more on guilt and responsibility

i’d like to thank alex for his reply to my last post about guilt and for initiating an interesting discussion.

alex asks, “why she has to feel sad or bad if joe forgets their wedding anniversary? she has to be confident and sure enough to know that he cares about their marriage even if he has a loss of memory or whatever.”

here are my thoughts on this.

of course this was just an example.

i don’t think she “has to” anything. but feeling hurt when a husband forgets an anniversary is pretty common and understandable (at least here in north america – to some degree this is a cultural thing).

now if they have both agreed that remembering such dates are not important, it would be a different situation.

alex also says, “guilt is more related to self-image and illusions regarding that than to actual facts or acts related to others. is the intention that counts. if you had no intentions of hurting someone but someone does, that does not necessarily imply that you commit a wrongdoing.”

i think the word “necessarily” is important here.

guilt can be related to self-image and illusions but it doesn’t have to. again, it’s useful to separate out responsibility for from the feelings about a particular event.

if jill causes an accident while driving a car, her intentions may be very good but she might still hurt someone. that’s her responsibility, and ideally her actions following that will be driven by compassion and a resolve to repair the harm she has caused.

however, if she lays awake at night for the next two weeks beating herself up over what has happened (i.e. “feels guilty”), nobody is served except that perhaps the desire to avoid feeling like this will cause her to drive more carefully.

alex then points out, “what if the other person is too susceptible and has low self esteem? do you have to charge with that on your back so that person feels better? i don’t see that as a way of helping others to grow emotionally.”

i talked a bit about that in a previous series of posts (“you made me do it“). again, it helps to separate things out – this time, what your feelings and actions are and what the other person’s feelings and actions are.

you may or may not have a lot of impact on what another person feels and does but you have zero control over it. the only person you have any semblance of control over is yourself.

that means that

a) you are proportionately responsible for your actions’ impact on others. every action has consequences. how these consequences play out is out of your hands. but you need to be aware of and prepared for the fact that there will be consequences.
b) you are wholly responsible for how your actions impact on yourself.
c) you are wholly responsible for your own feelings.

thus, to come back to joe who forgot the wedding anniversary (an event that we’ll assume he and his wife agreed would be important in their relationship), he is proportionately responsible for the impact this has on his wife. how she reacts to that is up to her. but he can’t say, “what, you’re upset? that’s not my problem.”

what that proportion looks like depends in part on their relationship. if, say, she is grumpy for an evening, that’s something that he might want to help alleviate. if she can’t stop talking about it for the next month, then that’s clearly out of proportion, and there is no reason for him to feel responsible for such obsessive behaviour. (although if she does act like that, i would wonder what else is or isn’t going on in that relationship!)

as i discussed in another post, as children, we are dependent, as teenagers we discover independence and as adults, we need to negotiate interdependence. anything we do and say has consequences, has impact, and it falls on us to figure out which part of the consequences we are responsible for. but spending lots of time feeling guilty probably won’t help much.

10 thoughts on “more on guilt and responsibility

  1. Nancy

    sometimes I think in our culture we actually under-rate guilt! It serves a purpose – at its best, it will motivate us to examine how we live our lives in relation to others. Unless we are completely anti-social, we will want to be in tune with how we fit in with the wider world of others. And as we evolve, I hope we increasingly live out ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’.
    One of the most truth-telling movies in this regard is ‘Magnolia’. Bit by bit, it demonstrates how our actions can play out over the long term. If some of the characters had felt a measure of guilt, listened to it, and done what they could to mitigate the impact of their actions, a number of lives would be in better shape. A similar movie is ‘Crash’. While some heros like Frankl (?) manage to transcend the impact others had on him, every day I see people in my downtown eastside ‘hood who haven’t. If only some people in their lives (and dare i say, some politicians?) felt a bit of guilt, we might be enjoying people becoming healthy and offering their gifts to the world instead of … well… hanging out on Main & Hastings.

  2. therapydoc

    Interesting discussion. For me this is really about intimacy and whether or not a couple is avoiding that (fighting, not letting an issue go) or is working towards resolution and emotional/physical closeness.

    Guilting someone is off-putting. It’s not something you do if you want to be close to that person because guilt feels bad. There are better ways to resolve hurt feelings.

    Although I’m fond of saying that guilt is the Great Motivator, I’m talking about ego-systonic guilt, guilt that feels right to an individual, that motivates him or her to change.

  3. ruth

    really, quite interesting comments on guilt. Having grown up in a culture which uses guilt as a motivating force, my kids have taught me a lot about guilt, while my mother could motivate me through guilt, I cannot motivate my children that way. They, better than I know clearly, that they are not responsible for my feelings. It has taken a very long time for me to realize that guilt and love are not the same things and people show their caring in many different ways, not always the way we want them to, including not remembering dates and events which are important to us. I agree that it is the “intent” of an action which clearly defines how feeling guilty is brought into perspective. Good topic for discussion.

  4. isabella mori

    words are fascinating! when i was writing this, i didn’t even cover “guilting” or trying to motivate another through guilt but there are at least two commenters here who think of that when they hear the word “guilt”.

    i agree with you, therapydoc. “off-putting” is a mild term for guilting someone!

    btw, when i started writing about this, the question was exactly about whether guilt is REALLY a good motivator. and that IS a cultural thing, at least to some degree. i think here in north america, unless we are tied in very closely to certain religious groups, guilt may not be such a great motivator. maybe it feels like one, but when all is said and done, does it generate more action than inaction?

    fodder for yet another blog post, perhaps …

    and nancy, those examples are great. do you think that where you use the concept of guilt, the concept of responsibility could have done the same trick?

  5. marian

    another fascinating discussion! (i should come here more often!!)
    i am all for examining and setting things right. this requires something i advocate at every turn: communication.
    is it just me or does everyone get so balled up in the daily grind that anniversaries, birthdays and other celebratory occasions take on a ghostly existence?
    again, communication is where it all begins: if everyone knows what the expectations are (i have met couples who do not give anniversay,birthday and/or christmas gifts/acknowledgements to each other – ever – and of course there are others who ‘do it all’) then there is certainly an agreement in place.
    many of our laws, mores, etc. spring from these agreements.
    and that is all i have to say on the today i am about as philosphical as the lunch i just finished eating!
    but thank you for for the brain exercise and carry on the good communications, folks!!
    marian in calgary

  6. wayne

    I don’t know if I am ready to respond to this or not but I seem to be typing. My spiritual exercises have led me into thinking about sin, something I apparently don’t reflect upon much. There is a clear connection here but it is foggy. I don’t think I believe in a God that wants us to feel guilty, but hopes we choose the gift of passion to love. Many past behaviors have been floating up as I pray these weeks. There is shame and regret, and there is amazement at having survived some dark moments of addiction and trauma. Gratitude to those who helped me survive and recover and heal.

  7. Nancy

    Isabella – interesting question re: guilt/responsibility (in reply to my first comment). I guess I haven’t had much experience with ‘being guilted’ so I’m not so uncomfortable with ‘guilt’ AND absolutely, understand it as an internal sense of culpability, not something forced upon me. I guess, to me, ‘guilt’ is simply shorthand for ‘responsible for the impact my actions have if they impact others injuriously.’ (and even that is a bit awkward and leaves out the agency of the other for their response.)

  8. isabella mori

    thanks, marian, for pointing out the importance of agreements once again. so – is it useful to feel guilty when one has not fulfilled one’s part in an agreement?

    the connection with sin is interesting, as well. of course sin has even heavier connotations than guilt but it is such an all-pervading concept in our culture, it cannot be dismissed. it also makes me wonder what the concept of sin is in other religions.

    i don’t know of it in buddhism. for example (but i’m not a buddhist scholar so that may not mean very much).

    the connection between guilt and regret is interesting, as well. regret seems – lighter, more sober than shame.

    thank you very much for your definition of guilt, nancy. i hope you’ll allow me to use it … there is more in the works on this topic!

  9. Brokenline

    I don’t think I feel guilty about things. I think my modivator is honor. I know that may sound a little odd but if I forget to do something or hurt some ones feelings I don’t feel bad about it after. Now you may ask why everyone dosent hate me its because i consider it a matter of duty to keep apointmant make sure i dont hurt people feelings and so on. (typed in 1/2 a minit)

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