Guilt, Sorrow and Powerlessness: the Convoluted Emotions
I am writing this post about the way guilt, sorrow, sadness and powerless get confused, distorted and convoluted in many situations. In the process healing is blocked. In my clinical practice I often see people feeling guilty for events which really call for sadness or sorrow not guilt. Guilt implies that we have some influence over an event. It is clear to me that the guilt is a way to avoid the depths of sadness that sometimes accompany experience.
Four examples of this:
1. A man has spent ten years caring for his elderly mother in the family home in which she has lived for over fifty years. She was ill and frail so he moved from another state, gave up his profession and social life to care for her. These ten years were a loving gift which extended mother’s ability to live at home by several years. Medical complications arose which made living at home impossible and she was subsequently admitted to a nursing home. He felt guilty for not being a better son. This admission was a sad event in the life of the family but was unavoidable.
2. A woman feels guilty for having a child with severe intellectual and physical handicaps. The child will probably never live without a respirator and heart monitor. The woman was totally responsible during the pregnancy. She did not drink, take drugs or smoke. There is no reason here for guilt only intense sorrow.
3. My client has not worked in two and a half years following a car accident in which a drunk driver crashed into him while he waited patiently for a traffic light to turn green. He had numerous broken bones and three fractured disks. Initially he could not walk and walks now only with two canes. He feels guilty for not working. Guilt blocks the experiencing of sadness and anger that his life is forever changed.
4. A woman was seriously assaulted by her domestic partner who flew into a rage when his supper was not ready on time. She felt guilty for being an ineffective wife and especially for not talking him down. Nothing one person does causes another person to explode with violence. Violence is the responsibility of the violent person. The feelings of guilt imply ability to control the other person. In addition they block serious reflection on why the woman remains in the situation and does not love herself enough to leave. Guilt sabotages efforts to find a path out.
These are all events over which we have very little control. Guilt is the cover for confronting situations in which we are essentially powerless. The basic implicit belief is that “If I just try hard enough any problem can be solved.” This is simply not so. Sadness of many situations requires that we face the limitations of our abilities, talents and strengths. Sorrow involves grieving in the face of problems that are unresolvable.
In these situations we need to sink into the sadness and sorrow that is inherent in life. We need to let ourselves feel deeply without recourse to blame, guilt or shame. Grasping for guilt is one of the ways we avoid the real pain of the situation. Life is often crazy, unstable, chaotic and impermanent and mostly it does not go as expected. This type of guilt is the emotion that wants life to go as we expect it to go.
This is the adult version of the childhood fantasy of curing, fixing or protecting one’s parents. “If I’m just good enough, Mom won’t drink.” “If I clean the house perfectly, she won’t be depressed.” “If I score two touchdowns today, Dad will be so proud of me he will stop having rages.” This is a project doomed to fail. Children cannot fix or change a parent’s behavior. That behavior is not dependent upon the goodness or perfection of the child.
Sooner or later the child discovers that the house is never clean enough, alcohol is consumed regardless and there aren’t enough touchdowns to forestall all the rages. When the child finally understands this, there is a period of grieving the their grandiose fantasies of power. In similar fashion adults need to grieve their illusions of control.
The adult version of this occurs when we come to believe that we can control many things. In this way guilt is related to grandiosity. “If I am just good enough, or work hard enough bad things will not happen.” But at times no matter what we do the things we don’t want to happen occur and guilt floods in. the guilt blocks the ability to deal with the authentic issues of sadness, sorrow and loss. The alternative is to accept the actual reality of the moment and its deep and intense emotions. This way the path to healing and growth is not sabotaged with false emotions.
My son shot himself one year before you wrote this. I feel guilty because I had the power to prevent this. But, in reality I had no power. My ego created that false power in my head.
Instead, I aim to just feel sorrow without guilt.
February 3, 2021