Two of my readers offered insightful comments on the last post, Get Wise! They brought to light two key issues that come up when we are trying to manage our emotionally hot impulses—one is that we tend to handle our emotional minds better with our co-workers than with our loved ones; and the other is that we tend to turn for help to people who will “side” with us rather than tell us the truth that we might not want to hear. Both comments are such good food for thought, and I think they share a common dynamic: we do not want to feel guilty.
When we take our loved ones for granted by feeling that we have license to leave our wise mind at the office and let it all hang out at home, we are disconnected from a sense of responsibility to bring our best selves to the relationships that mean the most to us. We are disconnected from a proper and essential feeling of guilt. Now, I say proper sense of guilt because we often walk around feeling guilty for things that actually are not our responsibility—I call this neurotic guilt. But there is a kind of guilt that we do need to feel when we have fallen short in caring for our true responsibilities.
Proper guilt is the painful feeling we have when we have hurt someone we love. It is an essential motivator in truly loving relationships. When we are connected to this kind of guilt, we are motivated to be constructive rather than destructive in our love relationships. When we are connected to a proper sense of guilt, awareness of our destructiveness cuts us to the core and we feel motivated to try and make it right again.
Guilt is essential to the work of love; it helps us contain our destructive impulses so that we can work to protect, cherish, and repair our most intimate relationships. Guilt is part of wise mind.
The avoidance of guilt is also at the root of our tendency to seek counsel from someone who will simply uphold our point of view rather than someone who will have the wherewithal and courage to call us out on our distortions and misconceptions. We seek the “yes man” because we do not want to face our shortcomings. We want to see ourselves as right because we do not want to get in touch with the ways in which we are wrong.
It is such a common aspect of being human: we would rather see ourselves as having been wronged than see ourselves as being wrong. This is the number one problem I see in the dynamics of couples that I work with in marital therapy. Each partner blames the other for the troubles in the marriage and seeks a therapist who will take sides. But a capable therapist will be more like Switzerland—with neutrality, seeing the contributions that each partner makes to the troubles in the relationship and encouraging each partner to reclaim responsibility for his or her unique contribution.
The blame game never works. We must own our part in our difficulties—even as it puts us in touch with guilt that we would rather not feel. If we feel it, we are motivated to do better. If we don’t feel it, we continue to be lost in the vicious cycle of the blame game. Guilt is part of wise mind—and healthy relationships.
We all have impulses to let it all hang out without regard to our impact on those we love. And we all have the wish to disown our responsibility for it. But we owe it to ourselves and to those we love to see our limitations for what they are and to seek counsel to help us see what we can’t see (and don’t want to see) in ourselves. Wise mind involves an openness to bearing the guilt which is truly ours to bear—and then doing what we can to make things right.