Understanding Guilt and Healing Through Selfishness
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso
I woke up this morning with a flurry of ideas and I had to write another reflection. I think short of being a little behind on my creative work this week, I’ve been even more behind on self-care. When we’re dealing with stress and abuse, especially at the holidays, it can be difficult to prioritize and put ourselves first. But the main reason I wanted to write today is because I was thinking about guilt. I was laying in bed and listening to my mother guilt-tripping my husband into feeling bad about missing taking one of our dogs to the groomers which made me first think about the fact that she has a car and is able to drive to the appointment she made for the dog but chose to dump the weight on another person instead. But aside from my own family’s astonishing level of lacking a conscience it made me think about the nature of guilt itself.
It’s amazing to me how much guilt has actually been weaponized in our modern society, especially by those that participate in administering domestic abuse. To me the whole idea of guilt can tie very much into my last reflection and the idea of not feeling good enough but it’s also profound to me to think of how often guilt is used to pass the buck and not be personally responsible like the way my mother used it and uses it often. Now to be fair, I am grateful for my parents in a very basic way because my husband and I have been living with them. He’s working toward being a higher earner and we’ve struggled a lot because my disability keeps me from holding down a traditional job. The issue becomes my mother a lot of times because she seems very confused on whether she considers us tenants,servants, sources of shame or family.
Both of my parents are often quick to point out what we’re not doing to contribute to the household even though we’re currently paying for their disgusting obsession with watching Donald Trump news to the tune of close to $200 dollars every month and she has no problem dumping honey-do work on my husband like he’s a migrant worker without ever really actually asking as much as she is handing out more orders to yet another one of the slaves in her fantastic existence. I’ve pretty much grown to accept that’s who my mother is but I sometimes feel a need to apologize to my husband for her behavior so he might hang in there and not divorce me to get away from my behaviorally backward parents.
But what is guilt exactly? By the most basic definition guilt is just feeling like a failure in some degree. It is an embodiment of feeling less and not having faith in our own feelings,actions and decisions. It’s in many ways closely linked to the concept of self-esteem. I think we all know that person who seems to never feel burdened by guilt and those people are often types who are very confident in their choices and with who they are. It could be considered bad to some but essentially the more confidence you have, the less guilt you’re susceptible too. But beyond that, what if it also just means that those people have learned acceptance,self-validation and being able to forgive themselves for not being perfect.
No one can really be perfect and whether we are dishing out guilt or feeling it, we are probably partially blinded by the illusion of perfection or the idea that there is a “better” to the situation that was missed. We can’t accept imperfection and therefore cannot see the value in what was done. In the instance of this morning, I laid there and thought about how different the outcome would be if my mother had changed her perspective to be less focused on that better scenario. We’re all late sometimes and its not the end of the world. Additionally, the dog is small and in a pinch could be groomed at home, but please find me a dog owner that doesn’t feel some tested love when their four-legged pal is a bit on the ripe side. You don’t love them less and there are worse things in life.Another angle I considered is the personal responsibility aspect. In general, if you ask someone to do a favor but it’s something you have the power to do yourself then how responsible are you for that situation. In this case, if you’re an adult who is capable of driving your dog somewhere and you have nothing else to do and a working vehicle but you chastise someone else for not being able to do it for you should you be dumping the dog being late for an appointment on the other person.
In the same strain as my explorations when I discussed whether there was truly a right or wrong, there are many ways and calculations in any given scenario that need to go into our perception of it. The lack of personal responsibility or rather the goal to deflect having responsibility and be the person who’s right often blinds us to when we’re hurting others in interactions. This serial weaponizing of guilt that seems to be taking over our society is a by-product of that deficiency. One thing I noticed quite a bit the more I interacted with adults is this almost reflexive need for people to make things someone else’s fault. As a person on the spectrum, I definitely understand black and white thinking patterns but it’s baffling to me how often neurotypicals use those patterns to benefit themselves.
When I experience black and white thinking, my options tend to be more self-deprecating as opposed to selfish and that may well indeed be a by-product of mental illness combined with neurological differences. Nevertheless it’s still amazing to me how easily neurotypical people can justify deflecting being even a little in the wrong. They seem to focus primarily on whatever steps will make them 100% right and the victim. Deflecting responsibility and guilt seems to be as normal as blinking or breathing to most of the neurotypical people in my life. In myself I tend to at least be able to progress to a point where instead of thinking in black and white, I graduate to seeing the world in full color and being distracted by all the small moving parts of a machine as opposed to just seeing the big red button. There are so many aspects to being on the spectrum that are a double-edged sword and that ability to feel strongly,focus deeply and analyze thoroughly can be one of them. Despite being often accused of feeling less, I can actually feel on a level most of my family and friends can’t even fathom. It makes you wonder how the no empathy myth is still so pervasive in society really.
But based on the idea that guilt correlates with self-esteem,those with low self-esteem would obviously be more sensitive to guilt, regardless of how justified that guilt was. But wait a minute here,right? Is guilt necessary? Do we actually need to feel it and does it benefit us? To answer that part of the equation we have to look at the idea of actions and consequences. Every action has a consequence and consequences aren’t necessarily negative in concept despite the connotation. Consequence is a fancy version of the word result in essence and results can be good or bad based on the circumstances. They can even be a bit of both in some cases. Many things we coin as negative in our society are thought of that way based on connotation or the emotions a word invokes aside from its literal meaning. So what are the actual consequences of guilt?
This can be a difficult question to answer because guilt in some instances can promote growth. Feeling guilt can be a way our mind indicates we need to make personal changes or have done something wrong. It’s kind of like the human mind trying to subtly tell you when you’ve been an asshat. However, as we’ve discussed up to this point guilt can be used as a way of deflection and escalate into a gaslighting method when used toward another person. If you’re the person weaponizing it, you may get a boost because you feel vindicated but the person on the other side who may or may not be at the level of fault you’ve assigned may be needlessly suffering and not benefiting at all. Obviously not all of our interactions need to benefit both people, but wouldn’t it be nice if we worked toward that? What if instead of a winner and loser we could all walk away from an interaction with something of value. Maybe you walk away being a little wrong and a little right which means there’s more potential for both parties reaping some form of benefit and not bearing any more weight then needed.
I think the best way to think about guilt is to think about feces. Stay with me on this one, folks. I promise it’s going somewhere and I’m not just ranting stupidly. Fecal matter is neither good nor bad. It’s definitely gross and often unpleasant but it can be used as fertilizer or an indicator of our health as well which makes it somewhat beneficial. However, when we throw or misuse our feces it most often ends poorly for someone. Guilt can be considered in a similar way. Guilt when applied properly can help us learn and grow but when we weaponize it, it causes mostly damage with no rewards. Basically, nobody wins when you deal with human waste by throwing it at others. You have dirty hands and the other person has feces on them. Consider that when you purposely use guilt to inflict pain or deflect personal responsibility, no one is really winning. You have a temporary boost and learn nothing as a person while the other person is now weighed down by partially unmerited shame. You feel like you’ve won but trust me when I say you really didn’t. You may even feel guilt without actively acknowledging it for your efforts of passing the buck.
But as a bonus exploration, lets consider how you actually deal with guilt. Is it better to think about it so you can possibly take something from it or just spread the poison? If we take time to consider and accept the situation we have a chance to heal and possibly grow in some manner. What I see more of is less introspection and a sense of extended deflection. Often when someone makes an effort to make us feel bad we can feel a need to soothe that by making someone else feel worse. If we go back to the feces analogy it would be basically holding onto what was thrown at us until we find someone else to throw it at. This means logically the best course of action is to manufacture the other person’s lack of personal responsibility into a healthier response. Acknowledge what parts of the situation may be on you and instead of focusing on the wrong, focus on what you may have done right and how you can do even more right to replace the parts that were sour. Accepting moral responsibility can be scary but it can also be freeing and help you progress. If we insist on carrying and spreading negative feelings as opposed to recycling them, we create a social poison and a chain of destruction.
But at the same time, perhaps in part guilt can be handled with selfishness. Again, hang in there with me. This is going somewhere. If we think about that link to the self-esteem, guilt gains or loses potency based on how much of that we have. Guilt is essentially a negative emotional response that feeds on how strong you are in your overall standards. That being the case, what if we considered equalizing guilt with healthier self-esteem. If you make an effort a little bit at a time to become a person who trusts their own heart, it might lessen how deeply guilt cuts you. And I don’t mean in a way that makes it easier for you to ignore guilt but rather in a sense that you can look at and process guilt in a more reasonable state. Having a healthier perspective is the difference between a glass being half full or half empty. Like many negative emotions, they can be necessary and helpful when we handle them properly.
The holidays can be a crazy time and we can often get distracted by trying to do too much and miss what matters. Don’t let this year be another year where you give yourself the gift of regrets.If guilt is something that breaks you or something that’s consuming enough you feel a need to use it to hurt others, be selfish enough to forgive yourself for not being perfect. Human beings make mistakes and being wrong isn’t the end of the world. Instead of failure, learn to see the opportunity and learn to respect the people around you for who they are and what they can and do bring to the table of life.
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