Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Break Free from the Power of Guilt

**Disclaimer: This article is not intended to substitute for the advice of a qualified physician.**

What are emotions?

I read once that emotions are nothing more than the circulation of various chemicals in the bloodstream. Whether the emotion is anger, fear, sexual excitement, affection, or guilt, some gland or other has been instructed to dump various potions into your bloodstream, and these complex cocktails, in their turn, affect different organs in their own special ways. Fear, among many other things, may cause a constriction in the anal sphincter, for example. Anger may cause the heart to pump more furiously, pun intended. Sexual arousal may cause the palms to become sweaty and the muscles of the throat to tighten so that you speak in a high-pitched squeal, rather than your usual smooth baritone. The article I read suggested that anger should be allowed just two circuits around the bloodstream, and no more.

Emotions can be controlled to a degree.

We all know that ending an emotion is difficult to accomplish. But it is not impossible if you know how. In fact, in many cases, emotions are initiated (and maintained) by the thought processes of the brain. When you look at a photo of that special person, affection may result. But if, as you gaze adoringly at the photo of your loved one, a hungry, 12-foot alligator should enter your peripheral vision, I can guarantee that your feelings of affection will instantly be swapped for bowel-loosening terror. How did that happen? It is simple enough, really. Your thoughts were taken up by something more pressing. So it is possible, therefore, to control, to a large extent, the emotions you feel, by controlling the thoughts you think.

Emotions often depend on our thoughts.

This ability to control our emotions by controlling our thoughts becomes especially useful when emotions are harmful to ourselves and others. The ability to feel emotion is generally a wonderful thing; but it can become less than wonderful when the emotions control us and bring about injury.

The power of guilt.

One particular emotion that can do us harm is the one called guilt. There is no question that guilt is sometimes helpful. When we have hurt another person, guilt should move us to reconcile and perhaps make recompense. On the other hand, guilt can be used by others to manipulate us into doing things that we would not do otherwise and which are either foolish or injurious. (To see a master manipulator in action, you can watch Marie doing her thing on Everybody Loves Raymond.) Guilt can rob us of sleep, of happiness, of energy, of confidence, of life. Therefore, it is important to know when it is being used by others to manipulate us, and when its control over us has become pathological.

Being manipulated by guilt.

How often are people manipulated via the use of guilt? Every minute of every day. A guy you only met a couple of months ago tells you he needs money to buy a new set of rims for his car, and that if you really loved him you’d help. So you spring for the rims to the tune of several hundred dollars, while the slacker spends most of his time playing on his Xbox. A preacher tells you that if you don’t tithe to his church, you are making God mad, meanwhile his Lexus is parked outside a few spaces away from your Corolla. A charity sends you a request for a donation along with some return-address stickers, the implication being that you’d be a selfish jerk for using the stickers and not sending a donation. A spouse keeps reminding you of an infraction you committed in the past in order to get you to do what they want you to do today. All of these are examples of manipulation through guilt. The next time you feel the tug of guilt prodding you to do something, or not do something, stop and ask yourself if what you are contemplating is wise, or if you are perhaps being manipulated.

Being controlled by guilt.

The other harmful type of guilt is the kind that takes over your life and steals your joy and self-confidence. There may be something in your past that you continue to feel guilty about, even decades later. Ask yourself, is there anything useful that can come out of me continuing to feel guilty about this? If the answer is no, then you might need to work on breaking the cycle of bringing that event to mind over and over again. Maybe your guilt is something you are using as a means of punishing yourself for some perceived failure in your past. You want to make up for it somehow, but there doesn’t seem to be any avenue for making amends. Maybe someone has died and you can’t reconcile with them. Understanding that your feelings of guilt have no useful outlet doesn’t seem to help. One suggestion in these circumstances is to find a way to make indirect amends. You might write a letter, or perform some act of kindness. Even though these actions cannot directly affect the specific person you feel you wronged, they can be enormously helpful for you to feel that you have put the thing to rest.

However you may be affected by the power of guilt, you should know that it is possible to break free from its debilitating or otherwise harmful effects.

(This article has been featured on the Carnival of Improvement!)

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