The stories we tell ourselves: guilt

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator describes a crime he has commited, while attempting to convince the reader of his sanity. After the killing, he dismembers the body and hides it under the floorboards. The description is meticulous and emotionally detached. There seem to be no feelings involved. No regret. No guilt.

But then, the narrator start hearing a thumping sound that grows louder and louder. Unsure at first, he realizes it is coming from beneath the floor. It can only be the dead man’s heart, beating as a sort of premonitory bell. The beating becomes unbearably loud. Banished from conscient thought, guilt infiltrates itself to the surface.

Guilt is part of life. We all screw up from time to time and, if we have some sort of moral compass, we will feel guilty. Sometimes we are forgiven by those who we have harmed and sometimes not. Sometimes we manage to forgive ourselves and sometimes not.

But guilt can also turn into an obsession that undermines us. An obsession that does not depend so much on proof of having done something wrong, but rather on feeling of bad or dysfunctional. A feeling of deep inadequacy.

This may start in childhood, when we develop our self-image. A kid who is treated badly by his parents will usually not blame them, because parents are wise adults who surely have good reasons for doing what they do. He will blame himself for their behavior: “I must have done something wrong”.

Guilt may also be linked to a trauma that developed later on, such as the death of loved one or a toxic, abusive relationship. Guilt may have been cultivated as part of such a relationship, resulting in dependence and low self-esteem. Some of us are more susceptible than others to this kind of emotional blackmail.

In these cases, guilt can really take on a life of its own, especially if it grows on childhood traumas. It embeds itself into your self-story, like a renegade voice interfering with your inner voice, constantly whispering that it’s your fault. It sucks the life out of you.

Guilt built into the self-story may not be conscious and may not be about something, about particular wrongs. It is more like a fog – covering everything, blurring everything and preventing you from seeing at a distance, from seeing the true shapes of things and gaining detachment. Like an imaginary thumping sound coming from beneath the floor, it accompanies you from dawn to dusk.

Getting beyond guilt depends on more than willpower or the intellectual ability of cutting through the fog and seeing clearly. It depends on self-forgiveness – the most difficult forgiveness there is. It depends on the capacity to forgive yourself over and over again, like you would do with a person you love.

It’s precisely this capacity that is undermined by abuse and trauma. Rebuilding it is a bit like re-learning to walk after an serious accident. Because you are not simpy dealing with guilt, but rather with a mental script, a story that has embedded itself into your sense of identity and self-worth.

The stories we tell ourselves: fear

I’ve never experienced war. I was not targeted by political repression or terror, although I’ve seen it happening around me. I did sufficiently well not to worry about my livelihood. I had a job continuously since I finished university. In fact, for most of this time I’ve had two jobs at the same time. Still, I feel like I’ve been living large parts of my life in fear.

Fear of what? What could have possibly been so scary?

Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa (1954). Mastery of fear was part of the Bushidō code.

I guess you could call it fear of myself. Of not performing well enough, not being sufficiently successful or sufficiently liked, not being up to the expectations. Fear of being rejected. Fear of losing someone’s affection. Fear of writing a text like this and putting it out. Fear of exposing oneself.

I remember myself in school. The teacher was asking questions on the current or the previous lessons. And I was pretty sure I had the right answer but I just couldn’t bring myself to raise my hand and talk. What if I screw up in front of my colleagues? In fact, even when I was completely sure my answer was right I still had a hard time speaking up. I’d rather keep silent than expose myself.

In those situations there was a fear of speaking up. But fear does not need to have a definite object. After a while, fear becomes its own object. You don’t say exactly what you mean, you don’t do exactly what feels right to you, you don’t react when something unacceptable happens, you don’t say no when you feel like saying no. It’s like being caught in a web of fear and you don’t even know anymore what you are fearful of. Fear and avoidance becomes part of how you see the world.

The problem with this is that it becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism. The more you live in fear, the more likely you are to continue living the same way. Not saying what you mean becomes second nature. Not being able to say no becomes an invitation to be taken advantage of.

Fear also changes the kind of stories you tell yourself. Living in fear means giving up agency, seeing yourself as a passive spectator, a patient or a victim. It means seeing yourself as being controlled by circumstances, the actions of others or your own emotions. And once the story you tell yourself becomes the story of a victim, you will be more and more likely to think and behave like a victim.

Because self-narratives are part of what makes up our identity. We become what we came to believe about ourselves, whether or not it was true to begin with. Ideas of self-worth, competence and ability and embedded in our narratives. Getting rid of a toxic idea means dealing with the story it is part of.

As pretty much anything else, fear can be tackled one step at a time. There are ways to re-learn to say what you mean and to do what you feel is right. The good news here is that self-reinforcement works both ways. Once you’ve practiced a bit and proven to yourself that it works (and that it’s less dificult than you thought), it gets easier to continue doing it.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, you are encouraged to identify your cognitive scripts (the self-narratives) and question them, put them to the test, play with them and find alternative scripts. All this is meant to create some distance between yourself and the story you tell yourself. Once there is enough detachment, you recognize the story as a story. Something powerful but man-made. Something that was made – not a necessity of nature – and that can be unmade.

Fear is only as strong as the attachment to our own stories about ourselves.

You may also want to read the first part of the “stories we tell ourselves” series, which talks about shame.

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