Saturday, March 8, 2008

Guilt - helping you get what you want

Photo by Ayala Moriel (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 4th March 2008:

A couple of days after Christmas a few years ago I was away, along with my family, staying with relatives. I had arranged to return to Dublin on my own a few days before the others. When the day of my departure arrived, I found myself filled with guilt although nobody had raised any issue at all about what I was planning to do.

What was going on? I think I had two contradictory ideas in my mind. The first was that I wanted to get back to Dublin by myself, a wish which possesses many people at that time of year. The other was that proper parents don't abandon their families in the Midlands at Christmas.

One way to resolve this would have been to stay with them. But I came up with a better way, one that allowed me to do what I wanted while preserving my self-image as a good parent. That way was to go back to Dublin as I wanted but to feel guilty about it.

Only a cad would run off to Dublin without a thought for what he was doing. A good parent, on the other hand, would feel guilty about it. So by feeling guilty I could do what I wanted and still be a good guy. Guilt, bless it, oiled the wheels.

William Glasser, who invented Reality Therapy, and who takes as jaundiced an attitude towards guilt as I do myself, has suggested that when a person feels guilt about what they have done they are probably planning to do it again. Recognise that, dear reader?

Now, there's guilt and there's guilt. Sometimes you do a thing that's just plain wrong and guilt, accompanied by what the Catholic Church used to call "a firm purpose of amendment" is very much in order. What that adds up to is remorse which, it seems to me, is a powerful agent for change if you let yourself experience it when it's deserved.

Outside that, though, guilt is a tricky thing. Ever see a parent say to a child, "Alright, go on, do what you like, I give up"? The child protests and the parent says "No, no, do what you like, it's nothing to do with me anymore." What the parent is really saying to the child is "You can do what you like so long as you feel guilty about it."

So you end up with spouses who feel awfully guilty about having affairs and are thereby enabled to have more of them; with overweight people who will, simultaneously, have another slice of chocolate cake and feel a delicious surge of guilt and with sluggards who wrap themselves up in guilt and warmth as they abandon a morning's work in favour of another few hours in bed.

Irish Catholics used to be the world's great connoisseurs of guilt. A trip to the confessional got rid of your guilt and sent you out into the world squeaky clean. And when you sinned again you went back and got cleaned up again. You just had to make sure you didn't unexpectely depart this world before getting back to confession - otherwise you could expect a few thousand years in the flames of purgatory or an eternity in hell.

Now, so far as I can make out, guilt is frowned on in the teaching of religion in our schools, hellfire isn't talked about and purgatory is abolished. Everything is nice and there is no wicked Devil to tempt us into guilty deeds.

This is a mistake. We need guilt, for the worst of reasons of course. Guilt allows us to go on pretending that we're better then we really are while continuing to do whatever we want to do anyway. It allows us to get away with things by convincing others that we feel really, really guilty about whatever it is we've done.

Mind you, we have an alternative which is to be honest and open and to quit playing games with ourselves and with others.

Personally, though, I don't see myself going down that path anytime soon.

Now there's something to feel guilty about.

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