For the person who has learned to let go and let be, nothing can ever get in the way again. (Meister Eckhart)
Assertiveness is the personal power to:
- Be clear about your feelings, choices, and agenda
- Ask for what you want
- Take responsibility for your feelings and behaviour
In each of these principles we see how movement can happen from old habits to new repertories of action. We notice the atavistic ineffective behaviours and leave them behind for creative adult responsibility.
Early in life, you may have learned that it is not legitimate to:
- Show your real feelings
- Give and receive openly
- Ask for things directly
- Tell your opinions
- Take care of your own interests
- Say No to what you do not want
- Act as if you deserved abundance
These are injunctions against having power, and to the extent that we have internalized them, we have disabled ourselves and limited our adult capacities. Our journey to wholeness begins from just such a wounded place.
- At first you may believe yourself to be vain, cold, petty, impolite, selfish, or demanding when you act assertively. These disempowering judgments come from an inner critic (usually of early origin). Without attempting to refute or eradicate this voice, simply dub it over by acting as if your wants and needs were worthy. Behaviour changes attitudes. Gradually the inner critic is ignored into silence and self-esteem blooms.
- The practice of assertiveness means acting. Act as if you are already the healthiest person you can be. Do not wait until you feel better about yourself or until you believe you have what it takes. Act as if you are self-actualized and your beliefs will follow suit. Act while you fear rather than waiting until you feel unafraid.
“Acting as if” is a form of playfulness. Play successfully combines contrasts and opposites. When we act as if we are already more advanced than we imagine ourselves to be, we are creatively playing with an old, habitual self-image and welcoming a new self that wants to emerge. This new self is encouraged into existence by the image we are displaying when we “act as
- The art in assertiveness is to ask strongly for what you want and then to let go of it if the answer is No. You tread the fine line between consistent perseverance and the stubborn persistence that can feel to others like abuse. Passive people do not ask for what they want. Aggressive people demand (openly) or manipulate (secretly) to get what they want. Assertive people simply ask, without inhibition of themselves or pressure on others.
- Your assertiveness may be interpreted by others as aggression. If this happens: adjust your manner to a level that is less threatening; reassure people you love that you are simply asking for what you want, not demanding it; continually acknowledge others’ right to say No to you. Assertiveness is, after all, “power to” not “power over.”
- You do not hurt others’ feelings by assertiveness. “Hurt feelings” in others may mean:
- you are bullying them, i.e. being aggressive rather than assertive, or
- they are not open to interacting with an assertive person, or
- the assertiveness has triggered fear or sadness from their own past. “It is such a secret place, the land of tears” (The Little Prince).
- Check out your feelings, suspicions, or doubts with the people involved. Whenever possible, check out your decisions with a neutral friend before proceeding to an action. Do this not because you are inadequate, but because you acknowledge your human capacity to overlook something that may be important but only visible to an objective observer.
- It is crucial to remain focused in assertiveness and not to be distracted by argumentativeness. Assertiveness is not a strategy by which you get your way or win victories over others. It is a set of non-violent, non-competitive principles that manifest your values and integrity. The outcome is secondary. Authentic self-presentation is primary.
- You can respond to the negative impact of others’ behaviour toward you while still acknowledging their positive intention. Their intention does not excuse their behaviour. “I know you mean to help me, but I feel pushed and want to do this in my own time.”
- No one creates your feelings. No one is to blame for your situation. You are the author of your condition. Whatever you have been doing is what you are really choosing, whether or not you consciously want it. The alternative is to see yourself as a victim of people or circumstances and real change becomes impossible. Taking responsibility always leads to a revelation of what your next step needs to be.
- Since assertiveness means taking care of yourself, speaking up is not always appropriate. When the other person is out of control, violent, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the assertive person makes no attempt to talk sense or make a point. Simply getting away may be the most assertive and intelligent response.
- When you are suddenly threatened or confronted, especially unjustly, you may feel immobilized by fear. In such stress you are less capable of “thinking on your feet.” The assertive person asks for time out to collect himself before having to respond. Notice the paradox: (1) I admit fear and vulnerability as a real though temporary disability; (2) I insist on self-restorative time; (3) I act with access to my full power now that I am honouring my own timing.
- Trying without doing is wishing rather than choosing. You either have a plan in place or you are choosing not to act. “This being the case, how shall I proceed?” is a Zen saying that shows the automatic, assertive progression from circumstance to action.
- You can be informed by others’ behaviour rather than affected by it. You can observe the behaviour of others without having to react to it or to be controlled by it. You operate from your own repertory of responses that uphold you no matter what others do, say, or mean to you.
- You may ask people to understand, hear, and acknowledge your feelings, but you do not need their validation. Your feelings stand on their own merit, and every time you express them you validate yourself. At the same time, you validate others’ feelings when you are assertive. You show that you see the legitimacy of what they feel and you understand and care about them for what they feel. This validation is so much more self-empowering than self-defense in which you attempt to discount feelings to avoid facing them or from mistaken guilt about “causing” them.
- Assertiveness makes clarity valuable. As a result you will be quite satisfied after an encounter with someone if you have honestly presented yourself and your position. Your satisfaction will no longer depend upon whether the other person acknowledged you or agreed with you. You will no longer wish you had said more. You will have no need to correct people’s impressions of you by going back to say more. “I spoke in accord with the truth accessible to me at that moment and that is enough, even though I might have said it more effectively.”
- Assertiveness will feel fearsome and risky. Risk really means “not in control of the outcome.” When you are assertive, you stop trying to control circumstances or others’ behaviour. When you are attached to staying in control, you are betraying the part of yourself that is fearless.
I. Assertiveness: Owning Your Power
THE WAY OF THE HEALTHY EGO
1. Be Clear
- Say yes when you mean yes, no when you mean no, and maybe when you mean maybe. (Note that assertiveness means being clear, not necessarily sure.)
- Show your feelings, choices, and agenda openly.
- Check out your fantasies, doubts, fears, and intuitions with those whom they concern. “Why do we think the face has turned away that only looked elsewhere?” (Erik Erikson).
- Tell people it is not acceptable for them to judge, hurt, or blame you.
2. Ask for What You Want
- Clear messages from others.
- Acknowledgement of your feelings.
- Nurturance, appreciation, and constructive criticism.
3. Take Responsibility
- Accept others’ right to make assertions to you.
- Inquire of others about their feelings toward you.
- Acknowledge accountability for your feelings.
- Finish your emotional unfinished business directly with the people involved or in your own therapy.
- Admit your mistakes, oversights, and offences, and make amends.
II. Passivity: Giving Your Power Away
THE WAY OF THE FEARFUL EGO
- Refusing to express feelings, act, or decide because of what MIGHT happen to you.
- Making excuses for others’ hurtful behaviour and not dealing with them about it.
- Over-politeness: always putting others first or letting them take your turn or disturb you without your speaking up.
- Acting from a sense of obligation (a form of fear).
- Smoothing over situations so that the real feelings do not emerge (from yourself or others).
- Over-commitment: doing too much for too long for too little thanks, and when even more is asked of you, doing it dutifully.
- Not registering your recoil from biased remarks or jokes.
- Abandoning yourself by assessing abuse of you from the past or present as justified or “understandable.”
- Avoiding decisive action by coping with an unsatisfactory situation or relationship or hoping it might change. WHAT WE ARE NOT CHANGING, WE ARE CHOOSING.
III. Aggressiveness: Changing Power to Control
THE WAY OF THE BELLIGERENT EGO
- Attempting to control or manipulate others.
- Putting others down by name-calling, insults, or blame. This includes sarcasm, even among friends, or meant in jest.
- Rescuing others: doing for them what they can do for themselves. This victimizes and infantilizes them and gives you dominance over them.
- Emotional or physical violence.
- Competitiveness and attempts to prove people wrong,
- Acting spitefully or vengefully toward people who are rude or hurtful to you.
Basic Rights of the Assertive Person
- To ask for 100% of what you want from 100% of the people in your life, 100% of the time.
- To enjoy emotional and physical safety. No one has the right to hurt you, even if she loves you.
- To change your mind or to make mistakes.
- To decide when and whether or not you are responsible for (a) finding solutions to others’ problems or (b) taking care of their needs.
- To say No or Maybe without pressure to decide in accord with someone else’s timing.
- To be illogical in making decisions.
- To have secrets, to decide how much of yourself or your life you choose to reveal.
- To be free to explain your choices or not (includes not having to make excuses or give reasons when you say No).
- To be non-assertive when you sec that as appropriate.
- To maintain the same principles, skills, and rights of assertiveness with your partner, parents, children, or friends.
Assertiveness is affirming your own truth and receiving others’ truth:
- You ask for what you want and honour the response.
- You share what you feel and accept what others feel.
- You really are responsible, so you act that way and you ask the same from others.
- Practicing assertiveness leads to a realization that you have alternatives, no matter how confining your predicament may be.
- The experience of choice combined with support from others offers the best conditions for departure from the depressing sense of yourself as a victim. Instead, you get on with your life in a powerful, adult, and confident way.
Like one who lives in a valley and then crosses the mountains and sees the plain, he knows now from experience that the sign saying “Do not go beyond this point,” like the high mountains, does not signify a barrier. (Alice Miller)
FEAR: CHALLENGE TO ADULTHOOD I
The certainty that nothing can happen to us that does not in our innermost being belong to us is the foundation of fearlessness. (Govinda)
Fear is the feeling that arises in response to present danger. It is a No to what seems un-absorbable. Like all feelings, fear is based on a subjective belief that a certain stimulus poses a threat.
Appropriate fear leads to a flight or fight response which is activated and dealt with, and is followed by repose. This fear is necessary since it signals a danger we need to avoid or eliminate,
Neurotic fear engages the flight/fight pattern but never follows through on it. This can be simply good sense for smooth living in society or it can be a personal block and thus self-limiting.
Neurotic fear shows us what we have failed to integrate. For example, fear of the water vanishes by learning to swim. Swimming is, in effect, how water (subjective threat) is integrated. We have adapted to a former danger, befriended it, and become comfortable with it through skill and knowledge. We now approach the water with consciousness and competence, the components that signal integration. Moreover, we feel the excitement of the water and all the fun it offers. Less fear has led to more contact with our own liveliness.
Fear is the opposite of love because it is totally conditional. It keeps us out of the water; it excludes. Love is all-inclusive. To say that “love casts out fear” is to say that unconditional and conscious integration has triumphed over ignorance and inhibition.
Actually, every problem is something we are having trouble integrating. This tells us that fear is somewhere at the bottom of every obstacle we face. Locating the fear element helps us work through it with more consciousness.
Neurotic fear is unintegrated excitement. The energy in fear is simply blocked excitement that can be released by wholehearted, active engagement with the realities that threaten us. How this can be done is the final subject of this chapter.
Negative excitement is a stressful form of pain in which we fear and desire the same object at the same time. It is an addictive energy that usually stems from old emotional business that has been activated by the dramatic complications in our life story.
Negative excitement can keep us stuck for years in dysfunctional, abusive, or self-defeating circumstances. It sometimes feels like a sense of purpose since it sustains our ongoing drama. When the object of our negative excitement is gone, we may then feel depressed and even believe our life has lost meaning.
The best way to handle negative excitement is to treat it as an addiction and work a twelve step program of recovery, e.g. Co-dependents Anonymous.
Every fear and addiction is upheld and maintained by rationalizations, reasons used to prevent change. “I am afraid to reach out because I might be rejected.” This fear has no real object, only a possible one, but the given reason (rationalization) maintains a stalemate and the person remains afraid.
Here are three ways in which rationalizations maintain fear:
- The “reason” is meant to keep us in control by protecting us from surprises. This control backfires by vitiating our own resilience, a prerequisite for the integration of fear.
- The “reason” blockades access to adult solutions. We are so attached to a long-held belief that we lose perspective and mobility for change.
- The “reason” directly maintains the inertia of fear since we go on fearing what we refuse to confront.
The irony in all three of these is that what is meant to protect us from fear only protects the fear itself. Rationalization is the sentry that guards not us but the fear in us!
Fear of Other People
What is happening when certain people scare us?
1. We may be afraid of the uncontrollable feelings that a certain person evokes in us. If you fear someone you can trust with your feelings, admit your fear and its basis to him directly. “I’m afraid that you won’t approve of me and that I will feel hurt when I’m rejected.” You may paradoxically lighten the process by exaggerating: “I’m afraid that if you reject me, I’ll die!”
Making these admissions aloud every time you feel the fear shows its humorous dimension and its highly subjective origin. Gradually, the fear steps back in embarrassment!
If you fear someone you cannot trust, change your situation by leaving it or handling the fear within your own support system (friends, therapy, etc.). It takes courage to admit your limits and not damage yourself by staying in no-win stress and pain. Endurance of such humiliation erodes self-esteem and keeps you afraid.
2. The other person may be afraid and we are picking up on the fear she is projecting. She may, for instance, fear closeness and use an intimidating manner to safeguard distance. If you suspect that someone fears you but is not admitting it, dispel the secrecy by asking directly about the fear. “Are you afraid I might get too close? I do not want to do that. Let’s talk about the amount of closeness you want to receive and the amount I want to give.”
3. Specific people, through unconscious or conscious clues, elicit old parental or childhood terrors. This is especially true when we seem helpless or when we feel too afraid even to defend ourselves. Explore your fears to find their origin. If they are kindled by your early Life, do the grief-work that can heal the scared child within.
Working on Neurotic Fears
Admit your fear to yourself, to the person involved and/or to any person you trust. Admitting cuts through denial and attends to reality. This attention releases the healing and power that we have refused to claim or employ.
Allow the feeling of fear fully with no attempt to suppress it or to be free of it.
Acting because of fear is cowardice; acting with fear is the courage that survives it.
Techniques helpful in the process of “acting as if” are:
- Take deep breaths from the diaphragm (since anxious breathing is thoracic).
- Focus on an image that increases serenity.
- Ask for support from a friend or ask for inner support by imaging a strong person who accompanies you as a guide or coach.
The “triple A approach” in working through fear is an unconditional engagement with what is. We are reversing our No to what seemed un-absorbable to a Yes to what is integratable.
We thus make contact with our own liveliness, the positive excitement which had been blocked by fear. The energy that went into elaborate fictions, defenses, and rationalizations is reinvested in personal power and freedom from fear. “I am powerless in the face of this fear” changes to “I found a choice where I thought there was only a dead end.”
The demon power of fear is, after all, exactly this apparent choicelessness. Acting with fear, i.e. including it, locates and affirms an alternative. The spell is thus broken by what cast the spell! The key was in the lock all the time! Nothing has to go on scaring us. Every human experience is assimilable. This is a foundation of optimism.
Integration is the primary result of working on fear. Chapter 9 provides a detailed explanation of this process. Once a fear is worked through, it releases its liveliness and makes us happier. Notice the paradox of human unfolding: every fear blocks a capacity; every integration of fear reveals and accesses a capacity.
Letting go of attachment
Acceptance of vulnerability
Staying with it
Letting the chips fall where they may
When this ultimate crisis comes . . . when there is no way out—that is the very moment when we explode from within and the totally other emerges: the sudden surfacing of a strength, a security of unknown origin, welling up from beyond reason, rational expectation, and hope. (Emil Durkheim)
ANGER: CHALLENGE TO ADULTHOOD II
Relate to a life situation in the deepest sense: not from the standpoint of the ego that bemoans its fate and rebels against it, but from. . . the greater inner law that has left behind its small birth, the narrow realm of personal outlook, for the sake of renewal and rebirth. (Max Zeller)
Anger is a natural human feeling that everyone experiences often and that needs to be expressed to maintain psychological health. Anger is the feeling that says No to opposition, injury, or injustice. It is a signal that something I value is in jeopardy.
The physical energy of anger comes from the “fight” side of the flight/fight response of adrenalin.
The psychological energy of anger comes from the real or imagined sense of threat. Anger is thus legitimately expressed even when its foundation is irrational. We express a feeling because it is real for us, not because it has objective justification.
Anger is expressed actively when we show it directly. Usually this involves the raising of one’s voice, changes in facial expression and gestures, and a show of excitement and displeasure.
Anger can also be expressed passively, i.e. passive aggressively. One punishes the other without admitting one’s anger, e.g. tardiness, gossip, silence, refusal to cooperate, absence, rejection, malice to cause pain, etc. Passive anger is inappropriate and not an adult way of behaving. Strongly expressed anger is called rage. Strongly held anger is called hate. Unexpressed anger is resentment. Anger can be unconsciously repressed and internalized. It then becomes depression, i.e. anger turned inward.
When anger is consciously suppressed, we choose not to know or show it. The motivation is usually fear but we seldom acknowledge the fear. Instead we rationalize the suppression as politeness or social amenity, configuring the expression of anger as unnecessary.
Fear of Anger
Why do we feel so unsafe about expressing anger openly? We may have found early in life that showing anger was dangerous. There are two main ways to have learned this:
1) Showing anger in our childhood may have meant no longer being loved or approved and now we are acting as if that were still true. Processing such archaic equations may lead to the liberating realization that anger and love coexist in authentic intimacy. Anger, like any true feeling, cannot affect, mar, or cancel real love.
Anger is inevitable in any relationship in which people are free and in which they allow one another to get dose. “To let ourselves be touched also involves letting ourselves be scraped,” writes John Welwood. Love without the safety to allow anger is not love but fear. When adults love they reveal their own anger and welcome it from others. This is a way in which the truth sets us free!
2) Receiving anger may seem dangerous because previously in life anger has led to violence, either physically or emotionally. But this was not real anger, only a dramatic mime of it. Anger does not lead to danger, distance, or violence. Drama does. In this context, drama means ego-centered, manipulative theatrics with an explanatory storyline attached. Many of us have never seen real anger, only drama.
Drama and Anger
We distinguish anger (a true feeling) from drama (an avoidance of true feeling). It takes heroic work to drop drama and show responsible anger. The neurotic ego clings to negative excitement.
The adult functional ego loves the positive excitement of expressing true feeling and then being released from it.
Scares the hearer
Informs the hearer and creates attention in the hearer
Is meant to silence the other
Is meant to communicate with the other
Masks the dashed expectation or fear of not being in control with a false sense of control
Contains sadness or disappointment and these are acknowledged
Blames the other for what one feels
Takes responsibility for this feeling as one’s own
Is a strategy that masks a demand that the other change
Asks for change but allows the other to change or not
Is violent, aggressive, out of control, derisive, punitive
Is non-violent, always in control and within safe limits
Represses the true feeling
Expresses an assertive response
Occludes other feelings
Coexists with other feelings
Creates stress because one’s bruised, scared ego is impotently enraged
Releases the aliveness in one’s true self
Is held on to and endures as resentment
Is brief and then let go of with a sense of closure
Insists the other see how justified one is
Needs no response
Applying this distinction to the experience of rejection, notice the difference in reactions:
Drama is a belligerent reaction to rejection that punishes by further distancing
Anger is an intimate response to rejection that bridges the distance or allows it without long-held resentment
Drama is based on indignation that one was not treated with the love and loyalty one unconsciously believes one is entitled to
Anger is based on displeasure at what happened but with consciousness that this feeling is based on a subjective interpretation
It is often said that anger is a “secondary feeling,” one that masks another feeling, such as sadness or fear. Notice that anger, like all feelings, coexists with other feelings. It never masks them. Drama does that. Where else would masks fit so well?
“Holding onto anger” is also impossible since anger is the shortest feeling. It cannot be held onto. Once it is expressed fully, relief and letting go follow automatically. What is held onto is not anger but a set of storylines that keep the drama ignited.
Anger and Belief
Anger, like all feelings, is not caused by an event but by our belief about or interpretation of an event.
Here is a paradigm, based on the work of Albert Ellis, that elucidates this process:
An Action occurs (open to any interpretation)
My Belief interprets the action in a specific way
A Consequence occurs: the feeling based on the belief that was triggered by the action
So A: What happened
B: What I believe
C: What I feel
It may seem that A led to C. But B, the disappeared middle, requires attention. A can only get to C through B!
In this psychological chain, one stimulus does not cause another. A does not cause B or C. B does not cause C. A triggers B and B triggers C.
This explains why we are responsible for our own feelings. Others triggered us by their actions but the interpretation was our own. The consequent feeling was not caused by others’ behaviour, only occasioned by it. They are accountable for setting a process in motion but not for the final feeling. That is our responsibility alone.
Working on Anger
Using the paradigm above, identify an instance in which you
were angry. Then acknowledge (A) the stimulating event and (C)
your anger. Now admit: my feeling (C) about his behaviour (A)
would not have arisen unless I believed (B).
Here is an example:
A: You did not keep your promise.
C: I became angry.
B: I believe I am entitled to be treated fairly.
I expected you to be honest.
I believe I was insulted by this betrayal.
You have now identified at least four beliefs behind your interpretation of the broken promise: entitlement, expectation, betrayal, and insult. Now match these beliefs against your own history, especially in childhood. Were you betrayed before? Were the betrayals, abandonment, and abuses of early life ever mourned and processed? If they were not, they remain raw and distressed now. The beliefs and anger are signals of unfinished emotional business. This event has reopened old wounds. Now you begin to see how much of your reaction to this present stimulus is your own business. The anger has pointed to where it still hurts.
Finally, entitlement, expectation, and insult are neurotic ego issues. Adults who are building more functional ego responses see through the power of such dramatic cues. They let go of entitlement by asking for what they want while acknowledging that sometimes people come through and sometimes they do not. They drop expectations (one-sided) and ask for agreements (two-sided). They ask for amends when they are insulted and shun those who consistently refuse to treat them respectfully.
Parsing an anger experience has led to more understanding of myself, more clarity about where my work is, and more responsibility for my own reactions. Now I am not thinking of myself as a victim. I have grown in assertiveness and self-esteem while still validating my anger as legitimate. Anger is still real even when its origins are in childish or atavistic beliefs.
- I accept anger as healthy and I examine the belief behind it and the personal history it evokes.
- I take responsibility for the feeling as legitimate and as totally mine.
- I express my anger but I choose not to act out aggressively by retaliation, vindictiveness, or malice.
- I embrace more adult beliefs about myself and the world so that my anger now arises from an informed sense of justice without the “insulted, arrogant ego” dimension.
Anger is fresh lively energy that is valuable to our individual evolution. We use our anger to break the stranglehold of ego and fear. We follow our anger to the sources of our own hitherto un-franchised psychic territory. The anger stimulates our power. It is not something we need to drop or deny. It is something that lifts us and transforms us once we allow ourselves to feel it and show it.
In the intensity of the emotional turbulence itself lies the value, the energy … to remedy the problem. (Jung)
GUILT: CHALLENGE TO ADULTHOOD III
All self- knowledge is purchased at the cost of guilt. (Paul Tillich)
Appropriate Guilt and My Truth
Appropriate guilt precedes or follows unethical behaviour. It flows from an internal organismic resonance (conscience) that evaluates action in accord with personal conviction. “We are born with an inherent bodily wisdom which helps us distinguish experiences that actualize or do not actualize our potential,” says Carl Rogers. This is our functional ego telling us when we have stepped out of our own truth. This guilt indicates a rending of our integrity or an upsetting of a natural balance between ourselves and others. The balance is restored by admission and restitution.
Neurotic Guilt and Their Truth
Neurotic guilt is a learned (non-organismic) response to an external injunction or demand that we have internalized. We have stepped out of others’ truth. This guilt is not let go of by amends and restitution but hangs on. Its origin is in the neurotic ego and it leads to an inner conflict, not to balance.
Guilt is not a feeling but a belief or judgment. Appropriate guilt is a judgment that is self-confronting and leads to resolution. Neurotic guilt is a judgement that is self-defeating and leads to unproductive pain. Appropriate guilt is resolved in reconciliation and restitution. Neurotic guilt seeks to be resolved by punishment. In appropriate guilt there is accountability. In neurotic guilt there is blame. In short, appropriate guilt is an adult response; neurotic guilt is the response of a scared child within us.
In every experience of neurotic guilt, there is something we are refusing to acknowledge. This guilt is a tactic we use to avoid feelings and truths:
1. A Disguise for Fear
Guilt that holds us back from acting can be a disguise for the fear of assertiveness, Guilt that follows a strong choice can be a fear of loss of love or of approval. We may fear the consequences of not being liked or of our losing control when we have strayed too far from an inhibition, The prior guilt can paralyze us and we then remain stuck or passive. The consequent guilt makes us ashamed and frightened of reprisals or of being known (or of knowing ourselves) in a new way.
2. A Downplay of Responsibility
Neurotic guilt limits us to one single course of legitimate behaviour. In this respect, guilt inhibits imagination, the creative basis of choice. As long as we are caught in guilt, we do not see possibilities or know what we really want. This is how guilt subverts assertiveness.
Guilt after acting or after the omission of an act can also be a way of minimizing the power of the choice we have made. We are less responsible if we judge ourselves guilty because then our whole self was not committed! Paradoxically, guilt thus lets us off the hook and creates a false sense of righteousness.
3. A Mask for Anger
Guilt can mean justifiable anger toward a respected parent, authority figure, or friend who seems to have obligated or inhibited us. We believe it is unsafe or wrong to feel or to express this anger. This leaves only us to be wrong and so the unexpressed anger turns inward as guilt. Thus guilt lets others off the hook while we abuse ourselves with anger that was meant for them.
4. A Dodge of Truth
Guilt is sometimes used to avoid an unacceptable truth. For example, during childhood, rather than face the painful truth that my parents did not love me, I believed myself to be guilty of not measuring up to their expectations. Then their lack of love became all my fault. “They had the love stored up for me, but I could not merit its release.” Guilt about my own “inadequate behaviour” kept the truth about them a secret. What I do not know, even now, I never have to face or get past. In this way guilt keeps me in others’ power, i.e. always trying to please them. People-pleasing and a sense of inadequacy grow from this same pillaged wilderness of self-doubt.
Working with Guilt: Moving Toward Health
It is impossible to eliminate neurotic guilt entirely. Allow this guilt to be in your mind but no longer let it lead you to act or not to act. Make choices with guilt, not because of it. Simply nonce what your guilt may be covering up. Is it a mask for fear, refusal to take responsibility, anger, denial of a truth, etc.? Then each time you experience neurotic guilt you acknowledge it as a signal of some avoidance. The guilt then dissipates enough so that you can address the authentic excitement and feeling underlying it. The guilt becomes what it always was: a concept not a precept, a belief not a verdict, a thought not a reality.
Fear is blocked excitement; anger is ignited excitement; guilt is mistaken excitement.
It is unnecessary and dangerous to eliminate appropriate guilt. Appropriate guilt helps us know when we have disturbed a moral balance. Unlike neurotic guilt which hangs on, appropriate guilt vanishes automatically with a program of admission, amends, and affirmation. Work through appropriate guilt with this “Triple A” approach:
Admit directly to the person involved that you hurt him or acted irresponsibly or neglectfully. Ask to hear about the pain he feels and listen to it. Thereby you live through the pain and become fully conscious of your behaviour and its consequences. This is a powerful way finally to take full responsibility for your actions. In this process, genuine intimacy becomes possible in relationships.
Make amends in two ways: first, cease the behaviour; second, make restitution directly or to a charity or to a substitute person if the original person is unavailable or unready for your amendment. Amendment is authentic when it includes a dedication to change the behaviour for the future. Remorse is sorrow without amendment. It lowers self-esteem and prevents release from guilt.
Affirmation following this guilt-work takes two forms: First, use any of the affirmations at the end of this book that resonate for you personally. Designing your own affirmations is even more useful. Second, affirm (congratulate) yourself for the adult choice and the follow-through that made the guilt process ultimately empowering.
As a result of these three steps, a spiritual shift may occur: you become compassionate toward yourself and others. Now, in stead of an immediate recrimination, you notice the connection between present unacceptable behaviour and past or early learning. In other words, you see yourself (and others) in the context of compassionate understanding.
You then hold yourself accountable but not to blame. Blame leads to an emotionally charged self-repudiation. Accountability leads to matter-of-fact amendment and higher self-esteem. By compassion and accountability, we affirm a self-forgiveness, the authentic and final name for self-actualization, “That by which we fall is that by which we rise” (Tantric saying).
By noon, the island had gone down in the horizon; and all before us was the wide Pacific. (Herman Melville: Omoo)
David Richo, How to be an adult, Paulist Press (New York 1991), 22-47.