Unknotting the Bindings of Toxic Guilt

To feel guilt about causing harm is a healthy and productive emotion that leads us into healthy, self-responsible relationships. Without guilt, we would have no sense of ethics, no concern for the harm done to another person, no capacity for intimacy. Guilt tells us when we’ve fallen out of integrity with our values, and it leads us back to self-respect.

Unfortunately, guilt sometimes also serves to bind us in automatic deference, to make ourselves smaller, to sacrifice our needs and deep values for the comfort and well-being of others. Guilt makes us vulnerable to control, and at its worst makes us controlling of others.

When we feel responsible for all of another persons’ feelings and needs, any action we take that makes them uncomfortable, upset, or inconvenienced begins to bring up feelings of guilt. One person’s disappointment in me feels like a direct assault on my sense of self. I have to avoid it at all costs. That is when guilt becomes toxic and oppressive.

Strategies of control and dominance

An image of a pug wrapped in a blanket.
This one feels disappointed but doesn’t blame you. Photo by Matthew Henry.

If I cannot differentiate others’ feelings from my own, it’s inevitable that I begin to figure out strategies to manage or avoid feeling guilt. Often this comes out as efforts of control. I must manage myself so that I never hurt, anger, disappoint, or grieve another person—which quickly becomes overwhelmingly stressful, surrounded by people with wildly different responses. I might also try to control those around me so they don’t have those feelings, through bullying, placating, flirting, lying, double-dealing, or exploding in response to any kind of accountability.

To be in a healthy relationship, I need a clear sense of my self, my edges, and the edges of the other person. I need enough distance from their feelings and behaviors to soothe and know myself, so that I can meet them authentically. When I fear disappointing someone, I lack the distance to think about on these expectations. Who appointed me the job of keeping them happy? Is this what I honestly want, or something I’m doing to avoid bad consequences? Is this a task I gave myself? Are the expectations to which I hold myself, or to which they hold me, ones that I can live with?

Perhaps their expectations, hopes, needs are fully valid but still not correct for us. In the early stages of a romantic relationship—okay, in nearly every stage of a romantic relationship—these differences in expectation become clear. Our partners get upset at us for behaviors that are innocuous to us. In Elisa’s family, you ate whatever was in the fridge, but in Jacob’s family you never eat the last of anything without asking. Both expect this behavior of their partners because it’s normal to them, not realizing that family cultures are different. Then they clash, because someone has to be right. Eventually, perhaps, they arrive at the point of seeing these as different and equally valid beliefs, and find a compromise that works for both.

But if Jacob reacts with intense anger and shaming every time Elisa finishes something without asking, and Elisa feels guilty and believes she’s in the wrong, both become smaller and disempowered in the relationship. Elisa starts walking on eggshells, not sure what will set Jacob off. Elisa feels uncomfortable even asking Jacob what he’s upset about, thinking with Jacob that she should simply know and understand and something must be wrong with her for not getting it.

Jacob’s anger might run from a deeper wound. Perhaps he expects that Elisa should be able to know his desires without him needing to ask for them. He feels embarrassed about having wants and needs and shy about asking for what he wants. When Elisa does not magically know what he’s thinking, he feels a deep, years-old disappointment that he is invisible and unseen. While Elisa could spare him from this by being accommodating, in the long run it might be necessary for Jacob to feel this disappointment as his own. Until he begins to face how much this pattern of expecting his needs to be known without him asking for it, he will continue to feel disappointed, disempowered, and heedless of how much he sets up his partners to fail.

Rather than accepting responsibility for others’ feelings, I can focus on cultivating my ability to respond. This is separation that enables connection. Rather than internalizing another’s opinion of me as something threatening and needing control, it behooves us to work on making our inner experience a safe place to experience all of our emotions and thoughts.

When it’s okay to feel disappointed, hurt, angry, fearful, joyous, it’s easier for me to realize that other people can have these feelings without dying. And, indeed, maybe these feelings are necessary. Nobody’s feelings are “wrong,” they are information. When a person feels betrayed by my actions, that’s important information for them in deciding what they need to make this relationship work. If I feel remorse for my actions, that’s important information for me about what I’m willing to do to repair the relationship. If I feel that I was acting in integrity, that is information too.

Without this differentiation, we feel as though we should and must control someone else’s emotional experience. We feel bound to their feelings, that any upset or anger they feel toward us is another binding that keeps us from being ourselves or doing what we want. We have to stop everything and fix them, even if we don’t feel we did anything wrong. We feel reluctant to share our perspectives and act.  While this is primarily for our own comfort, to avoid the feelings that come up when there is anger or hurt directed toward us, it becomes a hook. This person’s disappointment, anger, or hurt develops its own power of control. Unconsciously or otherwise, the relationship becomes a struggle for dominance.

Liberation from guilt and oppression

Here is an important truth, emerging from social justice discourse: “You are responsible for your impact, regardless of your intent.”

Here is another important truth: “I can only be responsible for my experience.”

While paradoxical, both truths are valid. I like to joke and throw out random witticisms in conversation. When I’m lucky, people laugh. Other times people respond with irritation, upset, or anger. My intent was to have fun, my impact was that the person became upset. I might have made light of a topic that is sensitive and important for the person. I failed to meet them where they were, I took up space when they needed it, or I poked a sore spot. When I was younger and stupider, my humor had racist and sexist overtones. Even when I thought I was satirizing racism, the Black person who didn’t know me and didn’t need to hear that felt upset.

My impact did not line up with my intent. To know this is a gift. It helps me to think about what went wrong and how I can better align the two in the future. In the meantime, it is worth acknowledging that I caused harm and making amends.

Where privileged folk—white middle to upper class people in particular—get stuck is in toxic guilt. When we’re confronted or called out, we are in the dilemma discussed above. We do not fully understand the harm we caused and want to keep it at a distance

Image of a hand open beneath hanging chains.
Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra

Being ruled by guilt is not healthy for anyone. It is stressful and narrowing. Marginalized people often experience pressure to contort themselves for the comfort of the socially, politically, and economically powerful, that the feelings of the powerful are more worthy of care and concern than their own. This reinforces fragility in the privileged, who do not have enough practice tolerating emotional stress. In these cases, the consequences of the marginalized not doing emotional labor for their oppressors tend to be more costly than feeling bad for disappointing someone.

In this writing, I speak of ”marginalized” versus “privileged” as relative positions rooted in how much social power one has. Young children are less powerful than their parents. Employees are less powerful than their bosses. In the United States, immigrants, Native people, and people of color are generally less powerful than white people.

The current moment of #metoo is rife with questions about guilt and expectation. As stories come into the light, we see more clearly how much the subjects of patriarchal violence have had to endure, swallow, and allow to poison themselves to get along. Now is a moment when the anger has broken this pattern of denial and minimization. Women and other victims of sexual assault, coercion, and harassment are sharing their stories and pursuing action.

This is the kind of behavior that a sense of toxic guilt would normally bind, and we see that guilt rising to meet the outpouring of anger. Repeated injunctions to think about the harm they may be doing to the men they are accusing. Redirecting the conversation to looking at how those who experienced the harm might have taken more responsibility to avoid it or stop it.

Privileged people struggle, I think, to step out of dominance relationship with regard to feelings. There is a sense that someone’s feelings have to be right and another’s wrong, so a white person working on being “woke” may look at being called out as a sign that they need to throw out all their feelings and perspective and wholly embrace the truth of whomever is calling them out. Complete submission, which is rarely asked for nor appreciated. 

My observation is that part of this is that dominance in relationship is so ingrained that the privileged person is unable to see the difference between engaging in honest conflict versus defensiveness or stonewalling. A person early in interrogating their own perspective gets feedback on their defensiveness or stonewalling and then assumes that means any kind of disagreement or difference of opinion with a person of color is racist.

Men regularly told they are “mansplaining” are unable to fully understand the difference between that and having a conversation. This naturally engenders some frustration which then leads to demands for emotional labor from the marginalized person.

As a white man, I’ve gone through phases where I’ve been called out by a woman or a person of color and responded with a conciliatory, “Thank you, I’ll go think about it,” response that did not engage the critique and mostly seemed to leave the other person feeling grossed out.

These days I practice staying in the conversation, staying with the discomfort and trying to understand what is being said to me while also standing in my perspective and experiences. I am in a place where I do not automatically agree with every person who calls me out or challenges me—but neither do all women or people of color agree with each other. One thing that I do believe, however, is that these folk know about what it’s like to live their experience than I do. There is something I can take in from their perspective that would enrich mine, even if I don’t agree with everything they say. And as I want to move toward my liberation, I would prefer to support others in seeking their own liberation and not thinking I know what they need to do.

As I explore my relationship with guilt, I find there is not a clear maxim that will guide me through each interaction gracefully. Nor do I want a carcereal model in which acknowledging guilt results in exile or imprisonment. What I seek is a way of working with guilt that brings justice to those harmed, reconciliation when possible, and liberation for all involved.

Having an emotional experience has material consequences for our ability to concentrate and be present in the world. If you’ve ever felt anxious, angry, or triggered, and tried to read, take a test, or do your job, you’ve likely seen how much your emotional state affects you. These consequences are mediated by how many inner and outer resources we have to experience and process the emotions without getting overwhelmed. We can deliberately harm someone by pushing their buttons, triggering them, lying about what’s happening, being defensive, being hostile and insulting, or going cold and not responding at all

The Restorative Justice movement employs strategies such as group sharing of stories and experiences to process the harm of a crime and lead both the perpetrator and victims of the crime to find a workable resolution. This model inspires me in its integration of healing and justice for both victim and perpetrator. I believe such a process would further help us to discern who is guilty but capable of returning to the community from those who lack conscience or remorse and will not respect community agreements. For such people, whether on a social or interpersonal level, we do need the capacity to set and defend our boundaries.

Working through hurt without someone being wrong

When I explore patterns of toxic guilt with clients, we often find deep wounds arising from childhood experiences in which disappointing, hurting, or angering one’s protectors and caregivers was experienced as a life-threatening risk. Children depend so much upon their caregivers for emotional regulation and basic needs of existence, and sometimes our experiences of learning are such that people internalize a belief that it’s literally dangerous for a person to be angry or hurt. This becomes a vulnerability in the psyche that activates even as adults when we are better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us.

An image of a Black person looking out from a rooftop with a pensive expression.
Photo by Keem Ibarra

Stepping on an emotional landmine or triggering a trauma response are circumstances in which the paradox of “I am only responsible for my experience” and “My impact is more important than my intent” come into play. The person who is experiencing the trigger or emotional upset may want to blame their partner, but this leaves them disempowered and dependent upon their partner. The partner who stirred up trouble may want to dismiss or blame their partner, but this would be unhelpful and make the problem worse.

It is a difficult dance, but understanding this is our partner’s personal struggle empowers us to be more compassionate and emotionally supportive. When I am not struggling with my guilt and shame, I have more room to be caring and understanding, to acknowledge how they experienced my actions. I don’t have to agree with their interpretation of reality, but I can understand it.

In relationships, these kinds of negotiations are frequent and necessary for a healthy system. Perhaps Jacob tells Elisa that she’s allowed to do whatever she likes on her date with Rhonda. Then, say, Elisa decides to spend the night at Rhonda’s since it’s getting late, and texts Jacob the information before turning off her phone to go to sleep.

Jacob suddenly feels betrayed and angry. On some level he expected Elisa to come home after her date, and maybe he was not fully conscious of that expectation until now. Perhaps he thinks it’s “obvious” and that Elisa deliberately crossed a line. When Elisa comes home, thinking she’s been abiding by the “do whatever you like” rule, she suddenly finds herself being angrily insulted or berated for breaking an agreement that was never overtly made.

If Elisa feels a sense of toxic guilt, she might then stop seeing anyone and resenting John, because he’s so inconsistent. Or she might start hiding, skirting rules, or demanding legalistic rules and insisting Jacob cannot be upset if she follows the letter of the law.

Jacob could have handled things differently. Perhaps her coming home is actually not that important to him, it’s that he felt taken off guard by her texting him right before going to bed. Perhaps it touched on some old pain of his, fears of abandonment. Perhaps this experience has caused him to realize he does have a need to have Elisa home at night, though he’s otherwise okay with her doing anything else.

A way he could communicate that would be to own his experience and share it. “When you did this, I felt angry, hurt, and scared. I think I need you to come home at night, or I would prefer if you had called me so we can talk about it and not you deciding and then turning off your phone.” Instead of internalizing guilt over his feelings, Elisa could acknowledge his experience and feelings and share her own. “We had not talked about it, so I assumed it would be okay. I didn’t think I was going to stay until we found out how icy the roads had gotten.”

In this conversation, harm happened but no one did anything “wrong.” Both partners find a solution through understanding what happened and their own feelings. If they create a rule now, it will be one that works for both—“I will call if I want to spend the night,” or Jacob will realize it isn’t that important to him after all, he mostly wanted some reassurance that she considered his needs.

Safety and mutual accountability are necessary in working through these situations of guilt. Each person involved needs to have the relational safety that it’s okay to discuss their experiences and feelings about the event without being judged, shut down, shamed, denied support, thrown out, assaulted, or otherwise attacked. Each person needs to have the inner safety that it’s okay to experience all of their feelings—especially the painful ones—and to be honest about what they understand of their motivations. Each person needs to be willing to hear and say things that might be difficult.

This accountability is deeply helped by speaking from and of our own subjective experiences. We cannot control our partners, but there are many ways we can talk of our feelings and needs that decrease the friction of the conversation.

It helps to set up rules, such as one person shares their experience while the other person simply listens, quietly, without making a noise, giving commentary, or making faces, only asking for clarification and understanding. Then the other participants get their turn.

Rules for talking are as important as rules for listening. One thing that seems to engender the most defensiveness and anxiety is when one person makes accusations of the other. “You did this, you made me do this.” We’re all walking around in our own subjective worlds, privy to our own inner thoughts, feelings, and motivations, but only able to at best make an informed guess about another person’s. Most of us hate being misrepresented, too, and feel an urge to defend ourselves against any kind of impugning of character.

One strategy to defuse this is to focus on naming your observed behavior and then speaking of my experience. “When you sent me a text saying you were spending the night, I felt angry and hurt. I tried to call you, and your phone went to voicemail, so I figured you’d turned it off. I wondered if you were upset with me. I had a hard time sleeping, and I felt scared.”

For those of us with toxic guilt, these conversations may bring us into a deeper level of affect, the part of us that fuels the patterns of guilt and social control. We may feel terrified, for example. Rage. Some primal emotion connected to a childhood wound, an experience we’ve been trying to avoid since. Scared of being punished. Scared of being abandoned. Rage that our needs were unmet, or ignored. Feeling that is an opportunity to plant our feet on the ground, feel the steadiness that meets them. Breathe deeply, imagining that you can give space to those big feelings, that you can become big enough to hold them with ease. And then we get through the conversation and find that the worst hasn’t happened. Or perhaps it did, and it wasn’t so bad. Something needs to change, but our adult selves are able to manage it. We learned something deeply important that we’ve needed to learn to keep growing. We showed up and were held to account, and now we can be more conscious, more effective.

The path of transformation

Here people begin to have some discomfort. “What if we make a rule, or set a boundary, and my partner continues to break it?” The discomfort connects with deeper fears around addressing toxic guilt. What if we are truly honest about ourselves, and our partner cannot accept it? What if we stop placating or accommodating? What if our partner feels betrayed by our actions, and we have to admit we caused harm? What if I stop doing everything for my community, and our event fails because no one else stepped up?

Essentially: “If I stop controlling others, how can I control them?”

To be empowered, we must accept responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, and let go of the idea that we can control others’. To stop saying “you made me angry” and start owning “I felt angry.” “You made me” feel a feeling binds you to me, and me to you. I have to make you different so I can feel differently.

I’ve noticed a backlash to this wisdom, but I believe the backlash is to the abuse of this wisdom. Too often folks conveniently twist this insight to dismiss and belittle others for daring to have feelings. “You need to be responsible for your feelings.” That truth needs to be balanced by the truth of “I am responsible for my impact.” Feelings are valid sources of information about my needs and values. Anger tells me that I have a boundary you’ve crossed, or a need going unmet, and that needs to be addressed. My responsibility is to explore the feeling, figure out what need it’s pointing toward, and communicate that to you in a respectful way. If you think my responsibility is to never feel or express anger or hurt, you are welcome to go fuck yourself.

If we set a boundary or express a need and our partner persists, then we’ve learned a lot about what they’re capable of and what kind of relationship this is. You get to decide what to do with that information. You get to decide if you are safe to stay, and what you need to create more safety for yourself. You might have to find resources and allies. You might have to make some hard decisions.

Image of a neon sign with the word
Photo by Ross Findon

This is often scary, and feels unfair, but it is the cost of personal power and freedom. When we accept responsibility for ourselves, and stop trying to control, we have so much room for greater honesty, deeper intimacy, more authentic alliances. If another person’s guilt tells them they are out of integrity, then they have all the motivation they need to do the work of coming back to you, working with you to repair.

We are bound to unsustainable patterns out of a fear of death. Not the death of our bodies, but the death of a way of life that is familiar to us, reliable, known. We can fear it like we fear our mortality, for too often we prefer the known misery to the unknown. To change our relationship to guilt will lead to other changes. Maybe the event fails. Maybe the relationship ends. Maybe people do step up and we find the community is able to hold us. Maybe the relationship deepens and becomes better than we’d ever imagined. Maybe things end, but we find something even better.

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