Dealing with a different holiday trip: the guilt trip

Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - 5:00pm

Holiday guilt comes in different forms, from the competitive ("Why are you celebrating all the best days with them?") to the personal ("We didn't pay a French chateau's worth of mortgage for law school so you could be an unemployed health columnist") to the bizarre ("Why does your baby cry every time he looks at me? What bad things are you telling him about me?")

Some of us swear that guilt underpins the bulk of our familial interactions during the holidays.

Don't fret: Research shows that guilt itself may not be such a bad thing. That is, if what you're feeling is really guilt.

Guilt or shame?

Wait, aren't guilt and shame the same thing?

Not at all, says June Tangney, a professor of psychology at George Mason University. Tangney studies "self-conscious emotions," a group to which guilt and shame belong, alongside pride and embarrassment.

Self-conscious emotions are higher-order human emotions that require 1. recognizing the self as separate from others and 2. reflecting upon this individual self in reference to some internal or societal standards.

According to Tangney, though most people tend to use guilt and shame interchangeably, they are quite different. They also give rise to dramatically different feelings, motivations and behaviors.

When people feel guilty, they feel bad about a specific behavior. When they feel shame, however, they are usually feeling bad about themselves, believing not just that that they've done wrong but that they are a bad person with some fundamental defect.

When people feel unworthy and defective, there is a sense of shrinking, a sense of being worthless and powerless, observes Tangney in a fascinating video presentation titled "Shame and Guilt: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

Not only do shamed people feel exposed, they are acutely tuned in to the fact that other people may be judging them. As such, they are more inclined to deny or attempt to hide and escape the situation.

Guilt, though also an unpleasant emotion, is nowhere as overwhelming as shame.

Tangney's research shows that while guilt-ridden people often feel tension, remorse and regret, they are far more focused on confessing, apologizing and reparation. Shamed people feel badly about themselves, she says, but guilty people are more likely to be thinking about their effect on others.

Studies show that people who are prone to guilt are more forgiving. They handle anger more constructively, experience more empathy and have a greater ability to see others' perspectives.

Those prone to shame, on the hand, are more likely to hold grudges and less likely to forgive when they feel wronged. Shame also has a special connection with feelings of anger and aggression and the tendency to blame others.

Guilt can be a good thing, a highly beneficial -- and adaptive -- emotion, says Tangney. Shame, however, is too personal.

The guilty

Guilt is useful when used wisely and with care, Tangney observed, "but the question is, how do you want people to feel bad, and how badly do you want them to feel?"

Parents -- and all family members, for that matter -- should resist the urge to lay it on thick or to give their children the message that they are a bad person because of something they've done.

Instead, she says, call attention to specific actions, point out the consequences of these actions and focus on feelings of empathy for people who have been adversely affected. Spend time on the constructive: How can you develop a plan for fixing the situation or making amends?

But what if the guilt trip isn't justified -- say, if you must work the day after Christmas or risk the wrath of your cranky boss?

"Then don't feel guilty!" Tangney advised. "Reason yourself out of feeling guilty. There are enough things we have to feel guilty about for real, things we really did wrong. That's what guilt is for. Not so we can feel guilty about things that really aren't our fault."

The shame-prone

Why are some people adaptive in their guilt while others feel shame in response?

"We don't quite know, but we do know that shame and guilt exert a profound influence on people from early childhood all the way into adulthood," noted Tangney, who is currently examining the implications of moral emotions and cognition in longitudinal studies involving the rehabilitation of criminal offenders.

If you are inclined to feel shame, Tangney offers this advice: "What I found in my clinical work or teaching students is that sometimes, just educating people about the difference between shame and guilt, and the practice of recognizing when they feel shame, can make a huge difference. If you are feeling shame, do a rational rechecking and focus on a plan to make things right."

What we know, says Tangney, is that there are good ways and bad ways to feel bad. And assuming it's justified and you have done something to feel bad about, then that guilt you are feeling may be perfectly OK. 

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