The science of guilt
A 1994 bulletin by Baumeister, Stillwell, and Heatherton maintained that guilt in relationships stems from two sources:
Empathy for suffering we’ve caused our partner.
Anxiety that the wrongdoing will result in rejection or destruction of the relationship.
In 1995, a year after this was published, there was a study that associated feeling guilty with higher rates of learning a lesson from the experience, changing behavior, apologizing, confessing the transgression, and recognizing how your partner's expectations and standards may differ from yours. In this sense, guilt can be a helpful emotion to feel, since it can spearhead behaviors that work towards making amends and preventing a reoccurrence of the issue in the first place.
Guilt and manipulation
The same study also posited that the closer we are to someone relationship-wise, the more likely we are to try to manipulate them by making them feel guilty about something. Additionally, the most common trigger for someone using a guilt trip as a manipulation tactic is the feeling that one’s partner isn’t spending enough time with them or giving them enough attention.
Using the guilt trip as a manipulation tactic not only isn’t a productive or healthy way to act in a relationship, but it also can lead to the generation of a feeling called “meta guilt,” even if the guilt trip is effective. The person targeted by the guilt trip often feels resentment over it, which makes the manipulator feel guilty about doing the manipulating, which leads to meta guilt.
Guilt can diminish your self esteem and degrade your boundaries, especially if guilt is triggered for the wrong reasons and making you feel unworthy.
It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Feeling preemptively resentful or defensive about something, for instance, can put you in a position where your partner may pick up on your mood and reflect it, causing conflict between the two of you.
Guilt can get in the way of gratitude. If your partner does something nice for you, like giving you a gift for example, internalized guilt can prevent you from being able to receive it.
Guilt can fuel the urge to withdraw from a partner. Feeling like you can’t do anything right or that you’re a constant disappointment can make you withdraw or close off from people, which hinders communication and isn’t productive to a relationship.
Turning your frown upside down
Now that we’ve explored how guilt can be unhelpful, we’re going to talk about how to tackle guilt and prevent it from having a negative impact on your life and relationships.
Verify whether the guilty feeling or signal is real or not. Do things like clearly checking in with your partner, asking “Did I do something to upset you?” instead of just assuming that you did.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Turn around a situation and ask yourself if your partner was in your shoes or vice versa, would you want them to constantly be feeling guilty about this action?
Check in with your values. Ask yourself "Do I feel bad because I've done something that goes against the type of person I want to be?"
Check in with your internal messaging. Ask yourself “Do I feel guilty because I think I should, because of what other people say is right, or another external value that may be conflicting with my own?"
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Jase: On this episode of the Multiamory podcast, we're talking about guilt in relationships. We're going to start out talking about some cutting-edge science of guilt and we're going to talk about times when guilt is helpful. Then also, when it's more of a hindrance. Then we're going to try to focus on how to use guilty feelings for good and not let them be a destructive force in our lives. This is fascinating, this whole thing.
Emily: Then there's guilt science. I guess there's a science of everything.
Dedeker: I have a major in guilt science. Jase, tell me about you and your relationship with guilt.
Emily: Wow. She's going to get all counselor on you.
Jase: I know. I got it. I got it.
Dedeker: How do you got it?
Jase: I got to catch them all. Catch them all.
Emily: All of them guilts.
Dedeker: How do you got it?
Jase: I don't know what you're trying to get at here exactly. I definitely feel that even sometimes assume I must have done something wrong if I didn't, sometimes happens. I try to be better about that though.
Emily: I think this is because you've thought that she was mad at you earlier.
Jase: Morning today, yes.
Dedeker: You think I'm mad at you all the time?
Jase: Not all the time.
Dedeker: Do you feel guilty all the time? That's what I'm wondering. Do you find yourself in situations feeling guilty when you haven't done anything wrong?
Jase: I actually at the meditation retreat that we did a few months ago.
Dedeker: You felt really guilty?
Jase: Well, that was it like I thought that it kept coming up for me during the meditation was feelings of guilt for things that had happened in relationships of mine maybe a few years ago, some were recently, things that I did that hurt people or that they felt upset by or whatever, feeling a lot of guilt about those things. Also, through that process, through just sitting with it, just meditating and not having something to distract myself with got to-- realized that I had stuff even from my childhood having to do with my brother that I still felt guilty about it.
This idea that I felt guilty about these things and that because I did or didn't do these things, I didn't stand up for him this one time when we were kids. And I’ve regretted it ever since with some school bullies. Feeling like, "Well, if I didn't do that, then I must be a bad guy." Because good guys would do that. Good people like heroic people or whatever would have done these things and because I didn't or because I've ever hurt someone or been in another situation if someone told me about it, I'll be like, "Yes, that guy was an asshole. That was a bad guy."
That I've done anything that could fall in that category of feeling the sense of like, "Well, I must be a bad person," or really struggling with that. Through that meditation on our final day is when I got to the root of that and had this experience of finding my sounds really, "Whoa, whoa." Right now, but finding my childhood self who first started feeling that guilt and shame and feeling like, "He might be a bad person." And comforting that young version of me. For me, it's a very profound experience. I was trying not to too audibly sob in the meditation hall with everyone that last day.
Emily: Felt like I kept handing you tissues.
Jase: Well, that's also because I've really bad allergies. That was actually most of these issues were for the allergies because I got these retreats that day.
Dedeker: Did you solve your guilt free part to be?
Emily: 100% solved it.
Jase: What's funny is it actually having that experience wasn't just to like I had that, but then everything went back to normal. It has allowed me to think about those things more as learning opportunities and ways to grow and how I want to better myself rather than keep getting pulled back to this like, "But maybe I'm a bad person, but maybe I'm not." That has changed for me actually since then.
Dedeker: Well, you want to talk about guilt science?
Dedeker: Science behind guilt?
Jase: Do it.
Dedeker: I don't think it's actually it sounds psychological field or anything, but I just like the turn of phrase, 'guilt science'.
Emily: Yes, there's been studies in various things. There was a 1994 article. That's a while ago now, 1994.
Dedeker: It is a while. Take it with a grain of salt, it is a little bit older stuff.
Emily: Yes. It was in psychological bulletin. Psychological bulletin.
Dedeker: Which is like a scientific journal?
Emily: Yes. I was like, "Is it a psychology, is it psycho-- oh, there it is logical bulletin by Baumeister Stillwell and Heatherton."
Jase: I would've said Heatherton but-
Emily: Heatherton? Like Heath Heatherton. Sure.
Jase: Like potato, potato. Heatherton, Heatherton.
Emily: All these people found that guilt in relationships come from two sources. The first source, empathy for the suffering we've caused our partner. Second source, anxiety that the wrongdoing will result in rejection or destruction of the relationship. This is like guilt within relationships specifically.
Dedeker: Yes. Specifically, it's like what produces these guilty feelings. Honestly, just reading that, but it's this double-edged sword or there's two sides to the coin of guilt. Already that was really fascinating for me because it really got my brain turning in thinking about times that I felt guilty in relationships of, "Wow." I feel there are certain times where it was of much higher ratio if I empathize for my partner's suffering versus other times where there's a much higher ratio if maybe I empathize less but I'm more anxious that they're going to reject me or get rid of me or dub me or something like that. I don't know. What's all your personal experience with that?
Emily: It reminds me of like when you see dogs that look like they might have done something wrong or because they've had a reaction from you in the past that was really angry that they're cowering in the corner. That's the anxiety part of the potential wrongdoing. It's that manifestation is in that dog who's cowering in the corner because they might have done something wrong or they are worried that you're going to get angry at them.
Jase: Yes. Just to go on this dog thing for a little bit. I remember learning about that where people will often say about their dogs like, "They act guilty or they know that they did something wrong." People who are more dog scientists, so a guilt science and also dog science, tend to say, "No. Actually, your dog doesn't feel guilt." But based on this situation having similarities to other situations where you've been upset that they can pick up on these subtle cues that you're giving or based on the situation that they're in. That's why they react that way because they're bracing themselves for your reaction not because they necessarily feel guilt in the same way we do about-
Dedeker: It's maybe more of the anxiety side versus the empathy side. They can empathize with knowing like, "I really pissed off my owner by destroying all the toilet paper or whatever. It's more of, "I'm anxious because I know from my-
Jase: I anticipate.
Dedeker: Yes, from their body cues and tone of voice that they're going to yell at me or stick me outside or something like that.
Jase: The reason I bring that up is not to make this podcast be about dogs.
Dedeker: Why not?
Jase: That could be a great show actually.
Dedeker: 230 episodes in?
Jase: Just, we're changing the course.
Emily: Yes, exactly. We're going to take a left turn here.
Jase: The reason why I bring that up though is that I think as humans we have an aspect of that too where we will pick up on those subtle cues and will react to things because of the cues we're getting from other people, but we won't be aware of that because it's more of a subconscious process and then our subconscious can misidentify those things and feel like, "I feel guilty now and I don't even know why." Or that they can add to other feelings because then once we feel it, our brain tries to find like, "Well, I must have a reason for feeling this. Let me try to find it."
Your brain won't always see the actual reason which is just like, "I picked up on these cues from my partner and so I had this reaction." Anyway, just something to be aware of.
Emily: There was this study in 1995 a year after this article was written by the same researchers and they associated feeling guilty with higher rates of learning a lesson from the experience, changing behavior, apologizing, confessing the transpression and recognizing how your partner's expectations and standards may differ from yours. That's interesting. If
you feel guilty you might also feel all of these things.
Dedeker: You're more likely to do these things. That if you don't feel guilty, you're less likely to want to apologize for it or to want to change your behavior or even to confess for instance.
Emily: I do think the guilt can be associated with empathy. I think that it can also be a destructive thing in a variety of ways, especially if like something is held over your head by your partner or vice versa.
Dedeker: We'll get to that .
Emily: The above list that I just said was essentially the ways in which guilt can be a useful emotion for us. If we're able to highlight what went wrong, we can also infer and figure out like how these things need to be repaired or how that thing that you did or the thing that your partner did, how it can be repaired.
Dedeker: Feeling guilty, it's not purely just a poisonous feeling that you need to get rid of right away. It can actually be very useful indicator. What was interesting is that the same study also found that the closer we are to someone relationally, the more likely we are to try to manipulate them by making them feel guilty about something.
Emily: Yes. Manipulate. I don't disagree but interesting.
Dedeker: It's like the tactic of the guilt trip is something that we're much more likely to use with people that are very close to us, that we know very well, that we care about versus someone that we care about maybe a little bit less. They found that the most common trigger for people using guilt as a manipulative tactic, the most common trigger was their partner not spending enough time with them or not giving enough attention.
Jase: I feel like 100% what they meant to say was, people not having as much sex with them as they want, their partner to.
Dedeker: You think so?
Jase: The guilt trip for that, 100% for sure.
Emily: I mean, there definitely is one. .
Dedeker: manifest is that.
Jase: I think that comes up a lot in relationships. The like, rather than being angry about or something it's like, "No. I'm going to act to hurt so that you feel guilty about it." Thinking that that will get them more of what they want. We've talked on other episodes about studies showing that the opposite of that is true. That actually, that tactic is not effective. Maybe if you realize that, you stop that one.
Dedeker: They did find with people who implemented the guilt trip tactic with their partner, there was a cost to the behavior even if it was effective. They found that often the target, the person who was made to feel guilty, even if they did change their behavior or give their partner what they wanted, they were much more likely to feel resentment over it. To feel resentment that they had been jilted into doing something that they didn't want to do. Then on the other side, they found that the person who was inducing guilt in their partner is also likely to then feel guilty about doing that, thus generating what they call meta guilt.
Emily: I know. I love that. Meta guilt.
Dedeker: Didn't even know that was a thing.
Jase: But it makes sense though.
Dedeker: Now, you know.
Jase: I feel guilty about making you feel guilty. Meta guilt.
Dedeker: Now, we all feel guilty and no one's happy.
Jase: Gosh. I feel like we also go to great lengths to try to get out of feeling guilty, like finding ways to justify our actions and things like that as a way of lessening our feelings of guilt. I feel like in this situation, I could see that then like-
Emily: Perpetuating and being cyclical.
Jase: It's like, because I now feel guilty for making you feel guilty. I'm going to try to find more ways to justify that, which probably means finding more things you're doing wrong so that I can justify my actions. It just can end up in this cycle where there's resentment all over the place and guilt all over the place. It's a big old mess.
Dedeker: Yes. Basically.
Emily: They're all a mess.
Jase: Guilt is not always helpful .
Dedeker: As we're saying.
Jase: Part of that is that guilty feelings can be triggered for the wrong reasons, sending incorrect signals and stories about yourself. Constant guilty feelings can make you believe like I was saying, make you believe that you're someone who repeatedly hurts people or fails people. It can diminish your self esteem and it can degrade your boundaries by making you feel unworthy. If I'm guilty, I can't possibly complain about what anyone else is doing or voice a boundary or voice a concern or a complaint about something that's going on.
A version of this has to do with when there's been some infidelity or maybe some other breach of trust in a relationship to varying degrees but it's that, the person who did the wrong thing feels guilty about it. Perhaps the other partner adds to that. Tries to keep that feeling of guilt going on maybe in the hopes that that will keep them from doing it again. Using that guilt to get what you want. Then it can lead that person who's feeling guilty to feel like, "Well, I can't bring up anything that's a concern for me because I'm the bad one." "I can't complain because I'm the bad one." I've just got to live with being unhappy and not voicing any concerns or having any boundaries.
Dedeker: Have you ever experienced that?
Emily: Not specifically in infidelity but yes, I think so. I think it can cause one to feel really bad about themselves and think that they're just a bad person or that they're shitty at something or like, "Yes. I must not be giving my partner what they need in a variety of ways," like sex or whatever. That's definitely been a big one in my life. I must just suck at sex because I'm not saying yes all the time to my partner and they're guilt-tripping me into making me feel bad about this or whatever.
Jase: I feel like I also see a version of this one a lot with couples who open up previously monogamous relationship or people who are new to polyamory where it's not an infidelity per se because they are opening up their relationship but it's like those little omissions of information. Or it's like, because you don't have those habits yet of how to communicate about this and it's scary. I've seen people who will often be like, "Well, I didn't feel like I could bring it up. I wasn't sure how to say."
The fact that you hooked up with someone or that you ended up going on a date or expressing feelings for a friend of yours or whatever it is and you just don't say something about it until later and then maybe try to hide it. Something like those types of things I feel like is an example of this. It's even just infidelity in the traditional sense but of where that person then feels guilty and feels like they then can't voice any concern about anything else. The other person will often reinforce that. They'll be like, "Yes, you can't. You can't say anything. I can do whatever I want now."
Dedeker: Well, I think that if-- because sometimes in relationships without even realizing it, I think we can slip into this sense, this story of one of us is the good one and one of us is the bad one. Especially with something like infidelity or where someone fucked up essentially that it can be really easy to fixate on that. Then it's like, "You're the one who did the bad thing." Sometimes I think it can be easy to fall into this temptation of keeping your partner guilty to keep them in line or keeping your partner guilty because you still feel hurt in somedays.
Emily: I think that's a big one.
Jase: Yes. I agree with that.
Dedeker: I've also seen this with couples who are opening up. I've seen this so many times. Sorry. Where one person who will guilt their partner by saying like, "Well, we're doing this because of you or we're doing this because this was your idea." Basically, the idea being that it's like you're not allowed to complain about anything that I'm doing or anything like that because it's a sacrifice I'm doing in the first place.
Emily: I'm doing a few sacrifice.
Jase: Yes, because you made this choice that hurts me and so, you can't complain about anything now.
Dedeker: You don't have a right to be hurt. People do some shitty stuff.
Jase: Often are unaware. That's the hope of this episode.
Emily: The hope of this podcast.
Jase: Let's become aware. There's so many things that we've become aware of that. It's like, "Oh, yikes. I was doing that thing." I feel like this is definitely one of those categories.
Emily: Guilt can also turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you are going out on a date with someone and your partner is super okay with it, no problems, you might still feel guilty about it even though everything is totally aboveboard. Then maybe on the way home, you're feeling stressed, you're feeling preemptively resentful and ready to go on the defensive right when you walk in the door. Once you do walk in the door, your partner might pick up on that withdrawn or really stiff energy and then, might react in an equally withdrawn or stiff manner and then-
Jase: There you go.
Emily: You're screwed up. You're totally
Dedeker: spiral. In so many times.
Jase: This-- so much.
Dedeker: In so many times.
Dedeker: I've been on both ends of this so many times.
Jase: Something like this happened with me and Dedeker the other day. It had to do with me having time to get my work done. It was just a weird combination of specific things that it had been a struggle for us in the past but actually, this time was going great but I preemptively reacted like, "I should be annoyed about this because I have been in the past."
I think that comes up a lot in this situation where it's like, if your partner ever did react-- like they were home alone and feeling bad and upset and you came home to that, you may not always come home expecting that, which then kind of traps them into always reacting that way because you've set them up to it by walking in expecting it and having that energy with you.
Emily: Even just having the idea that their behavior in the past is going to be remaining static and that one can't change and move past that, that's really difficult for me and I know that that's something that I've experienced in relationships on both ends as well. It's like, "Hey, okay, but that thing happened like years ago and you still are reacting to me in the manner of the thing that occurred back then. I've learned a lot since then and I understand what you need from me and I am trying to do that, so why are we still reacting as though I don't know how?"
Dedeker: I think this is a really common phenomenon that happens with people who are new to opening up a relationship, think about it, we're socially trained to feel guilty about liking someone who's not a partner or to feel guilty about wanting to have sex with more than one person or feeling guilty for not wanting to have sex-
Jase: Or about having sex at all, maybe.
Dedeker: It's very easy to have internalized guilt I think, even if you've gotten the okay from everyone in your life and that they're supporting, it is still so easy to still just have that on autopilot within you.
Dedeker: We talked about this on the show before that it's like, if you're disclosing something to a partner or even if you're coming out to someone or things like that and you're acting like it is a shameful and guilty thing, other people pick up on that and they're going to be like, "Why are you acting all weird and shameful? Is there something that I need to know about? Is there something that you're hiding? Is this not on the board?"
Jase: They won't actually say that but it'll be going on subconsciously, that's the problem.
Emily: There's something going on with this person.
Dedeker: Definitely. Another thing about guilt, the way that it can hinder us is it can get in the way of gratitude.
Jase: What do you mean by that? It sounds like some hippie crap.
Emily: Wow, look at this guy.
Dedeker: I'm offended because I was just about to be really vulnerable and be like, "This is a really tough one for me."
Jase: I was trying to be like the other character in the scene who prompts you to-- I was playing a part. I don't actually think that, I love gratitude, everyone who listens to this show knows that.
Dedeker: It's the kind of thing that like when a partner does something nice for you or they compliment you or they give you a really nice gift that there can be this internalized guilt that can prevent you from actually being able to receive it. That happens to me all the time, I've found specifically when it comes to receiving gifts, especially if the gift is expensive or nice. Bear in mind my bar for expensive is very low-
Dedeker: - which makes it a bit difficult, pretty much if you spend more than 20 bucks on me, I feel bad about it.
Emily: Say again.
Dedeker: No, no, don't take the no, it's-
Emily: Because my love language is give, so I love giving gifts.
Dedeker: You're really good at it and I love all the gifts you've ever given me but it's more something that's come up like with my relationship with Alex because one of his top love languages is gifts, he likes buying nice gifts every time. I'm just like, "No, I'm not worthy of you spending money on me. No, it's not good." I could dive into where all that comes from, I think it's family of origin stuff.
I think this has come up with our stuff around compliments also that we've talked about on the show before of if someone gives you a compliment and either, it can be kind of a self-esteem thing of like, "Well, I don't believe it. I don't believe that I'm actually handsome or charming or smart or whatever." Or it can be a weird guilt thing of feeling like, "No, I don't feel worthy to accept this compliment." Does that make sense?
Emily: Or that I'm a bad person if I believe that about myself.
Dedeker: Or I can see the person if I do.
Jase: That's a rough one.
Dedeker: It's this weird emotion that can be so helpful but also can just really block you from receiving these really good things that people want to give to you.
Jase: Next one we have here is that guilt turns you inward rather than outward. Like a lot of these things we've been talking about, it makes it easy to just obsess over your faults to the point of not actually doing anything proactive about the future such as dwelling on the past, feeling bad and I'm terrible rather than focusing on like, "What can I do to be the best person I can be?"
In the studies earlier, we talked about they did show that guilt does motivate people to make changes but it's this kind of guilt that just gets stuck there rather than guilt over a specific thing that I'm going to take action about, this more generalized guilt that I think can build up is not helpful because it doesn't allow you to focus on what you actually can change and instead focus on what you can't change which is the past.
It also makes it easy to get caught up in anxiety about our partner abandoning us, which will also tend to make us do things like try to hold onto them tighter, maybe even resorting to making them feel guilty in order to make sure they stay with us or being less able to hear them if they have a complaint because it's like, "That must mean they don't love me." Rather than, "They're telling me this because they do love me and how can I improve?"
This isn't just in relationships, that shows up in a lot of areas, like white guilt for example. If you're so caught up in how guilty you feel for being white, you're not doing something to actually make the world a better place instead, you're just self-flagellating and just feeling bad about that or guilt about other privileges, privileges like being male or being straight or whatever it is that it can be easy to fall into this trap of just like, "I should feel guilty all the time." Rather than-- it distracts you from being able to focus on what you can do to better yourself.
Emily: It's important to take your guilts and move it forward like-
Dedeker: Take your guilt and shove it.
Emily: No, I'm saying like, put it in a proactive and productive place.
Dedeker: I always question, I'm like, "Where exactly does this come from?" This tendency of feeling guilt and then, just being able to just sink into that guilt and just stay there and not move. Is it a toxic parenting thing where it's like as a child, you had to be demonstrably guilty before you felt like you could be loved again by your parents or before you felt that you could get their forgiveness or something like that? Is it a puritanical culture or religious guilt kind of hold over of this sense of you are constantly sinful and you need to constantly be feeling bad about that? I don't know, what do you think?
Jase: Boy, I could definitely relate to that idea of needing to be demonstrably-
Emily: Me too.
Jase: - apologetic and guilty feeling in order to prove that you actually feel bad enough so that then you're okay, I could say that.
Emily: I think it's why I like to say sorry every single time of the moment.
Jase: Every single time of the moment.
Dedeker: What do you mean?
Emily: People have told me that I say sorry a lot. I think I say a little less now but-
Dedeker: I think you have gotten a lot better at that.
Emily: I used to.
Dedeker: Since we started throwing skittles at you.
Emily: Exactly. I used to say, "I'm sorry."
Jase: You used to throw skittles at Emily when she said sorry.
Dedeker: I don't think we ever actually threw skittles, we just always threatened to throw skittles.
Jase: I think one time I threw a real skittle.
Emily: You might have, yes. I've gotten better about it but I think-- my mother always used to tell me like, "Please say you're sorry, say you're sorry, say you're sorry." Or say thank you.
Jase: I remember that was a big thing in my family was about like, if my brother and I got in a fight needing to apologize but it's like, there's maybe a certain thing about-- it's more than just saying, "I'm sorry." Having to really demonstrate how bad you feel.
Emily: How bad you did, that you know that you did bad, that you know that you were wrong.
Jase: That that might somehow make it better. It also makes me think about-
Dedeker: There's also the weird thing though, is that when you make kids apologize to each other, if you've ever witnessed it, they don't seem guilty. You know how it is when you're a kid and your parents are like, "Go say sorry to your brother." You're just like, "I'm sorry." Then stomp off, at least that's what I've always witnessed. I have not witnessed very many heartfelt apologies from children in my life.
Emily: I think you're probably right.
Jase: feel like, I don't know.
Emily: That it's your parents it's a little different, I think.
Dedeker: You think so?
Emily: I don't know. To your peers, it's one thing but with your parents, especially when they're really intense towards you or very menacing maybe at times, then it's like, "I better show sorry I am in this moment."
Jase: To go back to that thing about dogs, for a lot of people, it's like their dog does something that really upsets them. They destroyed something that was important or made a mess and that they'll yell at the dog, they'll punish the dog, whatever and then they'll stay mad at the dog. It's this like, "No, you keep feeling bad." They want that dog to keep looking guilty because it's like, "I want you to really understand how bad this was." I made a joke about self-flagellation earlier but very literally, that practice which comes from certain sects of the Catholic church about actually physically harming yourself as an atonement for your sinful nature and for the bad things that you've done.
Emily: Still continues long after, even just the act of self-flagellation, I guess.
Dedeker: You speak from personal experience Emily?
Emily: No, I'm just saying that's all I think in terms of internal and emotionally, yes, I can speak from personal experience, absolutely.
Jase: I thought you were quoting something, it sounded so poetic.
Dedeker: Yes, it did sound very poetic. That's why I was wondering. You're a poet.
Emily: A times I can be poetic, guys.
Dedeker: You're a poet of guilt.
Jase: Anyway, just at that practice though, to me is very related to this. It's like, "No, I need to suffer enough to prove that I get how bad I am.
Dedeker: The way that I see this manifest with a lot of couples is that, either it can be this weird, self-inflicted guilt of, maybe you did do something wrong that hurt your partner and then you just fall into this guilty place, and then stay there. It prevents you from being able to actually take action or listen to your partner more or get into a dialogue or it can be the opposite of maybe you do actually feel guilty about something you did that upset your partner, and then your partner wants to make sure you stay guilty as opposed to focusing on action or healing or repair or stuff like that. Those are two come scenarios that I often see.
Emily: The next one is that guilt can fuel the urge to withdraw from a partner. We talked about this quite a bit in Episode 228, which was pursuit and withdrawal. It's just this idea that if you feel like you can't do anything right or you're just constantly a disappointment to your partner, then you might want to shut down during a conversation or withdraw from a partner in order to just preserve the relationship or for self-preservation even, which makes a lot of sense.
I think we've all probably been there as well because there are moments in which it's like, "Wow, I keep feeling like I'm getting criticism or I'm getting blamed for things. I just clearly I'm not doing anything right in this relationship and so, I'm just going to sit down and shut up and withdraw. That maybe will keep this thing together in a way."
Dedeker: It's another situation where it can be tricky because it can be, you're externally getting a lot of criticism from a partner. Anytime you sit down to negotiate relationship stuff, it feels very judgmental or critical. That can really feel you wanting to withdraw if you feel too guilty about it. Or, it could be an internal thing that maybe your partner is coming to you just asking, "Hey, can we negotiate this? Can I talk about this? Can I make a request of you? Or, I just want to talk about how I feel like this need isn't getting met."
If you feel already predisposed to internalizing a lot of guilt, then you can be withdrawing because it feels like their request is also like criticism or an attack or a disappointment or that you're being a disappointment, or that you're a failure or stuff like that. It can also fuel this withdrawal pattern as well. Then the last thing we have on this list is that, guilt can keep you in a bad relationship. It's really easy to feel guilty about abandoning a partner or giving up on the relationship. This is very much closely related to the sunk cost fallacy, sometimes of, "It's been four years or five years or 10 years or whatever. For me to just walk away from that, that's a waste and I feel guilty about that."
Or if it feels like I could give another six months or I could give it a month or whatever. That preemptive guilt can keep a lot of people in a relationship that's really not serving them. If you don't feel like you're doing enough to fix the relationship, even if it's way outside the scope of just one person fixing it. From what I'm reading, it seems like the consensus on the interwebs is that, women tend to be a lot more likely to feel guilty about abandoning a relationship. I think part of that is because, disproportionately, women are expected to be the ones who do the labor of maintaining the relationship.
Emily: Just emotional.
Dedeker: Yes, or doing the emotional labor of fixing the relationship or doing the emotional labor of like, "There seems to be a communication problem, so I need to bring it up. I'm the one who was doing the radars and stuff like that." That tends to disproportionately happen to women. I think I would theorize that disproportionately, then, women are more likely to feel like, "I'm abandoning my post as it were."
Jase: I think that also people can feel that guilt even if they are doing a lot to try to fix the relationship or to fix some problem, but their partner is not participating in that. Feeling guilt, like, "Well, I just must not be doing a good enough job." Instead of being able to see the truth of, "Well, if they're not meeting me-- if they're not working with me, that's not actually my fault, maybe this just isn't going to work." It's like, it'll keep you in that sense of like, "Well, I must be doing it wrong, then. I just need to learn something better, I need to-"
Emily: I need to figure out a way in which to do a better thing.
Jase: Yes, exactly.
Dedeker: Yes. I know something that I've experienced, being in abusive relationships is unfortunately, we still have this weird, what I want to call it, this weird cultural assumption that victims of abuse have to be like perfectly innocent victims. We're much more comfortable with it, it's just this like perfectly naive, innocent victim who got attacked or abused by somebody when in reality, it's very rarely like that. It's maybe in the relationship you were shitty at times too, or you weren't as nice as it could be. I know, for myself and for a lot of other people and clients that I've worked with who've been in an abusive relationships, it can be so hard to acknowledge the abuse if you're still feeling guilty like, "Well, I also-
Jase: I got to listen perfect there.
Dedeker: Yes. "I also raised my voice or I also did some shitty things or I also did some things that made this person upset." That keeps people from being able to even acknowledge when they're being abused or not because, we have, for some reason, this weird, unattainable standard of perfect victimhood, which doesn't actually exist in real life.
Jase: All right. We want to move on to the section on how to turn guilt around, how do we really-
Dedeker: How to turn that guilt around upside down.
Jase: All right. The first step in this is to verify whether the guilty feeling or the guilty signal is real or not. What this means is things like this, check in with your partner and ask directly, "Did my actions or words hurt you? Did I do something that hurt you?" Rather than just assuming like, "Well, they're acting away so that must mean that." Just ask them.
Emily: You can't always assume what your partner is thinking.
Dedeker: You can't always think that Dedeker's mad at you.
Emily: Because it's crap.
Jase: Sometimes it's actually just because it's the morning and she hates the whole world in the morning-
Dedeker: 99% of the time that's what it is. You just got to check your watch. That's the first thing you should do.
Emily: There you go.
Jase: Be like, "It's before 11:00 AM, it's not me, it's in the morning."
Dedeker: That's weird.
Emily: Yes, correct.
Jase: The next one is to put yourself in the other person's shoes. This one, when we were talking about, maybe your partner is fine while you're out on your date, but you feel really guilty about it, is to imagine turning that around. Say, you were the one at home and you felt totally fine and you were like, "Yes, partner, go out and have your date. That's great. I'm loving my alone time." Would you want them to be feeling guilty the whole time they're out on that date? No.
Dedeker: If the answer is yes, maybe there's more followup questions for that.
Jase: Maybe you're not there yet. That's something to work toward. I think that's also useful information, but if it's this like, "Well, I wouldn't want my partner to always feel guilty anytime they did something for themselves. Why I'm I feeling that way? What's going on? Might be an indication that this isn't real guilt as it were." It's real guilt but that it's not about something concrete and real that you did, that it's just something that you've constructed.
Dedeker: I think this can also apply for situations like if for some reason, you're feeling guilty about going out to get beers with your friends instead of hanging out with your partner or you're feeling guilty about working late. That again, put yourself in the other person's shoes. If it's like, if my partner had to work late just this one night a week, would I want them to be, super guilty or if they went out, would I want them to be super guilty? That can help put some perspective on it for sure.
Jase: Then, next is to check in with your values. This is, "Do I feel bad because I've done something that goes against the type of person I want to be?"
Emily: That's really interesting.
Jase: Yes. "Or, have I done something that isn't in line with the kind of relationship I want to have? Check in with those sorts of questions to be like, "Why I'm I feeling this way?"
Dedeker: I want to know, have the two of you ever had any kind of those gut-check moments with those things on either side? Either where it was like, "I feel like I'm doing something not in line with the person that I want to be." Or where you felt guilty, but then realized, no, I'm still in integrity with what I value.
Emily: I guess it happens generally. If something pisses me off or I'm like, "I'm going to be funny right now." Then it comes out as an asshole thing to say. Then, I'm like, "Whoa. Check yourself right there. That was not okay." Kind of thing.
Emily: Yes, I've had those moments for sure.
Jase: What about you, Dedeker? I feel like you've been asking us a lot of questions. I'm like
Emily: No, it's like your job. We're all in this together.
Jase: We're not your clients right now. You're our client now.
Dedeker: I'm the client now?
Emily: Yes, right at this moment.
Dedeker: What was the question again?
Jase: These gut checks that you just asked about.
Dedeker: Ask the question again?
Jase: My gosh. Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever-
Dedeker: Are you putting patching voice?
Jase: I'm putting voice, yes.
Emily: Yes, it's good.
Jase: Have you ever experienced something like that where you check in and either realize you are doing something that's not the type of person you want to be, or the type of relationship you want or maybe that, "No, this is in line, why am I feeling guilty?"
Dedeker: Yes. I think I've had both. I think that for me, there have been times when, I guess there have been times in my past where-- Sorry, it's all kind of amorphous when I think about it, but I feel like there's a certain piece of information I could omit pretty easily and could get away with it with just is omitting a particular detail that I think maybe would make my partner uncomfortable or something like that. I do find that the longer I hang on to it, the more I'm like, "Sure, I could get away with it and be fine," but I just know that it's just 100% perpendicular to the kind of relationships I want to have, and especially being on this podcast honestly, like the kind of role model that I want to try to be, or aim to be.
I definitely had that. As far as on the other side of checking with my own values, I think this is something that a lot of people in nontraditional relationships have to handle on a pretty frequent basis. That's why I think it's so important to get down to brass tacks on what your values are, and what your boundaries are, and stuff like that. It's because, in a relationship, someone can very easily tell you, "Hey, what you're doing is wrong." Whether it's like, "Hey, you wanting to have casual sex is wrong. Dating people is fine, but having casual sex is wrong," and they're kind of imposing that on you.
Jase: Or vice versa.
Dedeker: Or vice versa, or whatever it is, that it is really important for you to do the gut check of, "Well, do I feel like that's wrong, or do I feel like that's right?" or whatever. It's a scary thing to have to stand up for your values, I think. I know, actually. I think it's important to have that as part of the process. I don't know, I just feel I have experienced that a lot of having to make that hard judgment call of realizing actually, this thing that I value is different from what my partner's telling me. Not a good enough answer?
Emily: Great answer.
Jase: No, it's great. It was your answer and so, it's great. It's your truth. You don't fail a test in your culture. Well, that actually dovetails nicely into the last one here, which is to check in with your external messaging. This is, "Do I feel guilty because I think I should, because of what other people say is right, or what other people do, or what you think other people do, or how other people feel, or whatever it is?"
Emily: Even if it is your partner.
Jase: Maybe it is your partner. Exactly.
Dedeker: I think it can get tricky because I don't want anyone to hear this and think we're encouraging people to just have no conscience and neglect their partners.
Emily: Hopefully, they're not that thinking that.
Dedeker: It is the kind of thing where it's like if you've done something, and maybe your partner feels bad about it, but it's not something that goes against what you did in your-- it doesn't go against your relationship agreements, or your shared values. It is this weird thing of being able to juggle being compassionate and empathetic for your partner's feelings, but without feeling like, "Oh, I did something wrong," necessarily, does that make sense?
Jase: It's like the unapologetic thing that we talked about. It's a hard distinction to make where, say you have a partner who's either newer to non-monogamy, or maybe both of you are or just is struggling right now for whatever reason. It's like you going on a date with someone else does cause them to be upset, but they've said, "You can do that. That's fine. That's part of our relationship. I'm having a hard time with it." It's this thing of guilt isn't helpful. You don't actually want to change your actions there, but you still want to be compassionate and understand like, "I know what they're going through." For me to change my actions, to try to cater to what I think will make them feel less bad, even if it's not necessarily in line with our agreements or my values, can actually set you up for a situation where either you end up unhappy down the line, or then once you do start doing those things again, you go through this all over again.
Dedeker: Yes, because I think that that kind of not very useful guilt can fuel behaviors like minimizing or downplaying or just trying to tell someone the reassuring version of the truth or really playing up. "I went on a date this person, but I don't think it's going to go anywhere. I don't know. The way that they grabbed my hand was kind of weird." Consensually, grabbed their hands, Emily was giving me a look.
Emily: No, I just was laughing at the idea. I was like, "How would they grab their hand? That might be weird."
Dedeker: I've heard this so many times from clients mostly. Again, part of this downplaying thing of like, "Yes, we held hands on the date, but their hands are really sweaty, and I don't know if I liked it."
Emily: It was really clammy.
Dedeker: Yes, and the guiltiness, whatever.
Jase: Even the hand-holding, you need to like, "But it wasn't as good as your hand."
Dedeker: Exactly. "But compared to your hand, it was like, frankly, a disgusting swamp."
Jase: Right. Anyway, to go back to this, so all of these things, asking the other person directly, putting yourself in their shoes and asking if you would want them to feel guilty in this situation, checking in with your own values, and then checking in like, "Am I being influenced by some external values that aren't my own?" I'm trying to determine is this guilt that means I should use this to change something or is this not, and I should find a different way to deal with this?
Emily: Let's talk about the fake one.
Jase: Which to?
Emily: If it's not real, if it's just conditioning, or it's habitual, it's bullshit, any of the above, then try to come up with some counterspells
Jase: We love this term "counterspells."
Emily: Someone said this during Minnesota Polygon. They were like, "It's protego." That's the counterspell.
Emily: Protego, I know. I always read it as "protego."
Or course I did. Do something like a mantra, like a personal micro-script that you might share with your partner, perhaps. "I'm living with integrity. I'm living within my values. I'm taking steps to be the kind of person that I want to be. I'm going to therapy." Something like that.
Dedeker: Jase, you and I came up with a micro-script around this.
Jase: Which one? We have a lot of micro-scripts.
Dedeker: I know. I should have a little dictionary
Jase: A little glossary?
Emily: That's good.
Dedeker: No, it was about when I was, and still am, tackling my feelings around casual sex, and wanting casual sex, or casual encounters, that we kind of made this micro-script around-- I forget what it was specifically, but it was around me reassuring myself, and you also reassuring me that I'm still a good person, do you remember that?
Emily: I think it was interesting.
Jase: It was like our adaptation of the thing from The Ethical Slut about the Poor baby exercise. The Poor baby exercise is the one where you, your friend, or your partner, whoever is doing this with you, just whatever you say, they respond with "Oh, poor baby," and you get to just dump whatever you're feeling upset about. Eventually, the idea is that it becomes funny, and it lets you let go of those things, but also feel heard. There's something like that, where it was like taking a moment to-
Dedeker: Where I was like, "I want to have casual sex," and you're like, "Poor baby."
Jase: It wasn't that, but it was just like, "That's great, and that's awesome that you know what you want," or some variation on that. Then it's like, "I like this sort of thing." It's like, "That's great. That's awesome that you know what you want," and just sort of having a set phrase, right? The micro-script kind of thing. That's what that one was.
Emily: Another part of this, like another counterspell, is to set a limit on how long you're going to feel guilty about something, like set a timer or set something in the calendar.
Jase: Now how long would you set this timer for?
Emily: Well, it depends on the infraction, I suppose. Really though, I mean I definitely have bad things in my life that I've been guilty about, and I didn't set a timer. Eventually, I was like, "You know what-
Dedeker: You mean where it was not useful guilt?
Emily: Yes. Well eventually, it was definitely not useful guilt.
Jase: That's interesting too. It's useful at first, and then it's not. That can happen too.
Emily: Well, it's useful in terms of, again, feeling empathetic for your partner, and feeling like, "Hey, I realized that this is a boundary of my partners that I need to at least be aware of," and all of those things. There is a point at which guilt is not, at all, healthy or helpful. Eventually, I just as like, "You know what? I'm done with that. I'm done feeling guilty." It took like six months.
Dedeker: Geez, Emily.
Jase: I get that a hundred percent.
Dedeker: I get that. I definitely had things feeling guilty about too.
Jase: I was feeling guilty about something from when I was 10.
Emily: Totally. Absolutely.
Dedeker: That's true.
Emily: I think setting a timer, it might be a long-timer, but if you do set a date in which in the future, a month or whatever, and be like, "Hey, I'm going to allow these feelings to happen, and to come up, and to maybe feel guilty about them, but by this time we need to move on."
Dedeker: I think this is after you've determined that it's no longer serving you to feel guilty?
Jase: Right. I think maybe also, I have this much time to figure out what I'm going to do, what I'm actually going to do to address this. Then once I've done that and figured that out, I'm not going to keep beating myself up for no reason. That's interesting.
Emily: Finally, this guilt might be related to anxiety. You should definitely look into things like management for that anxiety, other counterspells for anxious feelings. Again, go talk to a third-party if you can, because that can be incredibly helpful and just insightful to be able to go to a therapist or go to a really great friend and be like, "Hey, this is what I'm feeling. I'm feeling these feelings of guilt. Can we just speak about it? Can I hear your thoughts on it?"
Go check out Episode 179, which is anxiety and relationships. We talked about this a little bit in there.
Dedeker: If you've determined that the guilty signal is real, it's not just habitual. It's not just in your head. It's been six months since this thing is resolved that I need to let go. It's like, "This is real guilt. Maybe I did something wrong, or I made a mistake, or there's something that needs to be repaired something like that." Basically, the best thing to do is to let those guilty feelings be a signpost pointing you to what needs to be fixed or changed. You can do things like speaking with your partner about what are some actionable steps, what's an action plan here for how we might prevent this hurt from happening in the future. You can take some time by yourself to write down concrete actionable steps or intentions to make things better next time or to change your behavior. I think that's useful, especially if it's like I've wronged someone who maybe the relationship is not such that we'll be able to hash it out. Maybe it's not quite an intimate partner relationship.
Jase: I see.
Dedeker: I just need to know for next time, "Okay, this is the these are the things that I need to do or this is the knowledge that I need to have in order to avoid making the same mistake the next time."
Jase: Also talking to your partner about apology languages, that we did an episode on that, which is 135. That's a while ago. It's like a hundred episodes ago.
Emily: Exactly, a hundred episodes ago,
Jase: Is finding out what their apology languages and finding a way to apologize that does have meaning to them. I guess, like we're talking about when you're a kid, doing an apology, that it sounds like you mean it or actually mean it, that that might mean something different to different people. Figuring out the right way to apologize can help you and the other person feel better, which then will hopefully make you feel less guilty if you can get that they really accepted that apology. I guess quick recap of those is expressing regret, or accepting responsibility, or making restitution, genuinely repenting, or requesting forgiveness. If those don't have a ton of meaning, just as little words or phrases by themselves, check out that episode is 135. It is a really interesting thing. It's something that after around that time Dedeker and I had a lot of conversations about trying to figuring out what-
Emily: What is your apology language?
Jase: -and why sometimes you might want the other person to keep feeling guilty? It could be because you haven't gotten the apology that means something to you even if they feel like they have
Dedeker: I don't know if you remember this. Do you remember what your apology language is because I do.
Jase: Which one was fine.
Dedeker: Well, do you remember?
Jase: I don't remember.
Dedeker: When you took the assessment, yours was expressing regrets. I will say that after learning that, it makes a market difference when I bring that approach to when I do apologize to you.
Dedeker: I know. I don't know if you noticed.
Jase: No. That's great. I did at the time when we figure this out.
Emily: I'm interested in what kind of thing that he does in terms of like that he prefers people to express regret.
Dedeker: Why that is?
Emily: No. I'm asking what it is that he does towards other people what his apology languages in terms of what kind of thing you do. Do you also express regret or do you just
want people to express theirs?
Jase: If it's like a love language thing. It generally goes both ways.
Dedeker: Not always. Not necessarily.
Jase: That's how love languages work.
Dedeker: No. Not necessarily. Check it out.
Emily: I like gifts but I'm not like gaga over them. I love giving gifts. I love it.
Dedeker: There's definitely a two-way street there. Often for some people, it's the same. For a lot of people, it's different.
Emily: Yes, totally.
Jase: I feel like with this, it's like if that's what you think means a real apology, if you're trying to really apologize, you're going to use the one that to you is te most real.
Dedeker: Then you're probably predisposed. That's my view. Do you remember what mine was?
Jase: Well, right now I actually feel like making restitution.
Emily: That's what I was going to say too.
Dedeker: Mean right now in this moment?
Jase: No. I feel like I remember the answer being different when we did this before. I actually think that that one comes up and Emily agrees with me.
Dedeker: Why? Because he had the answer is different when he did this.
Emily: Because it's showing rather than then necessarily saying it's like, "Okay, I learned that that's not what I should be doing. So I'm going to show you. Next time I'll show you in my actions that this is what I'm doing."
Jase: I'm going to prove to you that this is real to me.
Emily: Correct. Well, I didn't say that. I'm going to prove to you that I got it. No, I'm kidding.
Jase: I'm going to prove to you that I'm sorry, by making a change that you can see.
Dedeker: Because when I took it, the assessment told me that it was accepting responsibility which fascinated with me.
Emily: Which is similar.
Jase: Okay. That makes sense too.
Emily: To me, that like accepting responsibility is on the way to making restitution.
Dedeker: Maybe that's why.
Jase: Well, they're all.
Dedeker: Of course, they're all little bit.
Jase: They're all a little bit connected.
Emily: I forget if I did one.
Dedeker: You weren't there for that episode. It was just Jase and I. You missed out on that one.
Jase: That's one of the ones that you couldn't make it for.
Dedeker: Never too late.
Emily: I'll take it and then report it at some point. It's finally here we are. Monitors and micro-scripts are really good for this one too if you have actually found that you are guilty for a specific reason but to tell yourself things like, "I did the best that I could at the time. I've learned some really important lessons here for next time and then thank goodness for a fogs."
Dedeker: Can you explain to us what in a fog is?
Emily: A fucking oral gas?
Emily: That was for all of you people out there.
Jase: Do you actually remember, it is?
Emily: No, tell me, tell me, tell me.
Jase: Another fucking opportunity for gas.
Emily: That's so good. It's so good. Another fucking opportunity for gasning. That's so good.
Jase: For gasning. Gosh, I hate that. I don't like that.
Dedeker: Okay. In conclusion. There's this Buddhist parable. I think the Buddha said this, I don't know someone said this. Someone Buddhists said this. This idea of don't confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. Do you understand what this means?
Emily: Yes. You may be pointing at something and it may not be the moon so don't confuse it for the moon
Jase: I also had a hard time with this one. She said this to me the other day and I was like, "I don't know what means."
Dedeker: I'll tell my version of the parable. It's the idea that guilty feelings when they come up, and especially if you determine they're legitimate, they're warranted, they serve as a signpost. They point you in the direction of what needs to be fixed, what needs to be changed, how, what my partner's expectations are things like that. Don't confuse the signpost for the destination.
What I mean by that is it's like, I think it's easy for us to be like, "Okay, I feel guilty and that's where I can stop." It's just in the feeling guilty. That's the solution is I need to wallow in this guilt and in the shame, and that's how it's going to get fixed. It's like, "No, it's a stepping stone on the path toward moving forward. It's a stepping stone on the way toward actually taking action and actually fixing things and actually, either making restitution, or repenting or asking for forgiveness, or finding a way to fix the harm that happened." Basically, I think if you're someone who carries a lot of guilty feelings around all the time, it's like you're carrying that signpost with you all the time. You don't got to. Does that make sense now?
Jase: Yes, go for the moon but not the finger.
Dedeker: Sure. Go for the moon, not the finger.
Emily: That could have been something else for the I don't know. It just sounded dirty.
Dedeker: Classic Emily.
Dedeker: We are going to be talking more about this in our bonus episode. We're going to be talking specifically about the relationship between guilt and pleasure.
Emily: That's interesting.
Jase: We can't wait till we talk about that.