I have Guilt on the brain.

Suddenly I see guilt, and all our unproductive damaging defenses against it, absolutely everywhere. I am surrounded.

Even, and perhaps especially in our collective denial, hopelessness and paralyzed impotence in the face of ongoing human oppression and ecological destruction

Healthy guilt, obsessive guilt, pathological guilt – guilt repressed. Guilt projected on to others, guilt internalized and disproportionate. Guilt dressed up and hidden in every kind of costume and disguise.

Guilt disavowed.

Not shame. Shame can destroy in its own ways, no doubt. Yet shame is an illusion, a falsehood that insinuates there is something inherently wrong with who you are at your core, something grotesque or reject-able, contemptible or unloveable, lurking in your True Self. Shame is a lie that others convinced you of.

Guilt is the cold hard truth.

Emotional, psychological guilt (as distinct from to legal/moral guilt) is the healthy and accurate feeling that we experience when we come understand that we have engaged in destructive behavior. That we have caused another harm. That we have benefited from another’s loss. Guilt is the responsibility we take for the unintended consequences of our actions.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions of course. Good intentions cannot not spare you from responsibility for the destructive outcome of your actions.

Guilt, if you can feel it, is a good and healthy thing: It means you give a shit.

It means you love or care for something – or have a basic rudimentary sense of empathy and personal responsibility -and you feel remorse for the pain you have inflicted down the causal chain – whether you meant to or not, whether you knew what you were doing or not.

If you can withstand it, through its hot burn and sharp sting, it will become rich fertilizer for more expansive empathy.

But so many seem to have forgotten, if they ever learned, how to find their way through the processes and stages of guilt, if it ever even rises to the level of consciousness at all.

And most fight it off with everything they’ve got.

We get stuck:

In primitive denial and repression:
“I did NOTHING wrong! I have nothing to be sorry for!”

In defensive overstatement:
“Oh, I suppose this is all MY fault.”

In obsessive, over-compensated un-doing.
“I’ll replace it! I can fix it as good as new! I promise I will NEVER do it again!”

In imploding, self-negating, undeserving, hopeless and/or defensive internalization:
“You are right. I’m a total fuck-up. I’m stupid and selfish and worthless. I can’t ever do anything right. What is the point of doing anything”

In paranoid reversals:
“Stop TRYING to make me feel guilty!”

And sometimes all of the above.

At first dawning: Guilt is great and terrible and terrifying. Annihilating.

The weight of deep remorse, when you first take it on to your shoulders can make you regret being born. It takes extraordinary fortitude, and self-compassion to bear it.

And there is a great deal of destructive behavior to feel crushing guilt about – intentional or not – that each of us indulge in individually, generate accidentally, or participate in collectively, culturally, and nationally:

Greed, aggression, inequity, privilege, economic violence, disproportionate consumption, institutional racism, the xenophobic and objectifying oppression of human beings in all its forms.

And the contamination, exploitation, disruption, extinction and depletion of the planetary climate, air, water, food, plants, animals and destruction of our own human habitat.

Guilt, initially, is an almost unbearable crisis.

Melanie Klein describes the child’s very first experience of guilt as one of utter despair.

Using breast-feeding as a metaphor: she describes the infant as suckling without remorse or empathy on an archetypal, omnipotent persecutory Bad Breast. A breast that withholds, dries up, over- or under-produces, hides itself, and controls the entire feeding experience. The infant attacks, bites, gums, hits, hates, devours, demands, and releases its frustrations into it, with no guilt, whatsoever.

Or as Winnicott might say: Ruthlessly.

Klein calls this the Paranoid Position.

Yet, at some point, according to Klein, the child wakes up – realizing that this breast is finite, and perhaps even connected to a finite human being, a human being that soothes and cuddles, loves and tickles. Biting, attacking, devouring demanding have new implications – they can cause harm, perhaps in the child’s mind significant harm to the beloved parent.

This is a shocking, terrifying crisis. Remorse, grief, anxiety, despair are activated and intolerable.

We feel that we have suddenly become all bad. And the object of our empathy: all good.

This is Klien’s Depressive Position, and the emergence of what Winnicott calls: “Ruth”

The extraordinary pain of first guilt, of the crisis of the Depressive Position is so overwhelming, that the child turns tail and retreats back to the relative comfort of the Paranoid one.

Both these theorists would say that the infant, the child, the adolescent, and the adult will spend the rest of their lives moving forward into the depressive position, becoming overwhelmed, and collapsing back into the paranoid position.

And that we will toggle back and forth, working these through with every relationship we encounter.

The greater our awareness of these processes and the more consciously they are faced – the more quickly and successfully we can move through these cycles.

The more compassion we can have for ourselves and for others.

To quote one of my favorite bodhisattvas:

Sometimes people are good. And they do just what they should.
But the very same people who are good, sometimes,
are the very same people who are bad, sometimes.
Its funny but its true…..

(~ Fred Rogers, from The Mr. Rogers Songbook)

And if bravely, consciously faced, healthy guilt will deepen our capacity for empathy, responsibility, and mature concern.

But how?

How do we get out of the terrible cycle of paranoia and depression, of painful advance and frightened retreat, of self-loathing remorse and defensiveness?

There is a way.

Reparation must be offered and accepted.

Winnicott says, somewhere in The Maturational Processes and The Facilitating Environment that the reparative gesture must never be rejected. If the therapist, or the parent, or the loved one that we perceive we have harmed (or merely wished to use ruthlessly), actually rejects our little gift, our silly Hallmark card, or the cookie we offer as a token gesture of remorse – they will deprive us of the symbolic act that allows us to begin to bear the weight of responsibility for our destructive energies.

Rejection of reparative gestures sentences us to return to the state of persecution and defense. And the cycle begins again.

Reparative gestures are the behaviors which transform fresh overwhelming guilt into mature concern.

As guilt, made conscious, begins to mature into Winnicottian Concern and attuned responsibility, symbolically reparative acts repair our ability to emotionally withstand, have empathy for, and accept responsibility to those who have experienced harm or sustained losses that have resulted in our gain.

Reparative gestures do not actually repair what has been harmed, lost, destroyed, or disrupted for the Other.

The attempt at “repair” is only symbolic, not literal.

The symbolic nature of reparation rests upon the awareness that the guilty one cannot literally give back, repair, or undo what was lost or broken. the symbol expresses our concern about the destructive effect we have had and signals our acceptance of the injured, angry, reactive consequences that proceed from our actions.

And quite often, deep listening to the injured party, and withstanding the intense, guilty discomfort that is activated within us, is the deepest reparative act of all.

In my office this very frequently looks like this:

I am running five minutes late, and a client in crisis sits and waits – feeling increasingly angry, abandoned, and forgotten.

When they enter, they let me know the effect I have had. They are angry, hurt, the pain they came in with must be set aside, because now they must process feeling upset with me in its place.

I can and do offer up the compensatory 5 minutes at the end of the session, but that is merely for equity’s sake, and I have no expectation that it will or should undo what has already occurred.

I could “promise” that it won’t happen again – but, frankly, it might, and similarly it won’t undo or give back the five minutes that they needed me and I was not there.

I could subtly defend my intentions, my work load, remind the client of all the times they have been late or that I gave them extra time – and try to make them feel remorseful for having activated my sense of guilt.

I could aggress and become defensively enraged myself, call them ungrateful and go on the attack, creating an effective diversion from my own culpability.

I could collapse in shame and self-loathing, become so flooded with guilt that I caused harm and discomfort to a client, that I require the client to reassure me about all the ways that I am a wonderful therapist.

Or I could offer reparation: I could ask them to tell me everything they are feeling, I could have empathy for the state that I left them in, I can struggle with my remorse, and let them know that my remorse exists, but is secondary to my caring and my concern for their feeling, and take responsibility the effect that my actions, intentional or not, have had on them.

Reparative gestures repair the relationship itself, not the injury – and help the guilt-ridden to stay in open, active empathic relationship to those who activate our guilt-sense without resorting to defense, denial or collapse.

Sincere apology is a reparative gesture for an act that generates injury and offense. Listening is another. Committing to self-reflection and scrutiny of your own motives is yet another.

And one of the deepest reparative gestures is allowing yourself to be changed, learning about oneself,
contending with what we do not know and may not like about ourselves for the sake of those we have offended.

Such gestures move us from ruthlessness, beyond the crushing regret of ruth, toward the mature Capacity for Concern, the empathic, responsible relationship to our communities, to all those who have harmed.

And may it save our own sorry ruthless souls as well.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford