Too much guilt makes people behave badly

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.


About thetroublewithillness

I've been a counsellor for people with physical illnesses for a long time now, and learnt a lot about what it's like living with your own or someone else's illness. I want to pass some of this on.
This entry was posted in carers, emotions related to illness, grieving processes, talking about feelings. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Too much guilt makes people behave badly

  1. Eileen Carey says:

    As a retired “Family Crisis Counselor ” I feel this article could be harmful for some as it seems to be a description of someone that may have some “neurosis” problem…our society as a whole has become TOO obsessed with excergerated “positivity”..which has put too many in a kind of “bubble” mentality of untruths..guilt is with us to help us to ACTUALLY become better Human Beings. I am not talking about over exaggerate guilt either..i am speaking of the kind that You SHOULD have tinge of to PREVENT a person from participating in something harmful or agregious . We as a whole especially in the U.S. “we” have forgotten and bought into so many LIES because WE are drowning in CONSUMERISM & other “entertainment’s” to DISTRACT us regarding REAL ” history” ..if You ask most younger people they mostly ” know” very little about the REAL history of our World..they “live” in bubbles of avoidance until the REAL feelings come..then they seem very ill equip to deal with other words many of us have taken their coping skills away which then makes them drug use is rampant now both legal and illegal..yes too much neurotic guilt is not healthy I agree but I KNOW without a little “guilt” this World would be EVEN worse in many ways..”those that don’t know real history are dammed to repeat it ” OR ” those that REFUSE to look at reality or take responsibility of actions are creating a selfish World” Bless Infinite

  2. Eileen Carey says:

    Forgot to check the box that it’s ok to reply.

    • I certainly agree that ‘positivity’ has been overplayed. I’ve written an article about this:
      ‘You Have to Keep Positive! Grieving? What’s That?’ by Julia Segal, published in Neuro-Disability & Psychotherapy 3(2) 128–133 (2015) where I point out the importance of acknowledging losses, and how people cannot allow ‘negative thoughts’ if they are not aware that a grieving process is possible and beneficial. There is a discussion of my paper in the same journal.
      I certainly agree that a sense of guilt is vital for controlling behaviour. My point was directed at families where people try too hard to make each other feel guilty, without being aware how much bad behaviour is a result of guilt which cannot be acknowledged out of despair at ever making things better again. There has to be some hope of forgiveness, which is not the same as denying guilt. I don’t think it’s a ‘neurosis’ problem; I think it’s a normal misunderstanding of other peoples’ feelings.
      Thanks for commenting!

      • Eileen Carey says:

        Thank You for responding as well…i am always seeking intelligent & interesting perspectives…as my Life has never been lack of fascinating situations. Bless Infinite e.m.c.

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