Are you extra careful to not seem like a ‘show-off’, ‘know-it-all’ or ‘arrogant’?
Do you keep most of your worries to yourself lest you ‘burden’ others?
Does it often feel like someone important to you could easily think you’re abandoning him or her?
If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you’re not alone. Many people learn that important people in their lives are vulnerable to feeling outdone, burdened or abandoned. As a result, they experience excruciating guilt when doing anything that might trigger such negative feelings in the other person.
Here are a couple of examples of how this type of guilt can prevent you from fulfilling your potential in work and relationships:
Dave is a data scientist who writes great code and is able to solve problems with diligence and ingenuity. He is warm and gregarious with his friends but finds himself terrified to speak in business meetings. He’s terrified that his competence will arouse the envy of his colleagues or make them feel bad about themselves. He has been passed up for promotion two years in a row and received feedback that he needs to express his perspective more assertively if he wants to advance in the company.
Why does Dave struggle with what he thinks will happen if he demonstrates his competence? Growing up, Dave’s father was a successful executive who worked long hours while his mother was prone to bouts of depression and complained to Dave about his father’s lack of emotional availability. Dave became acutely aware – or traumatized by – how easily his mother could feel neglected or abandoned. He resolved not to do this to her too! If this meant sacrificing his own needs for autonomy so that his mother would not feel more hurt, then so be it. He wouldn’t go out and play with other kids on the playground. Despite being popular and invited to a lot of parties in high school, he would make up reasons to come home early so that he could reassure his mother with his presence in the home. These kinds of tradeoffs happened over and over, leaving Dave with the entrenched idea that if he feels happy, buoyant, or independent it will come at the expense of someone else’s happiness. In essence, Dave backs away from doing things that would have meant outdoing or abandoning his mother in his current life.
Fear of Being a Burden
Shannon is a digital marketer at an advertising firm in the city. She works extremely hard to demonstrate competence and self-sufficiency in her job, friendships and relationship. She makes lists of her friends’ birthdays and never fails to recognize them. She is always coming up with new recipes for home-cooked dinners that surprise and delight her boyfriend. At work, she tirelessly takes on all tasks and works long hours until they’re completed. Despite all of Shannon’s prowess she experiences a deep sense of emptiness and despair. She never feels like she has done enough. Part of her wonders what the purpose of all this effort is if it doesn’t bring her happiness.
Shannon feels extremely isolated because she fears that if she shares her real experience it will be too much of a burden to someone else. She comes by this fear honestly. Raised as one of three children to a mother who worked as a nurse, her father left the family when she was three years old. Shannon was always aware of how hard it was for her mother to work at her job and take care of her and her siblings. When little things would go awry (e.g. a sibling forgetting a permission slip for a field trip, someone forgetting to take the trash out) Shannon’s mother would tear up and sullenly retire to her bedroom for hours. Seeing her mother feel so overwhelmed was heartbreaking for Shannon. She made a commitment never to burden her mother and strove to be as self-sufficient and successful as possible.
Shannon experiences guilt when she thinks she has burdened someone she cares about with her own emotional needs. Although she struggles with feelings of emptiness and loneliness, she is very reticent to share anything about these struggles with her boyfriend. One night he asked her what was wrong – telling her that she seemed quieter than usual – and she managed to tell him that she just feels very empty much of the time. He responded with sensitivity and concern. The next morning, she woke up with a crushing amount of blame towards herself for burdening her boyfriend with her troubles. She was certain that he was going to leave her after seeing how much caretaking she required.
Shannon is in a dilemma because she wants to share her real inner experience with her boyfriend so that she can feel better and closer to him. On the other hand, she punishes herself harshly whenever she does seek his support. She carries with her the belief that her boyfriend is built similarly to her mother – both seem at risk of collapsing under the weight of her needs.
The common theme: Unconscious Guilt
What do Dave and Shannon have in common? They both feel unconsciously guilty if they act in ways that would have threatened their parent’s sense of security or well-being. As kids we are deeply concerned with how good or bad our parents feel about themselves. In the best cases, kids don’t have to worry because parents have enough self-confidence, stability of mood, and emotional resources. In other families, Mom or Dad’s feelings become an issue for the child because 1) kids naturally assume personal responsibility for everything that happens in their lives, and 2) the parents have real shortcomings that threaten the child’s ability to trust that they are OK.
There are three essential aspects to this kind of unconscious guilt:
- You feel responsible for the other person’s welfare
- You believe that you have the power to make-or-break the other person
- You blame yourself if your actions or attitudes seem to hurt the other person
If all three of these features are in place then you become primed to experience conscious and unconscious guilt whenever you consider actions that would have been received as abandonment (e.g. Dave) or a burden (e.g. Shannon), when you were a child.
3 steps to push past your unconscious guilt
The thing about unconscious guilt is that you probably don’t walk around saying “Oh here I go again protecting my internalized parent from feeling bad by shrinking away from my own potentials”. Us therapists would probably all be out of jobs if that were the case! What’s more likely is that you notice yourself unable to act in ways that you believe you are capable. Or maybe you notice that it’s really hard to “take your turn” in your relationships and you’re always making room for the other person. If you do notice any of these signs of unconscious guilt, that’s a really important first step.
The second step towards overcoming unconscious guilt can involve educating yourself more on the topic. Everything discussed in this blog post stems from Control-Mastery Theory. One great book on this topic that is written for a wide audience is ‘Imaginary Crimes’.
The third step is to begin challenging the beliefs that hold your unconscious guilt in place. For Shannon, this would mean continuing to express her feelings to her boyfriend and talking through all the self-blame and guilt that ensues. For Dave, this would mean taking the risk to speak up in the business meetings and seeing whether his colleagues feel as outdone as his mother would have felt. It’s not easy but over time you can stop unconscious guilt from restricting your life.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) who is trained in Control-Mastery Theory. This client-centered theory works to empower you to understand where your guilt stems from and how you can give yourself permission to live your life. If you are experiencing this kind of guilt, psychotherapy from a Control-Mastery perspective can be particularly helpful. Contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if we might be the right fit.