Too much guilt can be overwhelming. It feels like an attack. It becomes ‘persecutory guilt’.
Persecutory guilt is too frightening to be acknowledged. It makes people behave badly rather than apologise.
It can be so frightening that even thinking about it is unbearable; certainly discussing it is out of the question and there is no way an apology could be considered. The (unacknowledged) thought is more like:
‘I have destroyed everything in the world that mattered. All hope is gone, and is it ALL MY FAULT. There is nothing I can do except pretend it isn’t true.’
‘If I admitted to any guilt, I would be admitting I was totally responsible for a total nightmare, and the only solution would be to kill myself. Nothing less would do.’
With persecutory guilt, it can feel as if there is no hope for forgiveness or for a future worth living. Any attempt to make things better just seems like a cruel false hope which needs to be crushed immediately. Anyone else being happy just feels like an accusation, a cruel tease or taunt. It can feel as if the only thing to do in this situation is to make everyone else just as miserable. At least that would bring some control back into the situation, and reduce the agonising comparison with other people who can still be happy – ‘when I can never be happy again’.
Other people knowing about this kind of guilt can be very frightening indeed. Bad behaviour can keep other people at a distance – particularly those who might care enough to enquire closely what is going on.
This kind of guilt can get pushed back into other people and turn to blame.
It’s not my fault – it’s yours!
It may not be at all clear what ‘It’ is. Persecutory guilt is attached to thoughts, ideas, beliefs or fantasies which are worse than reality.
‘I have ruined their life’
‘It was all my fault’
‘I should never have been born’
‘The only satisfactory punishment would be to give up my entire life forever’
‘I cannot tell anyone – they would hate me, want to kill me, tell me to give up my life to pay for what I have done..’
‘I am a total monster for doing what I did / thinking what I thought’
When guilt levels are too high, these ideas can have a total conviction attached to them. The guilt overwhelms any doubt. There is no room for any alternative thought or belief. This is partly why it is so hard to talk about them or admit them.
When or if these ideas can be admitted, in a safe setting, they can be reduced to a more normal size, though there may still be real guilt, loss or humiliation involved. Persecutory guilt goes along with exaggerated ideas of one’s own importance and of one’s own capacity for being better than everyone else. Reality-testing has a troublesome habit of challenging these overblown ideas – and that is really humiliating. Finding you were human when you thought you were much better than that, is not, at first, a comfort.
When persecutory guilt reduces to more bearable levels, other people can be felt to share it and to forgive, rather than to triumph and point the finger.
With persecutory guilt, it is impossible to make a proper estimate of the events or contributory factors which led to the situation. Blame and responsibility are attributed wildly and in an exaggerated way, and significant factors can be forgotten or ignored. The role played by an illness is one of the factors which is often forgotten or ignored.
Recognising how little control we have over our own and others’ lives can also be harder when fear and guilt levels are too high. When we are frightened, knowing we cannot control events is very scary indeed. Both bad behaviour and blame can be ways of asserting that someone did have control – and perhaps of focussing attention on a small aspect of the situation which could have been controlled, when a much more significant aspect could not. Unfortunately, blame can create enemies when friends are most needed.
Behaving badly can bring some kind of relief in many ways.
- It can keep others away and stop them thinking clearly – for fear they would find out how bad you have been.
- It can be a distraction (for everyone) from the terrible guilt.
- There can be a kind of relief in making yourself feel guilty for something which you can acknowledge. The guilt feels true and right – but the real cause is unacknowledged and still hidden.
- Bad behaviour can be punished – and it feels as if punishment is fully deserved. Punishment may seem a safer alternative to total destruction (which the really guilty fantasy demands).
- Behaving badly may bring an opportunity to throw accusations around. These may allow the real fear to be named – but in a way which cannot be sensibly discussed. Or it may prevent sensible conversations, which keep the real guilty fear hidden.
Persecutory guilt can arise when there is a dread of some terrible outcome, and no opportunity to talk it through and see how terrible it would be, how realistic it is, how much support would be around. If the nightmare scenario can be discussed, it reduces and becomes less frightening. Some kind of hope returns, even if not directed in the same way as before. After this, the level of guilt can reduce and people can sometimes behave better.
Unfortunately, talking about the terrible, feared situation can seem so terrifying that it is impossible.
Fears about talking can include:
- Talking about it would make it happen
- Talking about it would make it happen sooner
- Talking about it would be too much for someone else – a parent, a partner, a child
- talking about it would make someone cry – and this is unbearable
– as well as the fears attached to the feelings of guilt and responsibility. While any of these fears are active it may not be possible to start the conversation which would reduce them. The guilt may stay unbearable.
One way to change bad behaviour which results from too much guilt is by reducing the level of guilt. But this can be difficult when other people want an apology and want the person to admit they feel some guilt. In the persecutory state, ‘some’ is felt to be equivalent to ‘all’.
Saying ‘I’m guilty too’ sometimes helps, but it can backfire if the level of persecutory guilt is so high that it results in the ‘all-or-nothing’ blame being redirected.