Updated: May 20, 2020
Understanding your subconscious guilt mechanism will allow you to finally stop self-sabotage.
Emotions come and go. Guilt is different. Some people feel guilty for things they did decades ago. Why do they do that?
Body, heal thyself!
Our bodies have natural healing abilities.
If you accidentally cut yourself with a knife, your body heals by itself. You do not have to do anything, just let it be and it will do its job perfectly. Putting plasters, oil or any liquids on it — all with good intentions — are slowing down the natural process.
It works the same way with emotions. If you feel sad, allowing yourself to feel the sadness is the fastest way out of it. If you resist it, rationalize it, hide it from yourself — all with good intentions of avoiding suffering — it can stick around for years.
When punishment feels good
Guilt is a bit different though. Guilt is a conditioned response of the organism to fear the expected punishment.
The underlying belief is:” I did something wrong, now I deserve punishment.”
Over time, guilt (fear of the expected punishment) grows to the point that the child punishes itself to relieve the fear.
Once it is punished, guilt (fear of punishment) goes away.
Wrong was done, the punishment was received, the account is settled, freedom is returned.
The firm unconscious belief of "Wrongdoing deserves punishment." makes this behavior automatic.
The punishment bought us freedom.
That is why the courts’ verdicts are "Guilty" and not "Responsible". You go to prison to get freedom, eventually.
However, this creates another problem: 1. you still believe that certain behaviors are wrong and they still trigger guilt, 2. the punishment became a reward because it relieved the fear, and 3. you will eventually get addicted to self-punishment as a way to relieve this fear over and over again.
Long story short, it works like this: Wrong-doing — guilt (fear of punishment) — self-punishment — “freedom”.
Behavior becomes a conditioned response to a personal perception of wrong-doing. A reflex.
Normally, any reflex goes weaker naturally as the reward for the behavior stops existing. (e.g., if you stop rewarding a dog in its training, its desired behaviors will gradually stop)
The problem with guilt is that anytime you feel it and you punish yourself to relieve it and feel better, you give yourself a short-term reward that keeps guilt locked in place.
The subconscious learns that handling guilt this way — “If I feel guilty, I will punish myself and feel good.” — is normal. And short-term, it works.
However, in the long-term, the list of the potential wrong-doings (guilt-triggers) stays equally long and solving the guilt through punishment is simply unsustainable. I guess that is also why you are reading this article.
Strategies for self-punishment
What are some of the most common ways we punish ourselves?
“What can I do for you?” (in a forced way: “Come on, there must be something I can do for you, so I do not have to feel guilty.”)
“I am such an idiot.” (“Look how much garbage I can pour over my head before you do that so I can be done with my torture as soon as possible.”)
Emotional self-punishment. (Questions like — How could I have done that? How can I be so stupid? How could I? The answers are clear — because I am mean/evil/wrong/broken etc. — and they all cause us pain.)
Psychosomatics. (We punish ourselves by harming our bodies subconsciously. We do not sleep, we have diarrhea, stomach problems, headaches, etc.)
Self-sabotage. (Guilt makes us believe, we do not deserve what we want so we punish ourselves by sabotaging our efforts to achieve.)
The behaviors are endless:
Apologizing for the things you do not feel responsible for
Feeling guilty for the frustrations of others
Rejecting a sincere compliment
Rejecting an honest apology
Calling oneself "stupid" or "idiot" or any other disrespectful words
Self-defense and offensive misinterpretation of any constructive feedback
Being constantly on guard to do the right thing, to avoid guilt and punishment, one can develop more complex behaviors, including:
Fear of failure & fear of success
Codependent relationships a consequence of guilt, and they are an excellent opportunity for discovering your subconscious guilt patterns so that you can release them.
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This article is part of the Guilt series.
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