Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Genealogy of Guilt

During my therapy session last week, my therapist pulled out a folder and announced that we were going to go through a checklist of psychological symptoms, and that we'd discuss them as we went along. The first few were obviously part of the depression checklist: depression, apathy, hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness--which, interestingly, I actually rarely, if ever, can remember suffering from; pretender syndrome, sure, but absolute worthlessness, no. (Woohoo! Check me out! A paragon of mental health!)

And then we got to guilt.

"Have you ever experienced severe guilt?"

I laughed. "I'm Jewish. I experience severe guilt on a daily basis."

She gave that short, sharp chuckle I've come to associate with therapists as a shorthand for, "Yeah, yeah, you're very funny. Now get back to actually talking to me, OK?"

So we talked. She asked me about the things I feel guilty about, and again I was tempted to joke. Because, really, it's laughable. There's guilt everywhere, every day. There's guilt when I fall short in my parenting, when I'm less than supportive to Baroy, when I miss a deadline at work or give less than my best effort. There's guilt when I don't write out a thank-you note, and when I hurt someone's feelings, whether intential or unintentional. There's guilt when I take on too much volunteer work, and guilt when I say no. There's always, always guilt.

I'd always assumed that this was a universal experience, this guilt and its ubiquity. And I'd also always assumed that guilt had a good side, that it had some sort of psuedo-evolutionary advantage in the sense that it pushes you to be better, to try and banish it by reaching just a little higher.

And then my therapist totally threw me by offering a different scenario: Let go of the guilt, she said, and instead let yourself be proud of what you are able to accomplish under less-than-ideal circumstances. Instead of rueing the fact that you're not a perfect mother, think about all the ways in which you exceed expectations, ways in which you've succeeded. Instead of worrying about whether or not you've done the best job you can at work, think about how much you're accomplishing. And so on.

Of course, if you think that I gaped in appreciation of the depth of her insight and left feeling renewed, you must be new to these here parts.

"OK, that's fine and everything," I said, "but what good is it to just pat yourself on the back? How am I going to ever be a better parent if I'm not pushed to do better by feelings of guilt?"

"Well, give me an example of something you feel guilty about," she said.

"Easy. Not spending enough time with the kids," I answered.

"Fine. So how about, instead of feeling guilty about the amount of time you spend with them, you think about what a great time you do have when you're with them, or what sorts of rewards you see them reaping from it, or things like that."

"And how exactly will that motivate me to make more time for them?"

"You'll want to make more time for them because it's a win-win situation for all of you--you'll get enjoyment out of it, and they'll get all those benefits of your attention and love. You'll do it because it makes you feel good to do it, not because it makes you feel bad not to do it."

It wasn't a lightbulb moment, exactly, but I was struck momentarily dumb, wholly without a smartassed, know-it-all answer. I was still skeptical, but I couldn't quite say why. I mean, it seems Pollyannaish and not quite realistic, but maybe that's just the cynic in me talking. Now, nearly a week later, I still can't figure out where the flaw in her argument is. I mean, I don't think that I can just drop 40 years of perfecting the art of the guilt trip in one week, but it does seem to be a little less functional an emotion than it did in the past, and that might give me the impetus to at least let it go on occasion.

Or not. Either way, I refuse to feel guilty about it. (Yeah, I know. You saw that ending coming a mile away. Fine. *You* try coming up with pithy endings for this blog week in and week out...)

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