After listening to numerous people who feel guilty about things that have happened in their life and hearing them talk about the details of their experience, a common theme that runs through all of the stories is that people who feel guilty are very unhappy and invest a huge amount of energy trying masking the painful experience from being known by others. Quite often, all of the efforts to hide the experience that is not apparent on the surface has the opposite effect. Instead of effectively covering up guilt, it is like wearing a badge that says, “I am guilty”. It does not take a psychologist to figure out that a person who engages in constant criticism of others is a demonstrating a clear behavior cue pointing to unresolved guilt in the accuser. Often, the person constantly calling attention and implying guilt by suggesting others weaknesses or faults may just be shining a light upon something that obviously is wrong, deeply felt, and unresolved in the accuser.
Good Guilt vs. Bad Guilt
Developmentally, guilt is an emotional warning sign that people learn during normal childhood social development that develops a sense of socially appropriate behavior. Therefore, Guilt’s purpose as a social phenomenon allows humans to know when something wrong, socially unacceptable has been done—to keep life balanced. On the positive side, good guilt operates to help us develop a better understanding about bad choices and danger in our personal behavior. As such, healthy expressions of guilt prompt a person examine and to re-examine behavior to prevent making the same mistake twice. However, neurotic guilt remaining unresolved can reveal a symptom of negative perceptions and mental representations about others behaviors triggering distorted associations with one’s own unrealized internalized guilt, paralyzing emotions, and distorted reactions connected to a distorted sense of self that is like a mirror reflecting past events not viewed by others or even known by the accuser in the moment. Unfortunately, misunderstood and unresolved guilt leads to depression, anxiety, and frustration projected on someone else rather than becoming a positive force toward change or self- improvement. Bad Guilt normally is a negative focus coming from a perception of self that moralizes behavior of others and with the internal message, “I am a bad person. I cannot bear myself. I am unworthy.”
Internalized Guilt Results in Externalized Behavior
When we are carrying guilt around, what do we do with guilt? Often I have said that “the things that we hate about others are the things that we hate most about ourselves.” Carl Jung said, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people” Unfortunately, the guilt ridden accuser does not understand that criticism is a window into their own darkness. Clearly, behavior is hidden so well beneath misdirected concern shared as a concern with confidants, family, friends that infers perceived wrongdoing. What may really be happening is that the guilty accuser by inference projects their own deeply felt guilty behaviors on their mirror on the mirror of life. Unfortunately, many of the things that people feel so passionately and deeply that seem so offensive –we speak so loudly, passionately, so convincingly about, point back to self-perception embedded within neurotic guilt in the mind. Indeed, the ability of guilt to subconsciously influence how perceptions, beliefs, and meaning about things that are viewed should not be underestimated, nor ignored. For instance, in a perfect world of a developing infant, doing, something “bad” is equivalent to murdering all that is good. As the child develops with a lived-experience of shame, performance based acceptance, and guilt ridden feelings, the inability to dispel the gnawing sense of guilt results in the child owning misunderstood feelings about guilt and he/she enters an “adult– normal society. The feeling that one can never be good enough, accepting every responsibility for every wrong, and living with guilt ridden shame will be a way of life to always cause the adult to be a pleaser, a rescuer to try to transfer the childhood shame and guilt and find acceptance.
As I listen to people’s conversations, it sounds like there is something not being said, but is implied in the intent of what is being said. Therefore, I have learned to listen carefully to what people say and give some time and thought to their words and behavior. Quite often it is what is not being said that is more important than what is being said. One example that you may identify with is the protective friend. This person wants to help someone with a situation and someone else gives the pretense of being helpful by saying, “be careful that you don’t make them feel you are taking advantage of them.” What is the real issue? It may be a person who is genuinely concerned, but also it may be someone who does take advantage of others and is projecting guilt. Another person who is also puzzling is concerned that a someone is having secret sexual relation and someone needs to do something to stop this bad behavior. It causes the question to arise whether the concerned person really feels guilty about their own sexual behavior that no one knows about. While serving as a pastor I have had those who felt duty bound to inform me about how certain people are living and taking advantage of their leadership positions and using others. What is common to all of these conversations is that they are people who represent themselves as crusaders of right, justice, and in fact they are all people trying to represent themselves as right and others as wrong and ask me to join them in guilting others into conformity. Therefore, a critical question about this kind of accusation and speculation is motivation. A question important to ask is what motivates the suspicion and why does this behavior happen? One conclusion that could provide an answer is that there may be a genuine problem that needs to be investigated. However, in the absence of compelling evidence. the essential question is why do some people see things that are really not there and act on beliefs that have no substance, evidence, or real desire to help? One answer may be that some people have a need to rescue others from what they believe is “bad behavior” because there is strongly embedded guilt motivating the person who sees their own failure in the acts of others. The effort to direct attention to what is occurring is characterized by transference where there is an effort to vicariously fix something that feels very wrong in their own life or neurotic guilt.
Why does one person believe they are doing right by making someone else guilty, warning, judging, evaluating, devaluing, and invalidating the other persons?
Accusations of Guilt and Defense Mechanisms
When a person engages in this kind of destructive inference crusading to gain support from others, what is the core issue in the accusation? According to Sigmund Freud, it may be psychological projection, which is a psychological defense mechanism whereby one “projects” one’s own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else. Projection is one of the defense mechanisms identified by Freud that is used when someone feels threatened or feels afraid of their own impulses– so they attribute these impulses to someone else. What is apparent among people who make it their life’s mission to constantly criticize without sound reasoning and responsible approaches to relationships with others is that the critic has an unresolved problem. It is guilt– the feeling– that comes to the surface when something witnessed in others –a trigger activates recognition of a feeling associated with a past behavior —” a been there done that experience.” It may be important to realize that recurring critical activity is constantly calling attention others faults may be a sign of unresolved feelings of guilt and self-esteem behaviors that are being attributed to someone else.
The Blame Game and What is Really Being Said
Throughout the history of the human race it is well documented that people have been struggling with guilt while denying responsibility. The Bible contains the story of creation when, Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden; then, made leaves to cover up because they became aware they were naked, while knowing what they had done wrong. Obviously, the gist of the story indicates that they did not want to take responsibility for what had happened. Therefore, the response of Eve was to pass the blame on, “it is the serpent that caused the evil act.” The response of Adam was that it is the woman that you gave me Lord. The story illustrates very well how guilt makes people project cover up because they are ashamed and understand that something is wrong and needs fixed. Guilt makes people accuse others because drawing attention to someone else’s behavior deflects attention away from the guilty party, the fear of being exposed, and projects judgment for guilt upon someone else. Projecting guilt in criticism is a way of verbalizing how deeply perceptions of right and wrong good and bad affects feelings of personal well being and security. If you have guilt, can you live effectively and experience well-being in the experience of life? Something to think about is that as long as attention is focused on what is wrong in others, what is hidden in your life; then, energy cannot be focused upon what is possible or what can make life effective, nor can you be happy.