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?”


“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?”

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“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.”