Someone a lot smarter than me once observed that “guilt is a rope that wears thin.”
She was referring to guilt as a means of control. As you may have noticed, there is a large subset of people who often make effortful attempts to control other people through guilt.
“You SHOULD do this.”
“If you were a decent person, you WOULD do this.”
“What’s wrong with you that you’re wither UNWILLING or UNABLE to do this?”
Guilt is often brandished as a weapon of behavioral control for one main reason: it very frequently works.
We WANT to be good people.
We WANT to be seen by others as good people. To be KNOWN as good people.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting the approval of others, moral and otherwise. I prefer it when other people think I’m a good person, and it bothers me when people question whether I’m a good person.
We are all susceptible to manipulation via guilt. It’s a very human vulnerability.
But what happens when we become a psychological slave to guilt?
What happens when we become so susceptible to manipulation via guilt, that our guilt becomes an overwhelming emotion that flattens us most of the day, every day?
When we allow our lives and behavior to be controlled by guilt, as opposed to simply influenced by it, we begin to lose ourselves. Our self-esteem begins to crumble under the weight of judgments and demands that we didn’t choose.
How can we keep guilt from stealing our emotional lives?
There’s only one real way: by developing and reinforcing a moral code and ethical compass of our own, and learning to rely on it…even at the risk of disappointing (or even angering) others.
What does it mean to develop our own moral code?
It means thinking, deeply, about issues of right and wrong…from our own point of view.
We can take into consideration the moral codes advocated by our religion or spiritual path. We can take into consideration cultural norms and values. We can take into consideration things we were taught and experiences we had as we grew up.
But in the end, our moral code needs to be ours. It needs to be carefully thought through and chosen freely by us.
This is harder than it might sound.
We’re strongly conditioned to take on other peoples’ ideas of “goodness” and “morality.” (It’s this conditioning, actually, that holds society together— if humans didn’t experience at least a certain amount of this pressure, agreeing to things like common laws would be terribly problematic at best.)
I’m not at all saying your moral code needs to be significantly different than the morality of the people around you, or society at large.
I AM saying that, whatever your moral code and ethical compass end up entailing…they have to be thoughtfully considered and purposefully, consciously accepted by you.
It is in this conscious, purposeful thinking through and acceptance of a moral code that you can free yourself from the emotional slavery of guilt-driven manipulation.
Why? Because when you’ve thoughtfully, intentionally developed and accepted your own moral code, others’ attempts to guilt you for not accepting theirs fall on deaf ears. When others try to manipulate you, your legitimate response will be: “Thank you for your input, but I’ve already thought this issue through, and I am confident in my thoughts and feelings on the subject.”
Understand: it will still be hard, at times, to bear the disappointment of other people.
Other people, as a rule, don’t really like it when we develop the tools to not fall for their tactics of manipulation.
Be prepared for their scorn.
But also be open to the idea that by developing a clear, firm, stable sense of who you are and what you believe, you will be less and less impacted by their scorn.
Guilt is a rope that does indeed wear thin.
And as it turns out, you have the tools to snip it.