Don’t Run From Positive Guilt

Mary Beth told me that she was backsliding, losing
whatever progress she had made in the last six months
of therapy. She was spending more time with her parents
and her sisters during the holiday season and feeling
“guilty around the clock.” I asked her to tell me more
about her constant guilt.

“I’ve always felt guilt easily, you know, assuming the
blame for just about anything,” Mary Beth said. “But
now it’s worse.”

“Worse in what way?” I asked.

She thought for a moment. “Well, I wouldn’t have
thought it possible, but I think I am feeling guilt over
more things. I’m feeling a lot of guilt when I do some of
the things we talk about in therapy.”

“What kind of things?”

“Not even ‘doing’ things. I’m feeling guilty just because I
am ‘thinking’ differently,” Mary Beth said. “I can just think
about standing up for myself to my mom — something
simple like not taking charge of our Thanksgiving extravaganza
— and here comes the guilt. There’s no
telling what it’s going to feel like if I actually speak the
word ‘no’ to her.” Mary Beth laughed, but we both knew
she was absolutely serious.

Mary Beth was not backsliding. She was just moving
into some rough terrain on the road less traveled. She
was beginning to encounter what my wife (an amazing
therapist) calls “positive guilt.” Positive guilt occurs
when we begin to break rules that need to be broken,
when we become aware of dysfunctional programming
from our past and we develop the audacity to
think for ourselves. For any of us who learned to get
our self-esteem chips from denying ourselves and taking
care of everyone else, positive guilt sets in when we
refuse some of those chips and decide instead to consider
what — here comes the blasphemy — we want.

Positive guilt is like withdrawal pain for the addict. If I
am an addict beginning to abstain from drugs, I will experience
withdrawal physically and/or psychologically.
For a while, the longer I refuse to use the drugs the withdrawal
pain increases. The message of the withdrawal
pain is simple: go back, go back where you were, where
you came from, where you “belong.”

Positive guilt conveys the same message to us. “How
dare you stray from the tradition of this long-standing
script! How dare you consider your own needs and
wants! How dare you think for yourself!” the positive
guilt screams. And if that doesn’t work, it might tell us
about how cruel we are and about how our “new and
improved” behavior is going to hurt other people’s feelings.
And of course, part of the program tells us that
if something we do hurts someone else’s feelings then
we are —— bad.

I told Mary Beth about my wife’s concept of positive
guilt, and I told her that like the drug addict’s withdrawal,
it gets worse before it gets better.

“It’s going to get worse?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “but as long as you don’t turn back, as long
as you don’t give into the addict’s temptation to medicate
the pain, it will get better —– much better.”