Judgment: Guilt vs. Accountability

So, diagnosable sociopaths excluded, everyone has a conscience. It can manifest in any number of forms: a nagging voice in your head, a twisty feeling in your gut, or perhaps just an intangible sense that whatever you’re doing is wrong. We’ve all experienced guilt, and we’ve all had to face consequences at one time or another. Part of growing up is recognizing when you’ve done something wrong, and how to step up and take responsibility for it. Part of being a healthy person is also recognizing when something wasn’t your fault, and standing up for yourself appropriately.

These are not easy things to do. Both of these actions require assertiveness, honesty, courage, and lots of practice. They also require you to have a deep knowledge of Self. You have to be able to be sure of yourself when entering into either of these situations. You need to be able to answer these questions: What was my part in this? How did my actions effect this situation? What are my instincts telling me about how much responsibility I have in this? Is there anything that might be prejudicing my answers? Once you have some insight into what happened, then you stand a good chance of responding appropriately.

However, if you have a history of an eating disorder, addiction, self-harm, or trauma, it’s likely that your sense of right and wrong have been quite distorted. You are probably living with either tremendous, excessive, inappropriate guilt, wherein you feel responsible for everyone and everything in your world; or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you live with a constant current of rage and feel incredibly entitled, fuck the system and what anyone thinks, the motto is, “my life has sucked so now the world owes me.”

I understand both. Though excessive guilt was more my thing, I definitely hung out on the “fuck you” side for a few years. It makes a lot of sense. I’d venture to say that nearly everyone with the issues mentioned above did not have a Happy Days childhood. Most of us suffered abuse at the hands of people we knew, or watched people around us model the behaviors we later developed ourselves. We became adults in grade school; we told lies for others and kept terrible secrets. We were threatened and terrorized and shamed into submission. We felt guilty and responsible for things that we couldn’t even articulate, let alone perpetrate. We were kids. And the natural innocence and integrity that comes with being a kid was stolen from us.

This was not right or fair. And while there’s no way to change the past, I believe there is a way to reclaim your integrity, a way to feel whole again. People who suffer from excessive guilt have to realize that they are not responsible for everything. They have to stop feeling like a burden to everyone around them and learn that they deserve to be taken care of. Some say that the people who grow up feeling guilty about what happened to them as children need to forgive themselves, but I think that is inaccurate. I think you have to understand that there’s nothing to be forgiven because you didn’t do anything wrong. Once you truly get that, so much of the guilt and shame fall away. As for the other side, there’s also a process of forgiveness. I’ve said it before: rage only ever stems from shame. Once again you have to understand that you did nothing wrong, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s also about letting go of the resentment, the bitterness about how you got screwed out of a childhood. It happened. You can’t change it. Holding onto the rage about it just keeps you stuck, hurting and wishing you could fix the unfixable. The only way to loosen the chains is to accept the fact that there’s nothing you can do about the past. There is, however, plenty you can do about your future.

Learning to be appropriately accountable for your actions- whether you’re accustomed to feeling guilty about nothing or everything- is an incredible challenge. It’s one worth undertaking though. When you can really stand up and say, “Yeah, this one was my fault. What can I do to fix it?” or, “I appreciate what you’re saying, but this was not my wrongdoing,” it feels amazing. You don’t have to be defensive and duck responsibility; you don’t have to slink away and take the blame for someone else’s screw up. And even when you have to face consequences, telling the truth (no matter how cliche this sounds) really is it’s own reward.

Responsibility and accountability are necessary if you want to be an active adult participant in society. It’s not always fun, but it is necessary. And sometimes it can be enjoyable, like when you have a job that you love, or when you pay your bills on time, there’s a sense of accomplishment and pride about taking care of yourself. And as far as guilt goes? I think it’s like pain: it serves a purpose in keeping us from getting burned. When our demons are trying to shout down the better angels in our heads, guilt- or the wish to avoid guilt- might keep us from doing something stupid. And as long as it’s kept in check, balanced by Self’s integrity, it can be asset. So keep pushing forward. Keep pursuing your truth, gaining insight, and restoring your Self. Forget feeling guilty about things in the past; focus on being accountable for your future.

© Sarah Henderson 2010

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About writingforrecovery

Sarah is a writer and poet who speaks out about issues that make people uncomfortable. Sarah advocates for causes such a sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and mental illness, and often speaks openly about her own experiences. She is determined to abolish the stigma associated with these issues and believes that it starts with people telling their stories, so she started a blog called Writing for Recovery where people can do just that. She is the author of three volumes of poetry and is currently at work on her fourth. She is convinced that there's a novel somewhere in her, and occasionally picks at the chapters so far. View all posts by writingforrecovery

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