By Susan Reid
I read somewhere that the difference in a relationship that is healthy and one that is not is the difference between attachment and love. Attachment “takes hostages”. Much has been written since I was in graduate school about attachment theory, which suggests that the quality of the bond between an infant and his/her parents or early caregiver affects relationships later in life. Hostage-taking is very different.
We can be taken hostage by others skilled in the mechanisms of guilt when they avoid feeling it by sloughing it off onto us.
We’ve all experienced guilt and shame so we’re easy targets for each other. The trick is to recognize it, name it, and put it where it belongs. If we have done something to offend or neglect or otherwise harm or hurt another, guilt is an appropriate emotion and useful enough to goad us into stopping bad behavior and making amends. If we can’t stop it, that is the time to seek help. But, that’s it. That is guilt’s usefulness. After that, forgiveness is the appropriate goal. This is something I have found to be very difficult for most people. In fact, after 30 years in practice I would say the difficulty of self-forgiveness is the single most common theme that comes out in therapy. We are sometimes so confused about this process that we mistake it for condoning. So let’s clear this up.
A person who feels no guilt and condones all his/her behavior is a sociopath.
A person who has acquired the skill of self-forgiveness is called compassionate.
A person who doesn’t condone his/her bad behavior is called responsible.
Early in my career I thought that therapy with my clients should push for self-forgiveness. I left out guilt. There seemed to be so much of that toxic emotion, I wanted to help people get rid of it. But a friend who is also a gifted writer and therapist caught me and caught herself in the act of trying to get to Easter Sunday without experiencing Good Friday. NO – we don’t have to be crucified for our mistakes. We do have to acknowledge them, forgive them, and move on. We have to acknowledge to ourselves when we have screwed up, the easy part for most of us. But the merciful, compassionate, healthy piece is the forgiving. So try this (borrowed from AA), “act as if” you are self-forgiving. What would be different if you were? How real is the danger you would condone your poor behavior? Is that really a risk?
When we have nearly mastered the skill of self-forgiveness, which we never do completely, we are in a better place to recognize the manipulation of others who unfairly and unwisely spread their guilt onto us.
© Susan Reid and Atlanta Counseling Center, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Reid and Atlanta Counseling Center with appropriate and specific direction to the original content