My clients report LOTS of guilt. Guilt over everything . . . being a rebellious teen (thirty years ago) . . . failing to protect their children from unforeseen tragedies . . . eating desserts . . . not living up to their potential . . . breaking someone’s heart . . . flying into rages . . . majoring in business instead of art. Some of this is healthy guilt. Most of it is coercive guilt.
It’s my fault: . . . I’m not more successful.
My dad died too young.
My parents split up.
My mother stayed in bed all the time.
My brother has so much trouble.
My husband doesn’t want me.
We had to file bankruptcy.
We lost the baby.
Sometimes I try to argue with them. So, a five-year-old kid could cause his parents to divorce? So, you’re supposed to put your young life on hold to make sure your dad doesn’t die – even though he’s trashed his body and chased away his loved ones?
Talk therapy only gets us so far: countering this kind of guilt with words is only partially helpful. We need the power-washer of EMDR to clean out old trauma channels in the brain that hold residue from our history and hold back the forward progress of our thinking.
But sometimes guilt is good. And we need to know the difference between guilt that helps versus guilt that hurts.
Healthy Guilt steers us in the direction of becoming kinder, more responsible, more empathic, and more helpful. Guilt is good if it makes us better.
I wish I had not insulted his masculinity.
I wish I had handled my children more gently.
I could have helped that woman down the street with her car.
I should give more to charity.
Healthy Guilt brings awareness and changes our behavior in the future. It notices and then lets go. It illuminates a path not taken and creates experiential learning. It says: I’m human, I’m imperfect, and I’m learning. I believe Healthy Guilt comes from the higher self in connection with divine love.
But if it hangs on, keeps us awake at night, or paralyzes our ability to feel joy or to take action, guilt has morphed from healthy to coercive.
Coercion involves force or threats – direct or indirect. So Coercive Guilt comes from some experience (past or present) in which we were induced to feel bad about ourselves for disappointing someone else. Coercive Guilt steers us toward depression, rigidity, anxiety, and less enjoyment of life. Coercive Guilt gets passed down the line, creating anxiety for younger generations. Guilt is bad if it is used to coerce others or make ourselves sick. Guilt is bad if it hangs on in spite of our changes, our apologies, our restitutions. Coercive Guilt comes from an outside influence that says we’ll never be enough, no matter how hard we work or how much we deny ourselves.
Coercive Guilt activates false family-of-origin beliefs.
- I’m a bad person.
- I make people angry, sad.
- I don’t give enough.
- I’m selfish and ungrateful.
- People who move far away from family are selfish and cold.
- If I take care of myself, I can’t be good (enough) to others.
- If I speak my truth, I will hurt people (and that would be bad).
- If I do what’s in my own best interest, I will have failed someone else.
- I should have known better. I should have seen it before.
- I’m not enough.
I wonder how the world would change if we all began to shed our coercive guilt. I wonder what would happen if we wrote about where it all started, how it’s limited our life adventures, and what we’d love to do if we weren’t so guilty.
Contact me if you’d like to target your Coercive Guilt with EMDR therapy or talk about re-writing your life story without all the apologies.