A reminder for the therapeutically forgetful:
told me that she was backsliding, losing whatever progress she
had made in the last six months of therapy. She was spending more time
with her parents and her sisters during the holiday season and feeling
"guilty around the clock." I asked her to tell me more about
her constant guilt.
"I've always felt guilt easily, you know, assuming the
blame for just about anything,"
said. "But now it's worse."
"Worse in what way?" I asked.
She thought for a moment. "Well, I wouldn't have thought it
possible, but I think I am feeling guilt over more things. I'm feeling a
lot of guilt when I do some of the things we talk about in
"What kind of things?"
"Not even 'doing' things. I'm feeling guilty just because I
am 'thinking' differently,"
said. "I can just think about standing up for myself to my mom ---
something simple like not taking charge of our Thanksgiving extravaganza
--- and here comes the guilt. There's no telling what it's going to feel
like if I actually speak the word 'no' to her."
laughed, but we both knew she was absolutely serious.
was not backsliding. She was just moving into some rough
terrain on the road less traveled. She was beginning to encounter what
my wife (an amazing therapist) calls "positive guilt."
Positive guilt occurs when we begin to break rules that need to be
broken, when we become aware of dysfunctional programming from our past
and we develop the audacity to think for ourselves. For any of us who
learned to get our self-esteem chips from denying ourselves and taking
care of everyone else, positive guilt sets in when we refuse some of
those chips and decide instead to consider what – here comes the
blasphemy – we want.
Positive guilt is like withdrawal pain for the addict. If I am
an addict beginning to abstain from drugs, I will experience withdrawal
physically and/or psychologically. For a while, the longer I refuse to
use the drugs the withdrawal pain increases. The message of the
withdrawal pain is simple: go back, go back where you were, where you
came from, where you "belong."
Positive guilt conveys the same message to us. "How dare
you stray from the tradition of this long-standing script! How dare you
consider your own needs and wants! How dare you think for
yourself!" the positive guilt screams. And if that doesn't work, it
might tell us about how cruel we are and about how our "new and
improved" behavior is going to hurt other people's feelings. And of
course, part of the program tells us that if something we do hurts
someone else's feelings then we are – bad.
about my wife's concept of positive guilt, and I told her that like the
drug addict's withdrawal, it gets worse before it gets better.
"It's going to get worse?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, "but as long as you don't turn
back, as long as you don't give into the addict's temptation to medicate
the pain, it will get better – much, much better."
"Yeah, happy holidays to you too,"
Rutledge is the author of several books, including Embracing Fear. For
more information, visit www.thomrutledge.com or email email@example.com.