce his or her discomfort (conflict, indecision, anxiety). The speaker implies he or she can do that by conforming to THE standard (again, the speaker’s standard). The listener is “influenced,” albeit negatively. One of my many mentors over the years defined guilt as “any way I can control you.”
Guilt is manipulative, and in this case more indirect, i.e., covert, but controlling. Here is a short example. Suppose I come home from the grocery store and I bring several bags of groceries into the kitchen. My wife notices I forgot to buy milk. She says to me, “You forgot to buy milk. Don’t you love me?” Now I feel anxious because I failed at something. Worse, I have shown my wife I do not love her, at least by HER standards.
What a failure I am. To reduce my guilt (anxiety, sense of failure), I “should” go back to the store, buy milk, bring it home, present it to my wife, who will then be assured that, in fact, I love her. My anxiety will be gone and she will be happy. Right? Not so fast! The underlying feeling behind guilt—and this is what almost everyone misses—is anger, or one of its many subtler versions–resentment, frustration, annoyance, irritation, etc.
“Guilt is anger directed at ourselves—at what we did or did not do. Resentment is anger directed at others—at what they did or did not do.” —Peter McWilliams
No one likes to be criticized or judged or to be made to feel he or she has failed, or even just “fallen short.” The natural reaction to this kind of message; that is, to judgment or criticism, is resentment. The “control” aspect embedded in the communication that generates guilt is intended to covertly maneuver the recipient into behaving or thinking differently; in other words, to “fix” the problem as described by the speaker in the manner the speaker wishes, thereby acknowledging that THE standard as communicated is the right one.
The anxiety motivates the recipient to “stuff” the anger. This is why we miss it. We are motivated by the speaker to conform to the speaker’s wishes, not to spell out how angry we are and why; rather, to conform to reduce our anxiety, thus feel better without experiencing overt conflict. This is the anatomy of guilt—pressure to accept some standard, resistance, anxiety and suppression of anger. So, what are we to do?
In the above example, I was motivated to return to the grocery store and buy milk, not to tell my wife I was irritated by her comments. My wife controlled me with guilt. She raised my anxiety on the surface and so to lower my anxiety, to rectify my “error,” I had to do what she wanted. She motivated me to do that with guilt, which I can only eliminate by going back to the store. She got what she wanted. I did not and was left with negative feelings.