Guilt and Resentment
What happens when you start looking into the universal mirror, when you start viewing life as a reflection of who you are back to your own self? Well, any number of things could happen, I suppose. You could get excited, depressed, encouraged, inspired, motivated, de-motivated, or just about any number of possible experiences.
I want to look at two in particular that might arise, two that are so common in daily life that you don’t even have to be looking in the mirror in order to experience them.
Of course, given the title of this section, you won’t be too surprised to learn that we are now talking about guilt and resentment. These two experiences bring with them a wide range of emotions or feelings, ranging from shame and embarrassment to anger and outrage.
The question here becomes one of where do guilt and resentment come from? And why are they so apparently intertwined with one another? In my old days as a student of Perls’ style gestalt therapy, it was often said that guilt and resentment are laminates on one another – underneath a guilt is a resentment, and underneath that resentment is another guilt, and so on and so on, layer upon layer.
Perls often said that guilt was nothing more than projected resentment. Back in the late 1960’s, I thought I knew what that meant. Now I’m not so sure.
What I have found that works well for me is to consider that both guilt and resentment are outgrowths of beliefs that do not match my experience of reality. Notice that I did NOT say anything about matching reality itself, just my experience of reality.
What the heck does that mean? Have you ever been in a conference room or other large room with a goodly sized crowd? If so, you may have noticed that some people will feel that the room is too cold, others will feel it is too warm, and others will claim everything is just perfect.
So what is the reality of the room? It’s just what it is! I may experience “what is” (say, 72 degrees Farenheit) as cold, warm or just right and declare that my experience is reality, the truth, or some other form of finality. In “reality,” the room is neither cold, warm or any other form of comparison – it is just what it is and the temperature itself is just a relative statement that helps with comparisons (warmth is xx degrees, while cold is yy degrees, etc).
It can be quite comical to observe two people having a conversation, or argument, about “reality.” “It’s hot in here.” “No it isn’t, it’s just right.” “Hot!” “Just right!” And so on. Ever been there? If so, maybe you were the one who thought it was cold!
And somewhere along the line, someone might tell the other to “get real!” Now that really can be quite funny. No, really!
So back to guilt and resentment: I may feel guilt or resentment when my experience of reality does not match my belief, demand, or expectation about what reality is or should be.
Let’s make this a bit more personal. Do you ever feel guilt? If you are like most people, of course you do. Now when do you experience guilt? When you have done something “good” or something “bad?” For the most part, you probably answered, “something bad.”
So who experiences guilt? The “good people” or the “bad people?” Trick question! Some people leap to “the bad people.” I would counter, that’s not true. “Bad people” are expected to do “bad things.” If they do, then what is there to feel guilty about? After all, they’re just doing what is expected!
Consider this: good people are the ones who feel guilt, but only when they do something bad. The good people are expected to do good by others, and expect themselves to do good. If they do “bad,” then they are expected to feel guilty. At least, that’s one way to look at the association of guilt with good and bad.
Let’s keep moving this increasingly more personal. Do you consider yourself to be a good person? If so, how do you define “good?” What is a “good person” in your mind? What are the qualities of a good person?
Does your definition include being truthful or honest? Come on, tell the truth! Do you consider yourself to be a good person, someone who is honest and truthful?
Now, when I ask that question in a large group, I ask for a show of hands of those who consider themselves to be good people, who are honest and truthful. And I ask them to keep their hand raised while I go to the next question. (I would imagine your hand is in the air as well right now.)
Next question: now, keep your hand raised if you lie. Ever. Even a little, white lie. This gets a bit funny to behold – some hands unwaveringly go down, others stay up unwaveringly, and others just sort of move around a bit.
So which is it? Doe you lie? Stretch the truth, add a few details to the story that didn’t happen, omit details that did? Of course you do – at least if you’re like most people.
But does that make you dishonest or untruthful? Probably not. It’s just that you are truthful most of the time. Only problem is, how does that square with your self image of being a good person, of one who is truthful? If your self image is that you are truthful “most of the time,” then you are probably OK when it comes to those occasions when you lie.
If, however, you hold a self image or self concept that you are truthful and honest 1005, all of the time, what do you do if you lie? The answer just might be, “feel guilty.” Why? Because who feels guilty? “Good” people feel guilty when they do something “bad.”
In a kind of perverse way, guilty becomes proof that you are, in fact, good. So the definition of “good person” begins to look something like this:
”I am a good person who is truthful and honest; however, if I lie, I will feel guilty.” So, guilt becomes the secondary proof of goodness for those times when the behavior doesn’t match the image.
In other words, if my behavior conflicts with a self image or self concept, with my definition of being good, the only way I can hold on to my belief that I am good is to feel guilty. The primary evidence of being good is “telling the truth.” However, if I do lie, then I can go to my secondary proof that I am still a good person by feeling guilt. After all, who feels guilty? The good people or the bad people. Why the good people, of course!
Now doesn’t this sound a bit neurotic! Well, it might be in some ways, but we’re not here to do therapy or name calling. Instead, we’re to do awareness building, and in the process of building awareness, to create more choices that will help us lead ourselves into greater freedom, into more of the positive experiences we seek in life.
So, unless you prefer the experience of feeling guilty, then we need to do something with the conflict between a belief about self (a self image or self concept), and a behavior that does not match the self concept.
There are basically two things you can do: change the behavior or change the image. Changing behavior is perhaps the easier of the two in some ways: just tell the truth all the time and you won’t feel guilty (at least around perceptions of being honest).
However, there are at least two big hurdles to changing the behavior: one is just the behavior itself. It can be quite hard to be completely honest all of the time and still have friends. “How do I look tonight, honey.” “What do you think of my choice in (cars, clothes, expression, jobs, boy friend, girl friend, etc).”
Or even more subtle: what do you say when someone asks, “And how are you today?” I’ll bet that at least on one occasion you have responded “fine” when you were anything but “fine.”
And, you could choose to “tell the truth” each and every time, even if it means saying something like: “You look terrible tonight,” or “I don’t like that color on you,” or “I don’t like your new friend.” Or how about that gift someone gave you that you could never even imagine using? What are you going to say? “Oh, I love it?”
Now I know that it’s the thought that counts and all that, and still there are those times when we react internally in less than gracious ways!
So if changing the behavior is difficult, the other choice can be even more challenging: to change the belief or self-concept. Can you imagine changing your definition of what it means to be a good person? Instead of holding yourself as 100% honest, truthful and direct, 100% of the time, can you imagine defining yourself as a good person who is truthful, honest and direct some of the time? Most of the time? When I feel like it?
The point of the matter is that is you had a belief about yourself, a self-concept, that matched “reality” in a more flexible way, you could probably do away with most of your guilty feelings.
Problematically, many of us hold internal standards about perfection and then struggle when life doesn’t match the standard of perfection. This is a bit of self confession time now – I am definitely the guy I’m talking about here. I’ll come back to this question of perfection and the demand for perfection in the next section. For now, I need to return to the other have of the guilt and resentment equation.
If guilt has to do with beliefs I hold about who I am and my self-concept, then resentment has to do with beliefs I hold about how other people are supposed to be.
When I am leading one of those Insight seminars I mentioned earlier, we eventually get to this section on guilt and resentment. It comes after having spent several hours with the group, offering thoughts and principles very much like what we have been discussing here, and after having interacted with a number of participants on issues that they may be dealing with in their lives.
Sometimes, working with an individual goes quite smoothly, and sometimes it can be a bit rough. I always start a seminar by asking the group something like this: “We are going to present some information for your consideration about how life seems to work, what gets in the way, and how we can make better choices that might lead to an even better experience of life. If, along the way, I think I notice something that you might be struggling with, something that might be changed in a way that would work even better for you, what would you like me to do? Do I have your permission to raise it with you? And if you start to struggle, do I have your permission to point out what I think may be going on?”
As you can imagine, most people say that they are fine with having me point out potential issues and to work with them when the issues arise. Even so, I typically check before going into an issue with someone. Once I have permission, I will tend to follow the issue to its source in an effort to help the individual gain an additional measure of freedom.
So, after several hours over a couple of days, I raise the general question about guilt and resentment. As a way of getting into the dynamics of resentment, I ask the group if anyone has experienced any resentment toward me during our time together.
As you might imagine, most people are two polite to say anything at first, so I “poke” them a bit until someone offers the first observation. That might be something like “You’re arrogant,” or “You’re a know-it-all.” And then the dam bursts. Someone else might say “You were unkind when you worked with Bill” or “You’re insensitive.”
As people begin to let go with their observations or judgments, I just list them on an easel pad and tease them that they haven’t even gotten close to the “good ones.” And the list grows.
Of course, some people don’t have anything to add to the list because they haven’t experience any resentment toward me so far.
With a good list on the board, (insensitive, uncaring, arrogant, hostile, pushy, bully, etc), I then ask the group to consider what image they hold in their minds about personal growth facilitators, about how facilitators are supposed to be, images that are violated by the list in front of them.
I then start a new list: kind, loving, caring, considerate, gentle, humble, trustworthy, etc. In other words, facilitators are supposed to be models of human perfection.
So, I then ask those in the group who have not yet experienced resentment toward me to comment on how come they haven’t been resentful. What’s kind of interesting is that they can be loosely formed into two different groups: those who think that facilitators are supposed to be kind, loving, caring, considerate, gentle, humble, trustworthy, etc – and, as far as they are concerned, I have been all of that. The other loose grouping would be those who have a belief of image of good facilitators as insensitive, uncaring, arrogant, hostile, pushy, bully, etc – and that’s what they saw.
In either case, no need for resentment! When the action of another person matches my belief or image about how they are supposed to be, I don’t experience much of anything other than acceptance and recognition. They’re supposed to be that way and they are.
However, if I hold a belief that someone else is supposed to be kind, loving, sensitive, etc and I judge their behaviors as unkind, unloving, insensitive, then I am likely to move into resentment.
Resentment becomes a negative emotion aimed at another as a kind of demand that the other person change. Of course, the really difficult thing about this question of resentment as posed to the group of Insight participants, is that it is a bit like asking if the room is cold, hot or just right. Lots of perspectives or judgments, but no common frame of reference as to what the “truth” might be.
I typically say something to the group like: “So, if you experienced resentment here, then perhaps it is safe to say that you know what a good facilitator is supposed to be like (kind, loving, considerate, etc) and instead, you got the reject from facilitator school.”
By this time in the discussion, people are usually howling with laughter (although some may still be howling with resentment)! “And, if you did not experience resentment, either you expected unkind, uncaring jerks, got what you expected and so have no need to be upset. Or you expected kind, caring sensitive types, that’s what you experienced, and so have no need to feel upset.
And, again, the issue is that resentment is aimed at another as a form of internal demand that other person change their behavior to comport with my internal images or beliefs about what a good (person) should be.
If the resentment can be expressed, or at least acknowledged, then it can be dealt with somewhat effectively. Similar to guilt, there are two basic choices: change the behavior (of the other person) or change my own beliefs and images.
In this instance, it is probably pretty clear that changing the other person’s behavior may be difficult, if not impossible. Although not easy, my best bet is to see about changing my beliefs or images about other people in a way that will include a larger set of behaviors.
This can be very difficult, to be sure.
As someone who has experienced quite a bit of anger and resentment in his life, I can readily attest to the challenges being presented. One of the things I have learned along the way is that anger is usually a sign of caring.
A sign of caring! Are you out of your mind? Well, maybe, but hang in there anyway.
Have you ever gotten angry about something you did not care about? Caution – trick question again! If you do not care, YOU DO NOT CARE! Anger usually says something like this: “Hey! This is important to me, I care about it a lot, and if you cared for me, you would do this my way.”
The parent who gets angry with a child over a behavior, is really saying “I care about you, I don’t want you to get hurt, and I get scared when I see you doing that. DON’T DO THAT!”
Of course the child rarely hears the underlying message of care. “Oh, wow, my parents really do love me” is NOT the message the child is likely to hear. Instead, they may hear something more akin to: “Wow! They hate me! They don’t like me. They’re just trying to control me.”
Well, that’s a whole seminar all by itself!
You can always try expressing your resentment to the other person, and that comes with all kinds of potential for a negative outcome. Perhaps the only possibly effective way to do that would be to say something like, “When you do that, I get angry.” At least this begins to place the responsibility of getting angry where it belongs – with me as the one who is experiencing anger. It does give the other person more information about how you respond, and they may choose to alter their behavior out of deference or caring toward you. However, they are just as likely to say something like: “Well, too bad! Get over it!)
So perhaps a more effective response would be to work on your beliefs, concepts and demands about others. One that seems to work well mentally, and takes a ton of work to become effectively experientially, is to broaden your image of other people to include something like: “They are doing the best they can with what they have to work with and with what they know right now; if they knew better, they would do better; and everyone is an expression of spirit anyway, so this must just be another expression of love on the planet.”
That’s pretty cool intellectually and I certainly subscribe to it. I’m still working on it experientially. It takes a real shift in awareness and consciousness to live there all the time.
Of course, I am a good person, and I am a loving and accepting person, so if I do feel resentment toward another, I can always feel guilty so I can prove how good a person I really am. Now isn’t that wonderful!
See, I said this could be difficult!
Let me leave you with this little quote I picked up somewhere along the line:
“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
This quote has been attributed to Malachy McCourt, Carrie Fisher, Nelson Mandela and a host of others. I think it must have simply been a message from God that a bunch of people heard and translated for the rest of us.