Tag Archives: codependence

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.