423. False Guilt

 

Real guilt is an awful feeling one gets after a moral failure. Unless you are perfect or a perfect sociopath, you’ve experienced it too.Either the feeler did something knowingly and willingly wrong, or he knowingly and willingly failed to do something right. In either case an internal conviction rises up like a physical nausea or a psychological gag of self disgust. The self loathing builds until something is done to correct or numb the guilt. Assuage (lessen) or expiate (atone), there’s a pair of words that get after guilt. Addicts favor assuaging guilt with a substance, but that’s a different post for another time. Atonement is the ticket for undoing the guilt inducing act. Here’s the problem, though, folks: false guilt feels the same as real guilt. It masquerades as real, but false guilt is built on false assumptions and incorrect beliefs. As long as the false beliefs persist, so does the false guilt. Truth cuts down that weed, however. No, let’s say eradicates the weed of false guilt. Let me give a personal example.

Decades ago I lived around a bendy hill from a pig farm in the sleepy hamlet of Five Forks. My wife and I owned Coco the sheltie collie. Coco ran loose most of the time. We didn’t tie him up nor did we have a fence. It was a long way between neighbors, so it wasn’t usually a problem, unless you were the guy in the black Fiat who ran over Coco and rolled him up like a prison cigarette one summer day. Oh,  but when the weather turns, there is opportunity for foul play of all sorts. One Sunday afternoon during a February blizzard, I opened the back door of our farmhouse to let Coco in from the blowing snow. In his mouth was a frozen dead piglet.

“Oh, no!! Coco has killed a piglet”, I exclaimed.

My wife asked me, “What are you going to do?”

I picked up my parka and gloves, my scarf and my checkbook. “I’m going to see what a baby pig goes for these days”, and off I trudged toward Farmer Hade’s pig farm. Though his acreage lay directly off our back porch, a stream and a wire fence prevented me from easily crossing over onto his property. I had to walk about a third of a mile by the road to get to his place. I imagined his two boys answering the door. I had them in school back then. Awkward. I wondered how dad would handle the demise of one of his many porkers. Should I pay per pound or a full $200 for a completely grown pig? Many uncomfortable thoughts blew across my brain like the cruel snowflakes that stung my cheeks.

I got to his driveway across from the barn where the 600 pigs were kept. It did not cross my mind how my dog had wedged his way into that wooden fortress. I had the proof: the frozen dead piglet in his choppers. I did not need an eye witness or video evidence. I walked up a few concrete steps and rang the door bell. Mr. Hade answered it promptly.

“What in the world are you doing out in this weather?” he shouted.

“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. My dog killed on of your pigs.”

He laughed at my dire statement. I wondered if it was the laugh of a crazy man who was on the edge of bankruptcy, one piglet away from disaster.

“Your dog didn’t kill any pig of mine”, he added. “Couldn’t. The barn is locked up tight and I got electric fencing at all the openings. They can’t get out and no critters can get in.”

“But my dog came home with a frozen piglet in his mouth”, I protested, wondering if I could get out for $50.

“He probably got one off the pile.”

“The P-P-P-PILE?” I stammered in the blizzard air.

“Yeah, when the sows roll over, they often crush one of their babies. We throw’m on the pile out back. That’s where he got it most likely.”

“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Hade.  I’ll see the boys when school gets back to normal. Bye.”

I trudged home feeling a mixture of relief and stupidity. “The PILE??!! Unbelievable.” Still, the evidence was compelling. My dog did shoplift a dead piglet without permission after all. But the more I tried to convict myself of crimes against neighbor, property, and humanity, the less I could find to stick to me.

Stinking false guilt! It’s like tar on your skin waiting for the feathers of shame to stick to it, but the turpentine of truth can dissolve it in a few dabs. Sometimes just a few truth filled breaths will wipe away the stain of false guilt. For instance, the woman across from me spoke of her crippling guilt…

“I should have been there for my mom. She slipped off her diet again and wound up in the hospital with her diabetes.”

“And you drove eight hours one way to be with her, so I  don’t get the guilt part.”

“See, I left my home town for college and then my master’s degree. There weren’t many opportunities back home. My family feels like I abandoned them.”

“Okay, but why the guilt instead of pride in your success?”

“My sister has always been jealous, but she would never work to change her circumstances.  Lazy,really, like my dad. She lives around the corner from my folks now. They pay her bills to this day.”

“And why didn’t she take care of your mom’s health concerns?”

“She’s just the same. My dad too. They all eat what they want, as much as they want, whenever they want.”

“So theirs are self-inflicted wounds, yes?”

“I guess, but I’ve always felt it was my fault that they floundered. I should be there to rescue them somehow. I’m the only healthy one.”

“And your dad?”

“He sits and watches t.v. all day, every day.”

“So let me see if I have this correctly. Your family under-functions, ignores common health practices, and then calls you when one of them needs medical attention. Is that about right?”

“Well, yessss.”

“How’s the guilt?”

“Quickly turning in to anger actually.”

“Well how about that?”

 

284. Selfishness and False guilt

Oh the joys of practicing counseling!! I’ve learned a lot about a lot in the twenty or so years of doing this exotic psychological cooking show known in America as counseling. The trick is to continue on, round after round without getting chopped!! Unlike the famous cooking show, my clients come to me with baskets full of unlikely ingredients– abuse, addiction,  anger, nightmares, mistaken beliefs, sexual problems, anxiety, trauma, depressed mood, sleep disorder, attention deficit, family dysfunction, divorces or custody battles, etc. and I am supposed to help them cook a decent meal, i.e., fix it; make life palatable for them so that they don’t kill themselves or others.

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Well, if I thought about the great expectations and responsibilities of my job for very long, I’d need to see my own shrink to cope. And if you know any psychiatrists, God help you and them. Run for your life!!  Fortunately I have a leathery heart and a well guarded mind that combine to protect me from the active pollenization of personal pain particles that are released in my dusty office daily, no, hourly. The buzz of humanity’s failures and cruelties is non-stop in my comfy, earth toned surrounds of beige and brown and greenish-gold. Just a honeysuckle bush of a joint to visit.

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“You won’t believe this…” is a common opening. Others presume, “You’re gonna love this…” Truth be told, I do love being involved in others’ lives in a constructive manner. It pays well and sometimes not at all, but no matter. I enjoy the practice of being present for folks in distress. I’m Irish; I enjoy tragedy and have low expectations of humanity.

Let me get to the point before I pass your limits, blognoids– a few concepts have been thrust into my little honeysuckle office so many times that I had to come up with a reasonable defense. Let’s start with the concept of selfishness. My overly responsible, high functioning neurotics often impose the label of “selfish” upon themselves.  To which I respond, “Which selfish?” as opposed to “Which shellfish?”, which is another topic completely.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we all practice selfish tasks daily that are perfectly necessary and helpful– showering, brushing teeth, using deodorant, getting dressed. These things only benefit us, you know?”

“Yeah, okay. What’s your point.”

“I call this “lower case selfishness” versus UPPER CASE SELFISHNESS or NARCISSISM.  I think you are confusing healthy selfishness with arrogant or haughty behaviors. Flossing your teeth is not an affront to any other human being. Flogging your neighbor is an active extension of a belief that your are better than your neighbor. Flossing is a humble act; flogging is a cruel and prideful one. Are you tracking me?”

“I guess. But in my Christian faith pride is to be avoided. ‘Pride goes before a fall’, ya know?”

“But like selfishness there is a healthy pride and an unhealthy one. Pride and humility are not totally mutually exclusive. What if someone compliments you on your humility, says that you are like Jesus in your humble approach to life. Wouldn’t you be proud of this?”

“I guess so. This is all a bit hard to get my mollusky brain around, though.”

“Fair enough.”

“I also have a lot of guilt. Is that wrong too?”

“Depends on which kind.”

“Oh no, there are varieties of guilt now?”

“Yes, three that I am aware of.”

“And they would be…?”

“True guilt, false guilt, and imposed guilt, which is also false.”

“I need more, Sensei.”

“Okay, guilt is that lousy dirty sticky feeling of conviction that comes from doing something wrong, knowingly and willingly, or from failing to do something right when you had the chance to do so. Let’s say you see someone’s wallet sitting out and you decide to help yourself to the cash bulging out of it. Hey, you think this guy is stupid and I’ll just teach him a lesson. You consciously steal the cash. Later on you wonder if that guy may have been on his way to buy birthday presents for his kids or pay his rent with that money. Your action starts to eat at your conscience if you have one.”

“I would never steal someone else’s wallet, Doc. I’m not like that. My grandma would rise out of her grave and beat me with her old leather purse if I did. She was the model for the Terminator movie.”

“Right, I think you have an overdeveloped or over-responsible sense of guilt. Let’s look at the other side… you could have stepped in and stopped an unattended baby stroller from rolling into busy traffic, but you don’t. You think the distracted mother should pay for her inattention, and, kaboom, a truck crushes the stroller in the middle of the intersection where you are arrogantly sipping your latte.”

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“Oh, man, that’s not me. I’d throw myself in front of that stroller to save the baby.”

“I didn’t say anything about a baby.”

“Yeah, but it’s a BABY stroller, Doc. It only makes sense that a baby would be in it.”

“No, my guilt ridden friend. The baby is safely back on Mom’s lap.”

“I can’t take much more of this analysis. (Deep breath) So that’s real guilt– choosing not to do something that I could have easily done to help my fellow man?”

“Yep.”

“So what’s false guilt? Not that I really want to know any more today. This sucks. You are a psychic tick, a talking tapeworm, you know.”

“Yes, however, I feel no guilt because I am helping you see your dysfunction. (Deeper breath) False guilt feels exactly the same as real guilt; it’s just based on false information.”

“For instance?”

Image result for dog with a pig in its mouth picture

“Okay, decades ago I lived next to a pig farm. One blizzardy day my mongrel sheltie came home with a frozen baby piglet in his mouth. I thought, incorrectly, my dog had killed the farmer neighbor’s piglet. I got my checkbook and put on my winter coat. I trudged through the snowy wind and rang his doorbell. I explained the situation and he began to laugh at my story. ‘No, your dog didn’t kill it. He must’ve gotten one off the pile.’ Sure enough, there was a pile of dozens of dead piglets outside the pig barn, which was protected by shock fencing. My awful intestinal twisting was all for naught. I had experienced false guilt.”

“Well, you didn’t know any better.”

“Exactly, but my guts twisted just the same, whether my perceptions turned out to be true or not.”

“Hey, I bet I know what imposed guilt is.”

“I’ll bet you do.”

“It’s when someone else tells you that you ought to feel guilty. They impose the reasoning on you and try to activate your guilt, whether their view is correct or not.”

“Excellent, Grasshopper. Now let us rest and eat oysters.”

“That would be shellfish, Sensei.”

“I am humbly proud of you, Grasshopper.”