How Guilt Harms Us

A middle-aged man feeling saddled with the responsibility of taking care of his mother in her later years as Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia continue to tighten their grip on her has made plans to take her to the doctor at the beginning of the following week. This Friday has been a better day for both of them, she being seemingly very healthy other than what he thinks are anxiety attacks, and being able to settle her usual paranoia he looks forward to her progress with anticipation of what the next week will bring; his positive attitude a rarity in what feels like an imprisonment to him, trying to let someone live their last years as independently as possible.

Very early the following morning he hears her calling for help and goes to her aid. She stands against a counter in the bedroom, her body shaking. He presumes an anxiety attack, but is a little annoyed, and a little mean, as he has dealt with her false alarms many times; however, her pleading for help and actually crying and scared calms him, and he tells her that things are going to be okay and that she needs to calm down and slow her breathing.

He gets her to lie down in bed and she rolls onto her side. He stands there with his hand upon her shoulder as he tells her to slow her breathing, and she does. He sees her breathing more slowly…and then just as suddenly stop breathing.

Resuscitation, pleading, carrying her ragdoll limp body around the room begging her to breath; the actions of a desperate man trying to save his mother, and yet the severity of the situation has not sunk in as he remains relatively calm, in denial, even as the ambulance pulls away taking her to the hospital.

The severity of the situation has not registered until he arrives at the hospital shortly after the ambulance got there, and a doctor asks him to step into a room with him. His body feels a sudden weight upon it as emotion breaks through the shock of denial. He is offered the choice of leaving and the funeral home will pick her up, or he can stay with her until they arrive. He chooses to stay as he walks down a hallway to a room where she lies on her back, a sheet pulled up to her shoulders like a bedsheet, spying the grimaced frown on her face, all too often her look since the disease, as the door closes behind him leaving him to sit beside her…and breakdown into tears.

It’s interesting that guilt is in some ways like a sensationalist news program which only focuses on the negative and ignores anything else. This is the property of stress and guilt: it consists entirely of the negative.

But just how dangerous are negative emotions, negative memories?

In the above example, which is a true story, shortly after her death, the man becomes impotent.

How can guilt make someone impotent?

Well, if we take impotence as a separate issue, the number one cause of impotence is stress, but in the case of stress, it not necessarily chronic; meaning that it happens occasionally but is not a permanent condition.

Guilt is a feeling of responsibility for something bad, and though people may feel that guilt is something that just simply requires someone being forgiven of forgiving themselves, it can go deeper than that as the people most likely to remember the bad things and to blame us are simply ourselves, not others. As a result, guilt buries itself deep into our subconscious minds, working at an unconscious level.

When guilt is present, what we usually associate with it is a resolution, of making up for the wrong, and there are extreme ways we can make up for a wrong, perceived or real, many of which can be harmful to us.

One potential reason for this is that guilt is a lingering catalyst for stress. In the above case of impotence being a result of guilt, the guilt causes stress, but on an unconscious level, yet the physiological effects are the same whether there is an awareness of the stress or not.

Another potential reason deals with an even deeper level: the primordial self. All animals at one point in their fetal development share the same stage where the fetuses are identical. There is a belief among some, myself included, that all species share a genetic code, a set of instructions which defines the purpose of any species; the procreation, the advancement and reproduction of the species.

Feeling the guilt of someone’s death, and having been brought up, the seeds planted, to believe in things like an eye for an eye and like for like, the resolution for being responsible for someone’s death is one’s own death, and being that the primordial self associates the ability to reproduce with life, taking that away effectively renders one dead at the primordial level.

These have just been suggestions as to why something like this might happen. The reason as to why, however, is not as important as simply realizing that guilt can have very real and devastating affects.

Dealing with guilt is not easy. Religion for many offers a resolution for guilt, where there is a higher authority capable of forgiving anything, having the authority to forgive and speaking to such an authority through prayer or through a mediary such as a priest and even having a penance which satisfies the resolution of responsibility.

For many, religion works for forgiveness, but for others it does not, yet it does provide a key in finding forgiveness in oneself; that is to find authority for forgiveness.

Some programs such as the 12 step program uses the simple technique of asking for forgiveness from anyone we have wronged. In order for that to work, however, there must be someone wronged and they must still be alive; though in such programs, and to many of us, a relative or close friend of someone wronged can substitute as an authority figure to give forgiveness.

The most important authority that can forgive is simply us. This is difficult as we have not been trained this way; we don’t easily forgive ourselves.

Overcoming this inability to forgive is not easy. a technique of repetition of positive affirmations can be used to essentially reprogram ourselves to allow us to forgive ourselves.

Repetitive positive affirmations are essentially repeating over and over to ourselves something along the lines of “I have the right to forgive myself, I authorize my own forgiveness, I am free of this.”

Naturally positive affirmations often need to customized to the situation and the above is a very generic example.

Another form of positive affirmation is something that was used in school for many of us for the very reason that it affirms a lesson to us through repetition, though used as a punishment for bad behavior, is repetitive writing. Writing something repeatedly is a powerful tool as it works at many levels including visual, audible (the majority of us speak when we read or write whether we realize it or not), tactile sensory (hand motion and touch), and linguistic.

The writing affirmation is worded like the voiced affirmation, just written down repeatedly. Though some may consider this something for children, the reason it is used is because it is a very powerful tool to instill lessons in children on an unconscious level; they don’t think they learned anything from it, but they did.

Visualization can also be a powerful tool. It is used in situations where there is a specific person or appropriate authority figure and is essentially visualizing the person forgiving us.

What I have presented are a variety of tools one can use to deal with guilt. The intent of this article, though, has not been so much presenting a plan for forgiving oneself, but to point out how harmful guilt can be. Guilt can cause physical harm, such as the case of impotence, and even harmful behavior such as someone seeking out bad relationships or people who can harm them, on an unconscious level, as a way to punish themselves for some perceived wrong whether it is real or not.

Learning to recognize guilt in us and connect it with the detrimental affects it has on us is something which can preserve our health, emotional state, relationships, and so many other things that are part of our lives.

And being able to forgive others is certainly not overrated either.

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