Updated: May 20, 2020
A proven formula for letting go of guilt, victim mentality and self-sabotage.
Guilt can be a paralyzing emotion.
Once we feel guilty and start overthinking, it is nearly impossible to make any decision and move on. We just think and think and we want to do something to correct the situation so we can feel better. Until then — peace of mind is impossible.
The cause of guilt is doing something wrong. The effect of guilt is punishment. “I did something wrong, now I deserve to be punished.”
Most people are not aware of the punishment element, yet it still drives their behavior.
Children know this intuitively. I remember getting my first D from Math at school. I was 12 and I knew I screwed up. After I came home I received an endless talk from my mom. I remember asking:” Mom, why don’t you rather slap me so this can be over?”
Punishment buys us freedom.
When they announce “Guilty” at the court verdict, we go to prison se we can be free again. When we cross the speed limit, we pay the fine and we are free. When we feel we hurt someone, we want to do something for them so we can feel better. Better = free again.
That is why some people believe that revenge will make them feel better. Someone did wrong to them, they feel hurt and now they have the right to “settle the debt”. If it is buried deep in the unconscious, it feels like the most normal thing to do.
Guilt is a destructive substitute for responsibility and learning.
It is also one of the most difficult emotions to deal with because it can be hard to notice and has a tricky mechanism that keeps it locked in place.
Understanding the nature of guilt allows you to spot it, release it and heal from its effects.
Table of Contents: The Evolution of Guilt - How do we create guilt & How do we pass it on to the next generation? The Relief Mechanism: Why Do We Hold on to Guilt? - Why punishment feels good & Strategies for self-punishment A consequence of guilt: Codependent relationships - The Victim, Tyrant, and Savior identities How to let go of guilt: 3 Steps for Healing Conclusion: You were never guilty, you were just confused. Take action!
The Evolution of Guilt
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” -proverb
Guilt is not built-in the child when it is born. It has to make an effort to create it.
How do we create guilt?
Every child is born free of beliefs, rights/wrongs, good/bad and any judgment whatsoever.
It is also born completely helpless and its survival is fully dependent on its parents.
To survive, it needs to learn how to get along with the adults and the external world. Therefore it starts adjusting its internal world to fit the external one.
A developing child’s brain is like a sponge — it sucks in all the information from the external world and creates its logic (if-then) that makes sense to it. The older it gets, the better judgment it has so the logic becomes more accurate. But early on, these judgments and logical links can have literally zero adult common sense.
For example: If I smile, my mommy smiles. If I yell, I get attention. But also — if I look sad, I’ll receive love OR If I break stuff, I get attention. If I [behavior], then [reaction].
In the ideal world, every child develops confidence through learning to trust and love itself and others. This is achieved through growing up in a safe environment to experience and learn, that is created by its parents through their unconditional love.
There is no punishment, judgment or “you should have known better”, but safe and nurturing support in exploring and experiencing the world as a loved human being.
To this day, you know the feeling very well.
A feeling of unconditional love changes our body chemistry and emotional state. Just think of someone you truly love. Someone you hold dear, someone whom you unconditionally wish good, no matter if you receive anything back or not. Someone so beautiful to you that you wish to nurture them and to support that beauty and goodness. Someone whom if you give, it feels as if you gave to yourself. Someone, for whom you are eternally grateful. Someone, who you truly love.
For a full experience, take a deep breath, read it once again and then close your eyes and feel the feeling fully.
Did you feel any physical sensation in your body?
Chances are that you felt a warm, expanding tingling on your chest and maybe a little smile on your face.
For a child, who does not speak, talk and understand, a child who has no idea whatsoever about what is going on in this world and only has a feeling as a sense of direction, you can multiply this feeling by 10.000x.
For a child, this is the most beautiful feeling in the world.
Because of that, any slightest parental behavior that contains withholding of love becomes a form of punishment for the child (not talking to it, lack of emotional presence, physical punishment, etc.) and the child is ready to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to prevent this behavior from ever happening again.
For a child, withholding love is the worst punishment it can receive.
In the ideal world, love is never withheld from a child.
However, we live in the real world, which is imperfect and far from the ideal one. Every child is taken care of by the imperfect parents, who also had imperfect parents, who also had imperfect parents, etc.
Inevitably, a child in its endless playfulness, curiosity and zero patience will experience withholding love and punishment after the parental patience ran out or after parental insecurities and imperfections show up.
Some punishments are subtle, some are more obvious.
“[Mom does not talk to me.]” “Do not talk back rudely or you won’t play PC games.“ “Always say “good day” to others or dad will be mad at you.” “Have good grades or you won’t get money.“ “But also — look both sides before you cross the road or mom will yell at you.”
The behaviors causing withholding of parental love shape the child’s understanding of the world. It does not know that withholding is caused by its parents’ own mishandled emotions and insecurities. Its understanding does not go that far.
It just naively concludes — “I must have done X that made me deserve this pain.”
The child, therefore, embraces punishment as a natural and logical consequence of certain behaviors.
“If I do X, I will be punished. I rather do not do X.”
The intention is good — parents want to keep the child safe, maintain their comfort and balance AND the child adapts to the outer world.
When the punishment happens for the first time, it is unexpected and painful. The fourth time, it is more expected and equally painful. The eighth time, it sees the pain coming and therefore starts to fear it.
This fear of punishment is the feeling of guilt.
With enough repetitions, the mere thought of the upcoming experience of being punished is extremely painful. The child starts to feel tremendous fear of that pain happening again long before it actually happens.
Think of it as when you go to the dentist (or a public speaking performance or a mother-in-law visit — the principle is the same). You know it will be painful. The suffering starts long before the experience.
And that is how Guilt works.
Through repetition, fear of punishment becomes conditioned in the organism as a “natural response” in the same way as Pavlov did with his dogs.
The fearful expectation of punishment by someone important (parents, friends, colleagues, society, God…) is the basic nature of guilt.
The child does not know that this is a conditioned response, it believes that it is natural, logical and normal.
If fish lives its whole life in a dirty water, does it know that the water is dirty? It does not.
See it on your guilt examples — who will punish you for the things that you feel guilty about? Parents? Society? Police? Spouse? God (or any other moral authority)?
Because the painful expectation, that the punishment will come is terrifying, the child wants to do anything to relieve it.
The mind starts exploring what it can do to: 1. relieve this pain and 2. get love back again.
And all children, in their naive and innocent nature, create a fascinating coping mechanism that helps them to survive.
How do we pass it on to the next generation?
The tough part about guilt is living in an ongoing pain without any explanation of it. It’s all subconscious. If you feel chronic guilt, you might constantly feel like you did something wrong, you are wrong as a human being and other people are suffering or might suffer because of you. You need to constantly do things perfectly to avoid punishment, justify your behaviors, apologize, feel sorry about yourself and others, etc.
And because it seems unfair and illogical, you will be resentful towards those who are free to behave in ways that would make you feel guilty. Subconsciously you will judge them, and therefore, consciously they will annoy the hell out of you.
Many people heal from their guilt-conditioning, but most people, unfortunately, give up and resign.
They get bitter and subconsciously treat their kids and those around them in the only way they know: withholding love and punishing. This supports the guilt pattern and continues the cycle being passed on to the next generation the same way it was passed on to them.
Guilt can be healed. There is no reason to blame yourself or anyone else. It is impossible to completely avoid guilt in the same way as it is impossible to avoid any other emotion. We are all human beings, we are not broken and there is a way out.
The Relief Mechanism: Why Do We Hold on to Guilt?
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.
Why 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”. Prison gets you 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’m sorry 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 complimentRejecting an honest apology - Calling oneself “stupid” or “idiot” or any other disrespectful words - Self-defense and offensive misinterpretation of any constructive feedback - White lies - etc.
Being constantly on guard to do the right thing, to avoid guilt and punishment, one can develop more complex behaviors, including:
- Social anxiety - Fear of failure & fear of success - Pathological lying - Imposter syndrome - Codependent relationships
Codependent relationships a consequence of guilt, and they are an excellent opportunity for discovering your subconscious guilt patterns so that you can release them.
A consequence of guilt: Codependent relationships
Guilt is a defense mechanism of the young naive mind to interpret the recurring situations in early age.
A young, naive mind that is being repeatedly punished does not understand why this is happening and looks for explanations.
In a perfect world, a child understands the insecurities and imperfections of its parents and it would love them through all the pain and emotional rejections — it would love them unconditionally.
In the real world, that is humanly impossible.
Therefore, the child, unable to see the flaw in its own logic, accepts the guilt and punishment as “normal”. To relieve its powerlessness, it gives up on responsibility for the pain and takes on the identity of a victim.
The victim stance is a powerful one because of its seeming benefits — the victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable and forever entitled to sympathy.
However, the benefits are heavily outweighed by the downsides — it feels oppressed, ashamed, hopeless, misunderstood and powerless in the world.
No one in their right mind would give up all this power voluntarily and therefore the mind creates another identity to keep its sanity: the Tyrant (persecutor). “It is all because of [the tyrant].” The tyrant is ultimately responsible for all the pain that the victim suffers. This can be anyone from family, teachers, men, women, society, government to the most subtle one — the God.
I do not use God to prove a religious point, but to personalize that which is unchangeable, unquestionable — the Universal Nature of Things, etc. — often effectively used by victims to justify their stance and refuse to take responsibility.
For a victim to keep hope for a better life, it creates the third identity: the Savior (Rescuer). There must be someone “good enough” who will validate all the victim’s pain, hopelessness, and victimhood, who will take care of them and ensure their happiness.
Long story short: 1. A child gets punished for something it does not understand. 2. Repeated punishment becomes an unchangeable standard. 3. The child identifies itself as a victim to deal with the pain by giving up responsibility. 4. It creates the Tyrant (Persecutor) and a Savior (Rescuer) to distribute the responsibility and keep the balance.
However, this only created a new problem:
Tyrant and Savior are clearly distinguished good/evil characters. Every child wants to be the good one and does not want to be the evil one. What immediately emerges is a fear of being a Tyrant and a want to be the Savior.
It will fear to hurt others so much that it will be suppressing its own personality, so no one is harmed and it will be easy to blame.
It will try to save others — even if they do not ask for it.
And it will be a victim itself: always identifying a Tyrant and a Savior in the outer world.
It will be stuck in an endless loop of hurting others — saving others — and suffering caused by others. It becomes Victim, Tyrant, and Savior all in one person, alternating between them.
As a victim — you cannot have the upsides of giving up responsibility without having the downsides.
None of the identities objectively exist in the real world. It is all made up in the head of the victim as a result of the responsibility transfer.
There is an incredible complexity of the behaviors that can emerge as an interaction between Victim, Savior, and Tyrant. For more information about these dynamics, read The Game Free Life by Stephen Karpman or Games People Play by Eric Berne.
If you do not want to study the complexity of the effect you can solve the problem at its root cause — which is guilt. Letting go of guilt, dissolving the punishment based model of the world and taking back your responsibility is the fastest way to freedom.
How to let go of guilt: 3 Steps for Healing
The most difficult part about letting go of guilt is recognizing it in the first place.
This can be hard sometimes because we are so used to it that we perceive it as a standard mode of operation. Remember? Fish living in dirty water its entire life does not know that the water is dirty.
Step 1: Decide to let go of the Victim mindset for life.
To start letting go of a victim mentality, you need to explore some of your deepest global beliefs. Start with the following questions:
- who are you at your deepest core? - what is your very basic nature? - how much does a person have to go through to become a truly justified victim?
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, got imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps at his age of 37. For 3 years he lived in starvation, zero hygiene, in the extreme cold under extreme mental exploitation, witnessing the death of his peers every day and burying many of their dead bodies himself. None of us can probably imagine the level of pain he went through.
These are all his quotes:
”Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
-Viktor Frankl, A Man’s Search For Meaning
That is not what a victim thinks like.
He was released from the camp at his age of 40, he had published 39 books, which were translated into 49 languages. He lectured and taught seminars all over the world and received 29 honorary doctoral degrees and died at the age of 92.
Frankl simply never gave up.
Who defines what is possible?
Today, there are guys, who were abused as children, yet still became one of the top Navy Seals and run marathons through the desert, who went through real-life tragedy and now break world records climbing Mt. Everest half-naked, who went from depression to doing 50 Iron Man triathlons in 50 days, who become one of the most influential women in the world despite repeated sexual abuse as a child or become successful and fulfilled even if they were born with shortened legs and no arms (!!!).
All these people have one thing in common: They refused to be victims.
All these people are people like you and me.
Once you decide to take responsibility, once you decide to believe that your nature is one of loving, once you decide that you can always rise above the circumstances of your life, there is nothing in the world that would stop you from becoming what you truly want.
Let go of being a victim. For life.
Step 2: Embrace absolute responsibility for everything happening in YOUR life.
The Drama Triangle (also called Codependency Triangle) emerges as a result of giving up responsibility.
I suffer and there is nothing I can do (victim). Someone else caused my pain (tyrant). Someone else can save me (savior).
The fastest way to get out of all three at once is to embrace the belief of absolute responsibility:
“I am absolutely responsible for everything happening in MY life.”
The statement works both ways — it allows you to take your responsibility back again and it prevents you from taking responsibility for others’ feelings and caretake them.
Using this statement, you are also subconsciously saying to others: “Everyone is absolutely responsible for everything happening in THEIR life.” — meaning you can be neither their Tyrant nor their Savior.
One could argue that the words of others can hurt us. But is it really true?
Is it the words of a person or is it your interpretations of those words that are causing you the pain? Is it the act that creates pain or is it the meaning you made from it?
No one is born a victim. Every victim is self-made and self-healed.
Accepting, that you made yourself a victim is the fastest way to recovery.
You are not responsible for others’ words and actions, but you are fully and absolutely responsible for your interpretations. And your own words and actions.
Even today, the pain caused by your Tyrants is not caused by their words and actions, but by your interpretations of them. You are creating all that stuff in your head.
You create your own tyrant through self-doubt. You create your own savior through self-pity. You create the victim through giving up responsibility.
Yes, originally, you were small and naive. But today, those interpretations are yours. And you can change those anytime.
In fact, it is easy to change them.
What is difficult is leaving the comfort of being a victim — being innocent, morally right, not responsible and entitled to sympathy forever.
It hurts to let that go and suddenly face the world and have your own skin in the game.
But the truth is, that one pain is even greater — the pain of living your life as oppressed, ashamed, hopeless, misunderstood and powerless victim, realizing on your death bed that it was your own game the whole time.
Step 3: Ask new questions and gradually decompose guilt.
Once you feel guilt (fear of being punished), a lot of additional damage is caused by the disempowering questions like “Why me?” or “How can I be so stupid?” or “How could I?”
These questions need to be reversed to undo the guilt conditioning and create feelings of responsibility, empowerment, and love within you.
Next time you feel guilty, stop for a second and ask yourself:
1. “Do I really need to be punished?” Asking this makes you immediately aware of the punishment game, your mind is playing with you. You never need to be punished. All you need is to learn. Punishment prevents learning.
2. “Can I love myself anyway?” Any punishment, in its essence, is a lack of love or you withholding your own love from yourself. Asking this question redirects you towards feelings love and forgiveness for yourself.
3. “Is there a part of me that would benefit from being punished?” Being a victim is the world’s greatest excuse for not taking action. This question allows you to uncover the victim part of yourself that enjoys it. It allows you to see your motivation more clearly and let go of it more easily.
4. (optional) What am I doing to cause this? This question allows you to take your ultimate responsibility back.
Asking these 4 questions will give you different answers than “Why me?” and will not let you go down the guilt spiral into shame and depression.
Turning it into a habit will continually decrease your guilt conditioning, change the way you see the world and ultimately change your life.