During one of our interviews for the biography, Glasser said something that caught my ear. Maybe it was my religious upbringing that acted like Velcro to his comments on guilt, but whatever it was the comments have stuck with me ever since.
One of the girls Glasser worked with at the Ventura School seemed to have a breakthrough, and upon realizing she needed to start being truthful with those trying to help her, began revealing the details of her destructive past. She felt a lot of guilt and hoped to be forgiven.
Recalling this later, Glasser wrote in Reality Therapy (1965) that, “Instead of forgiving her, which used to be my natural impulse before I discovered how wrong it is therapeutically, I told her she was right to feel miserable and probably would continue to feel bad for the next few weeks. In reality therapy,” he continued, “it is important not to minimize guilt when it is deserved.”
From my own upbringing the idea of guilt had been a kind of bad word, something you needed to stay away from, and even to be cleansed from, so considering it from this matter of fact perspective was ear-catching. The following excerpt from Champion of Choice (2014) further explains his perspective.
When I questioned Glasser on that stance, he replied, “Yeh, yeh, I think guilt is a perfectly good emotion. I have nothing against guilt.” He added: “Well, the girls used to ask me this question, ‘Dr. Glasser, will you forgive me for the things I’ve done?’ You know they have a little religious background, some of them, and I said, ‘That’s not up to me to forgive you. I won’t hold what you’ve done against you, but in terms of forgiving that’s something you have to work out with your own self. I can’t forgive you. You did something wrong. You did it. The best way, if you’ve done something wrong, is to stop doing it, and maybe even treat the people you wronged, if you treated people wrong, better. That’s my advice, but that again up to you.’”
But if someone, like a person may come into my private office and say, ‘I feel so guilty, and I don’t know why.’ I said, ‘What have you done wrong?’ And that came as a new concept. Guilt without sin is a very common concept among people. It’s like you carry around the sin of the world or something like that. I said, ‘Well, if you can tell me something you’ve done really wrong, then I could certainly appreciate that you feel guilty about it, and I think that’s good. The guilt will prevent you from doing it again. But if you’re all upset and worked up and you’ve done nothing wrong, then I have no interest in it. It’s up to you.’” pg. 111
Guilt is a huge factor when it comes to mental health. Not dealing with guilt effectively leads to a poor self-concept, broken relationships, and often a series of trips to a counselor or therapist. Religion is supposed to help us deal with guilt, but unfortunately, religion often does the opposite.
Thanks to a tip from a friend I was alerted to the work of Dr. Brene Brown, who does research on shame and guilt. In her book, Daring Greatly (2012), Brown states that “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither.”
Shame is a foreboding sense of unworthiness that is powered by the belief that, at the core of who I am as a person, “I am bad.” Guilt, on the other hand, has to do with a specific behavior or mistake. Instead of thinking I am bad, our self-talk would say that “I did something bad.” Interestingly, while shame leads toward self-protection, blaming others, and rationalizing our imperfections, guilt can prod us toward apologizing and changing a behavior.
Glasser alerted me to the idea that guilt can be useful and serves a purpose when it 1) causes us to stay aligned with our deeply held values, and 2) helps us stay connected to others. Brown seems to view guilt in the same way, that it can be a healthy part of our lives, but emphasizes how shame is different altogether from guilt. Shame causes us to isolate rather than reach out, to become silent rather than communicate openly, and to wrap ourselves in aloneness rather than foster intimacy with those who are important to us.
It might be hard to believe there is good news in guilt, but apparently there is.
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