By Jackie A. Castro, MFT
Did you know that more often than not, people who are compassionate to others, are downright mean to themselves? They are forgiving of others, but extremely harsh on themselves.
They are overly committed, work extremely hard, and always strive to do their best. When things go well, they hardly take notice. Yet, when something goes wrong, they are the first person to blame themselves. They then berate, condemn, and speak to themselves in a harsh voice. They go on and on about what they 'should have' done, or not done. Oftentimes, the self-deprecating rant goes on for days only to accomplish nothing. Sound familiar? Do you know someone like that? Maybe yourself?
I'm describing something I call 'self guilt,' as opposed to real guilt like the guilt felt after committing a crime or being hurtful to another person. Basically, self guilt is a feeling we 'sentence' ourselves to for something that's difficult to understand. Most often, we see this feeling arise in people who have experienced trauma.
- You are in a car accident. Before you even step out of the car, you are taking blame.
- You were abused as a child or adult, and blame yourself for provoking the abuser.
- You are a mother and berate yourself whenever something wrong happens to your child.
Or perhaps, you are a parent of a child who was born with a facial difference. You constantly find fault with yourself. You obsess about what you could have done differently even though. intellectually you know the truth. Emotionally, you blame yourself and live in a constant state of guilt.
The Origin of Guilt
Guilt is a way to explain that which we cannot understand. It's almost always about putting the blame on ourselves, when we are not at fault. No one is. This is especially true for parents who have a child born with a facial difference. Whatever the doctor told you about the genetic origins of the craniofacial condition is often dismissed. Putting blame on yourself somehow feels more logical, even though in truth, it's false.
The idea of self-blame and self-guilt comes from the very human desire for explanations. Parents feel very, very responsible for the well being of their children. Once again, when things are right, we feel good, but when things are wrong, we tend to beat ourselves up.
As a therapist, I routinely see people who are highly anxious or very depressed as a result of having a child born with varying medical conditions, mental health, or behavioral issues. While we assume that the guilt, anxiety, and depression are a direct result of the event, in this case the birth of a child, it's actually not true. The emotions actually are born of our own ingrained, personal thoughts and beliefs. We have carried these emotions, beliefs, and thoughts with us for most of our lives. Most of these thoughts manifest themselves on an unconscious level. In therapy, I work with parents to untangle these beliefs, thoughts, and emotions.
Parents universally come to therapy with feelings of guilt. They start off by telling me what they think they did wrong during their pregnancy and how they are currently feeling badly about their child's health, happiness, and social issues. They speak in terms of absolutes. I often hear phrases like "It's all my fault," or "My child is suffering because of me."
These parents go on to tell me that they are constantly feeling anxious and upset. They worry and second guess their decisions about medical procedures. They imagine that their child is taking a turn for the worse. They are concerned about bills and the high cost of medical procedures. Eventually, they begin to doubt their abilities and feel inadequate for not being good enough. They feel both overwhelmed and upset. It's very common for nervous parents to wind up as highly, depressed parents. They have problems coping with life and end up feeling hopeless and sad.
How To Combat Guilt
Feelings happen not from the event, but how we think about the event. So while it was shocking to hear the diagnosis, and natural that we would experience a myriad of emotions, we must understand that these thoughts and feelings are falsely created in our own minds. I say this, not to blame you, but to inform you that sometimes our own mind can be our worst enemy. Most of us have no idea that our thoughts and feelings are connected.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
Here's the good news. You can learn how to manage the thoughts that trigger bad feelings. You can learn how to identify how these thoughts, or cognitions, are simply not true. The goal is not to think positively. Rather, the goal is to think rationally, or in a more balanced fashion.
I often utilize a type of therapy that is known as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT is considered to be one of the most cutting-edge, effective ways to manage feelings that get in the way of living happy, productive lives. CBT helps you look at your thoughts, identify the distortions, and reframe them in order to see a more realistic truth.
For example, if your child is bullied, we assume you will have a reaction. What do you think it will be? Your first thoughts will probably be connected to anger, sadness, or fear. Believe it or not, the feelings that occur are not so much about the event, but your thoughts about the event. See if you can identify what feeling would occur with each thought:
"It's not fair that my child has to go through this."
"This is all my fault. I'm the one who created this child and they are suffering because of me."
"This is just the beginning. What if this bullying gets worse and worse?"
I'm sure you know the answers, but just in case, let me clue you in. Whenever we have thoughts about things not being fair, you are going to feel angry. When you blame yourself, you are feeling guilty. And, when you worry about the future, you are guaranteed to feel anxious.
Upsetting feelings are almost always a byproduct of a thought. And nearly all of these upsetting thoughts have some kind of cognitive distortion.
Rethink Your Guilt With CBT
When we think in terms of self blame, we will feel guilt. The feeling of guilt is something that was most likely learned in the past, instilled in us while growing up. CBT will help you to unlearn this pattern of thinking, replacing it with more helpful ways of thinking.
Going back to the example of a child getting bullied, we can learn more helpful ways of thinking. I refer to this as neutral thinking. Neutral thinking allows us to observe and accept a situation for what it is. If necessary, we then can think calmly about any actions that are necessary to take. We learn how to behave rationally as opposed to emotionally.
Dialing It Back
You might believe that experiencing guilt can be helpful, and you have a point. Guilt is an emotion that basically keeps us from doing wrong and many would say it helps keep a moral compass. However, if you make a list of how guilt helps, versus how it hurts, chances are good that you will find it hurts more than it helps. That's where I tell my clients to 'dial it back'. Instead of feeling guilt at one hundred percent, maybe you'd like to feel it at thirty percent or less.
Reframing Your Thoughts
Guilty thoughts center around disappointment. You feel as if you didn't live up to the high, oftentimes, unrealistic standards you impose on yourself. These thoughts generally have a 'should' statement attached. 'I should have done this, or 'If only I'd done that.' How are these thoughts helping you right now? They are generally thoughts that relate to the past. Can you go back in time? Do you have a time machine? My guess is that you don't.
Instead of beating yourself up, it's far more productive to speak kindly to yourself. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a good friend who was going through the same thing that you are. You would not judge. I bet you would remind that friend of all the good things they've done. Ultimately, you'd give the friend a big hug.
Sometimes we need to give ourselves that hug. We need to remind ourselves that we are doing the best we can despite a boat load of challenges. Most of you were ill prepared to raise a child with a facial difference or medical challenges. You literally had to take a crash course in both childrearing and the complicated diagnosis, while keeping up with the daily responsibilities at work and at home. It's a lot!
Give Yourself A Break
When you find yourself speaking in absolutes or predicting a future that you can't foresee, stop. Take a deep breath and fight that negative thought with the truth. You'll find that almost all of our absolute thinking contains many shades of grey. Our faulty thinking does not provide the answers we are seeking.
Be gentle with yourself, focus on real truths, like the good you do rather than thoughts that scold or admonish you. Guilt brings us down while compassion brings us up. Be as good to yourself as you are to others. Be aware and conscious of your thoughts.
Guilt is a a self-imposed emotion. It is based on our own moral standard of what we believe to be right and wrong. Generally speaking, it's based on the idea that we have to be perfect in order to be good. The feeling is almost always factually incorrect and unhelpful.
Self guilt is always felt by people who are inherently good. We have good intentions and want to do our very best. The problem is that the feelings often work against us. We end up feeling disproportionately bad about ourselves. That's simply not fair.
The good news is that we can learn how to mange these emotions so that we can think more neutrally. Neutral thinking will allow us to see things clearly and make good, sound decisions based on fact, not feeling.
Learn how to be good to yourself. Remind yourself of your own worth and value. Instead of focusing on what you did wrong, tell yourself what you did right. Stay in the moment. Learn self love and acceptance so that you can share these positive emotions with your family.
Jackie A. Castro is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist with a private practice in Granda Hills, California
© 2019 Jackie A. Castro, MFT