When I was around six years old, give or take, my brother and I were poking around in the desert surrounding our house in Tucson. This was probably our predominant pastime, turning over rocks to watch things scuttle from beneath them and making up stories about being trapped in our playhouse by an evil monster.
In the area between our yard and our neighbors, a citrus tree had dropped some of its fruit to the ground, which we excitedly collected and brought home. It could have been two or twenty, they could have been oranges or grapefruit, but the discovery seemed like a treasure.
That is, until my mom marched us over to the neighbors, who were to my mind ancient and scary, to return the fruit and apologize. I remember feeling awful, maybe my first memory of guilt, but also maybe the first murmurings of indignation and feeling misunderstood. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, the fruit had been on the ground, and my take-away wasn’t learning a lesson over who owns dropped fruit but that guilt is a gross, icky feeling that I would like to avoid and that I can avoid it by not disappointing someone or doing anything wrong, or making sure I have an air-tight justification that will appease the person towards whom I feel guilt.
Yes, the person towards whom I feel guilt. Or maybe, the person because of whom I feel guilt. Because, truth be told, I didn’t really feel that guilty for what the adults saw as stealing the fruit. I felt guilty over disappointing my mother, over disappointing the neighbors, for being a disappointing older sister who should have known better.
Knowing my guilt is relational—that is, that it happens in the context of people and relationships and the judgment I perceive them having of me—has been a blessing and a curse (as are most adulthood, therapy-induced revelations). I can better acknowledge and place the guilt and recognize how it’s affecting me, how it drives my ruminating mind to find the perfect solution to something, to do things in exactly the right way so as to avoid disappointing people and therefore avoid the guilt I feel when I perceive I’ve disappointed someone.
On the flip side, I can feel guilty about my guilt, or at least get down on myself for it. Don’t feel guilty! Don’t care so much about what other people think! Why can’t you just not be guilty, you’re not doing anything wrong?
Well, little self-critical voice, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong with those oranges, and look what happened there. So I must protect myself! Stay in line, don’t rock the boat!
Yes, guilt is a natural human response and helps us be moral members of society. But guilt over disappointing someone (or thinking I do, I don’t even have evidence of that most of the time) isn’t exactly the same as guilt over harming someone. My lizard brain doesn’t know the difference, but my rational brain can step in and remind me that I can trust myself to make moral decisions and that living a life based the preemptive guilt (or based on the guilt of the guilt) over maybe sort of possibly disappointing someone isn’t a very good way to live.
I’m working my way through this list of words that have changed in meaning for me over time.
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