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Tips on Avoiding Guilt Trips That Take False Turns : Orange County psychologist Ty Colbert, with a new book on the subject, provides some useful guideposts.

July 27, 1993|SHERRY ANGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Your mother calls and invites you to a family dinner she's arranging to welcome a visiting aunt. The timing is bad for you and this is not someone you're longing to see, so you say no. Then mom pushes--"I was counting on you being there!"--and your stomach knots up. The feeling that you've done something wrong lingers long after you hang up the phone.

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You're sitting at a traffic light and the person behind you honks when you fail to react the instant the light turns green. Instead of getting irritated at the other driver, you chide yourself for not being more alert--and quickly change lanes to avoid the stranger whose impatience has left you feeling inept.

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You arrive at the office late and get a steely look from your boss, who also came in late and had expected (but hadn't asked) you to get things started in his or her absence. Even though you have a legitimate excuse for being delayed, you avoid eye contact with your boss the rest of the day and try to make amends by working overtime.

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Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios? If so, you're among those for whom Orange psychologist Ty Colbert wrote his recently published book, "Why Do I Feel Guilty When I've Done Nothing Wrong?" (Thomas Nelson Inc., $8.99).

Colbert said that question had been coming up so often in his sessions with clients--particularly those still suffering from childhood traumas--that he decided to write a book to help them liberate themselves from unnecessary guilt and the sense of shame or low self-worth that often accompanies it.

Although the book is mostly psychological, it includes a section written from a Christian perspective that focuses on how guilt-ridden people can find spiritual relief.

During a recent interview, Colbert said his book reflects his desire to "help people quit beating up on themselves and quit letting others beat up on them."

He gets that message across by making a distinction between "true guilt," a healthy emotion that drives us to make amends when we intentionally do something hurtful, and "false guilt," which causes us to take responsibility for--and feel badly about--things over which we have no control.

It's true guilt that prompts us to apologize when we lose our temper with a family member because we've had a hard day at the office, false guilt that causes us to try to appease a raging loved one who is totally out of line.

True guilt disappears as soon as we admit wrongdoing, ask for forgiveness and take whatever action is necessary to set things straight. But false guilt lingers, acting as a shield against pain.

"False guilt is a self-defense mechanism that kicks in when people experience too much emotional pain," Colbert said.

For children dealing with divorce, for example, the question, "What did I do that made Mommy and Daddy fight?" provides protection from an overwhelming sense of loss and powerlessness.

This false guilt gives children a desperately needed feeling of control. They think: "If I can find out what is wrong with me and correct it, then my mommy and daddy won't divorce."

Adults are just as likely as children to try to avoid pain by asking, "Where did I go wrong?" when they have no reason to feel guilty, Colbert added. For some, self-blame is a lifelong habit resulting from an upbringing that fostered what Colbert calls "destructive shame."

While "constructive shame"--our intrinsic sense of morality or conscience--is a valuable, gut-level feeling that, like true guilt, vanishes once it has served its purpose, destructive shame is persistent and debilitating. It robs people of their ability to experience joy and inner peace.

People who have a lot of destructive shame are likely to be victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, which "tears at the deepest and most vulnerable parts of a person's innocence," Colbert said. They end up feeling unworthy and unlovable and tend to lose touch with themselves as they struggle to gain self-esteem by winning the approval of others. They often have a need to be punished that can lead them into unhealthy relationships and self-destructive or addictive behavior.

Colbert points out that, for people with destructive shame, healing comes through non-violating relationships. "We're powerless to heal shame on our own. We need love and affirmation from others. Someone has taken away our ability to love ourselves, and we need someone else to help us get it back." That "someone" might be a friend, a co-worker, a therapist, a spouse--anyone who can help us find and appreciate our true selves, Colbert added.

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According to 35-year-old Lisa, a former client of Colbert's who asked that her real name not be used, just understanding the differences between true and false guilt and constructive and destructive shame is a big step toward emotional health. She said Colbert's book has helped her see how she has been hindered by guilt and shame as a result of growing up with an alcoholic father.

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