Monday, November 25, 2013

Born to be Guilty



By Lisabet Sarai


Oy! Do I know about guilt? Is the Pope Catholic? (Yes, I know he has his own guilt issues, but I'll leave that for other Grippers to discuss.)

I grew up a nice Jewish girl, with a Jewish mother. And a Jewish grandmother. I was born to be guilty.

It's not as if I really had anything to feel guilty about. Other than a tendency for the clothing in my bureau drawers to be a bit messy, I was almost sickeningly well-behaved. I earned all As from elementary school all the way through college and into grad school. I helped with the housework. I always asked for permission before going out and never came home late. I didn't smoke. I didn't drink or use drugs (well, not until I was well into adulthood). I didn't beat up my siblings. I didn't get pregnant.

And yet, when I think back to my early life, it seems as though guilt, and its quivering sister, anxiety, were my primary motivations much of the time. When I didn't get absolutely top marks, I had the sinking sense I'd let my family down. When I did make 100%, I worried about how I'd manage to do as well next time. I loved school – reading books, writing papers, learning new facts, principles and skills. At the same time the need to excel made the experience oppressive. Obsessing over grades and deadlines, I'd forget to enjoy the process.

My mom had her ups and downs emotionally. When she was upset or depressed, I'd have the totally irrational conviction that it was somehow my fault. I'd clean the kitchen and iron the clothes, trying to “make it up to her”. When my brother did something naughty and was punished (he wasn't nearly as goody-goody as I was), I felt responsible, as ridiculous as that might sound. Maybe I could have stopped him. Maybe I shouldn't have told my parents about his transgressions. It's possible I felt guilty because deep down, I was tempted to emulate his insouciance and independence, so different from my own behavior.

I should clarify that despite the stereotypes, my parents didn't usually use guilt to manipulate me. They were proud of my achievements, but never pushed me the way some families do. As far as I can tell, most of this guilt was self-generated. Perhaps it's hereditary. Or possibly learned. I suspect my mom felt guilty and inadequate for much of her life as well.

When the pressure built to an unbearable degree, I became anorexic – the ultimate in guilt-induced perfectionism. If I allowed myself to eat, I'd suffer torments of self-reproach at my “lack of discipline”. I'd look at my scrawny body in the mirror and see obesity, the objectification of my gluttonous appetites. As I watched the pounds drop away, though, there was a sense of triumph, a momentary release from the terrifying sense of my own badness.

As I got skinnier, my interactions with my mom deteriorated. She thought the world was blaming her for my condition (and to some extent this was true – women who become anorexic often have close but difficult relationships with their mothers). She hounded me, trying to force me to take in the nourishment my body needed. I became increasingly dishonest, pretending to eat while hiding or disposing of the food, or I acted out, throwing tantrums – something inconceivable for the good little girl I'd been up to that point. She was obviously at her wits end, and of course I hated myself for hurting her, but the emotional penalties for giving in and letting my monstrous desires run free were even worse. Meanwhile, her very logical concerns about my health were tainted by her guilty fears that she was responsible for my decline.

I can bring back all those emotions – so vivid and so painful. Somehow, though, I managed to escape from the deadly cycles of fear and self-disgust. Honestly, I don't know how I survived. Therapy helped, I guess. When my therapist gave me unconditional approval, I was somehow able to believe him, when I'd never been able to do the same with my parents. I moved out of my mom's house and went to live with my dad, who while more emotionally closed than my mom, was less volatile and more accepting of me.

These days, guilt plays a far less central role in my life. I've come to the conclusion that it's a totally non-productive emotion. If you've done something less than admirable, wallowing in guilt won't change the past. It just interferes with your moving forward. And if you're feeling guilty because of something you should be doing – well, guilt is just another word for procrastination, isn't it?

Still, I'm sure that I haven't completely outgrown my guilty tendencies. That's one reason I never had kids. I didn't want to inflict my mishegas on them.

17 comments:

  1. thank you for sharing this, Lisabet. i am glad you got over your guilt & your anorexia.

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    1. Me too... Although one never *completely* recovers from either.

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  2. One of my nieces is showing signs of the anorexia that her mom has been battling for years (it runs on the female side of her family.) It's a tragedy that so many people think that there's no such thing as being too rich or too thin. (words my mom used to live by). Both can be so self-destructive.

    I too was an honors student all through school, feeling constant guilt for being an under-performer. Then I got to college and reinvented myself as a whore. I ditched classes, spending time hooking up instead, back in the wild and wooly 70s before AIDS made that problematic. I eventually pulled myself back together and improved my grade point average. But I got an English degree, which made my mom wring her hands and my dad tell me he "always likes a waitress who can quote Shakespeare while she slings hash".

    Now, with 2 of our 4 kids still in college, I still feel guilty for having got a degree considered so useless by societal standards. And I feel guilty for not having a career job while the kids were young, though I'm very proud of the way they turned out. I think guilt is something we absorb along with nutrition from our mothers, unfortunately. Mom is gone for 3 years now, but still I obsess over the care I provided to her as dementia stole her from me. And I wonder if I did enough for her. Others can't believe I have such self-doubts. We judge ourselves by harsher standards than others do.

    Sometimes late at night when I can't sleep, I'm wracked with guilt over something I did years ago, to someone I'll never see again. In fact in my current WIP, I have the heroine being hunted for something she's tried to forget that she was a part of. But I also read years ago that if you've become an adult without any physical scars or guilt over things you did that you wish you hadn't, you must have led an extremely boring and unfulfilled life. Eventually I fall asleep holding that thought in my mind...and hoping the good memories that others have of me overwhelm the bad ones.

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  3. And might I add, I love the issues you discuss here on the site! Thanks, Garce, for having posted an invite on one of the many blog loops I'm on. What a great group of people who aren't afraid to bare their souls, in an effort to help themselves and others understand what this weird journey called life is all about. Since it's the week to express what we're thankful about in the US, your site ranks up there highly with me.

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    1. Thanks, Fiona!

      We love your comments, too!

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  4. Lisabet, what a thought provoking and honest post, thanks for sharing and yes, it did pull my heart strings. I love the 'guilt and it's quivering sister anxiety' line because they do indeed go hand in hand.

    Guilt is something that plays on my mind a lot, like all women to some degree, whether it's food, or exercise or how clean the house is. Just yesterday Mr Harlem told me off for this, we were walking on the beach with the dogs and I was panicking about this and that, and none of the problems were mine, they were family and friends little ups and downs, and in the end he said "you just can't be responsible for everyone else's happiness, stop feeling like you are, everyone is accountable for their own happy state of mind", and that stopped my feeling so guilty. My guilt needed to be put into perspective.

    I wonder if we had a deep, dark well we could all drop one emotion into, guilt would be it, but then again, perhaps it does keep us on the path we want to walk along, to some extent at least. Guilt can be reins or binds.

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    1. That's the problem - we're taught to think of guilt as productive, as a motivator for good behavior. I've come to feel that it's not productive at all. It eats away like acid at the joy of life. We should be seeking more positive reasons to do what we need to do - out of love, or compassion, or a sense of personal responsibility (which is a subtle distance from guilt).

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  5. Although brought up Catholic, the guilt part failed to stick. First of all, they give you the out of saying that you really must believe that something is wrong, is a sin, and that it was a willful act. That's a lot of leeway for someone not prone to to doing harm in the first place.

    It never ceases to amaze me how people carry stuff around with them for years. My mother (another who wasn't wrapped too tight) held grudges for one or two misguided words uttered decades before.

    And Fiona- Just wanted to say that your comments are among the most thoughtful we get here on OGG.

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    1. Ah shoot. I thought you'd be able to come up with some great Catholic guilt tales, Daddy!

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  6. I suppose guilt must have some evolutionary value, since it seems to be hard-wired into the human psyche to one extent or another. There could be some survival value to always feeling you should be trying harder. But on the individual level it seems that it often does more harm than good.

    Fiona, I worry too about whether I could have done more for my mother in her last months, even though I can't think of any way I could have. She died last March at 93. I think that kind of guilt is pretty much unavoidable.

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    1. Hi, Sacchi,

      Maybe. But you don't have to feel guilty in order to want to try harder.

      I wonder whether there are some cultures that work without guilt. I've lived in Asia for a long time, but I can't really comment - I don't know the internal experience.

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  7. Hah! Sacchi- You've nailed how I was going to frame this guilt thing. An evolutionary deal for some human place-in-the-world purpose. And I thought it was gonna be an original approach. :>)

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    1. Go ahead and run with it, Daddy X. I think I'm going to take a more tangential tack with a focus on the individual rather than the species.

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  8. I suspect that most good little girls and boys are incredibly guilty people. It's not our instinct or our id, it's our overdeveloped superego, and yes, it serves a social purpose: it makes us pliable, suggestible to social mores and folkways, and it makes us follow the rules. Society doesn't care what makes us follow the rules, as long as we do. They don't care that it's unhealthy to do so out of fear of disapproval rather than desire for approval. Really, eating disorders aside (which I do ascribe to social pressures, especially for women), I suspect some people are just prone to be more sensitive to disapproval, and thus begins the guilt.

    I'm still there, closeted in so many aspects of my life in order to avoid the disapproval. I've let some of it go, but I still feel guilty when I think of the few things in my childhood and teenage years that I did wrong. I feel shame when I think of my young adulthood, when things out of my control had the potential of yielding disapproval if I didn't hide them.

    It's all so effing exhausting and demoralizing and even dehumanizing, but it's kind of how I am. I just have to learn how best to live with it until it goes away on its own, if it goes away on its own. I just...push through it and try to ignore the twisting feeling in my stomach, do what I have to.

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    1. Hello, Aurelia,

      It *is* exhausting. It drains emotional energy that could be devoted to more productive and more enjoyable activities. But we're so brainwashed that we start to suspect our own goodness if we *don't* feel guilty. Feeling guilty becomes a substitute for actually doing what we think we should be doing.

      We're supposed to care about how bad we are. I believe we need to celebrate how GOOD we are.

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  9. Hi Lisabet!

    Happy Thanksgiving!. As I'm writing the house is still asleep and I now have the time to digest what I try to read.

    As others have said this is a thought provoking post and topic. I was especially thinking about Fiona's experience as she described it and yours, both starting out as these kind of buttoned down achievers and then turning into these wild, insatiable nymphs as soon as you got out of the house on your own, letting your "monstrous desires" run free (Goddamn, where WERE these girls when I was a kid??). When I think of your anxiety as a girl I wonder if this still plays in with your experience as a writer, maybe a desire to please, a fear of failure, which I think is a necessary element for an intelligent person to accomplish things, but can also block you when you sit down to expose yourself on the written page which when done properly is an act of intimacy.

    Garce

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    1. Hi, Garce,

      It took me quite a while to turn into a wild, insatiable nymph LOL.

      I've mostly let go of the guilt around writing, I think. I just have to accept what I can find time and energy to do, and not fret. Because guilt can KEEP me from writing.

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