When Feeling Guilty is Your Natural State

Do you ever feel like you’re inclined to accept the blame when things go wrong?  The truth is, some of us are more prone to feeling guilty, as if a background sense of guilt is just wired into our system.  Even if we don’t know specifically what we did wrong, we’re convinced that we did something we shouldn’t have, something bad, which then created whatever problem now exists.  Sometimes it’s a feeling of being wrong on a more fundamental level, not for anything specific, but wrong in our core, as if our very nature is at fault.  When we’re accustomed to feeling guilty, we also tend to end up in loverelationships with people who agree with us; we find partners who share and encourage our belief that we’re to blame, which then further strengthens it.

How does this happen?

Some people are raised in homes where they are perpetually blamed for whatever goes wrong, whether or not they had a part in it.  Usually, for a time, they fight back and continue to know themselves as innocent.  They feel the injustice of the wrongful accusations.  But as time goes on and the blaming continues, but the knowing of their innocence remains irrelevant or worse, an exacerbating factor, two things happen.  First, these people learn to accept the blame for what they haven’t done, even when they know they’re innocent—because it actually feels helpful to take the blame and it often pleases those they need to keep happy, even if at the cost of their own rightness.  But eventually, sadly, they come to experience themselves as guilty; the knowing of their innocence actually gets buried and the blame projected onto them becomes their truth.  They become the bad one on the inside as well as the outside.

In other situations, when a child is neglected, abused, or abandoned, her way of explaining this mistreatment to herself is to blame herself for what happened.  Mommy left because I was wrong and there is something fundamentally wrong about me.  Mommy isn’t guilty, I am.  I am to blame for daddy’s anger, even if I can’t know what I did to make it happen.  Daddy isn’t guilty, I am.  When we take the blame for mistreatment, we do what we most need to do, which is keep and hold mommy and daddy, internally, as the good ones.  As painful and destructive as the system is, it has a wise purpose.

As young ones, it is less painful to make ourselves the bad one rather than to allow our parent (whom we desperately need) to be bad.  More even than our own goodness, we rely on the belief in our parent’s goodness.  So too, we rely on the world making sense.  And so, heartbreakingly, we join our caretakers in believing our guilt, which then, ironically, puts the world back in order and sensibly explains their treatment of us.  The cognitive dissonance that would arise from knowing our own goodness and at the same time being mistreated by those who are supposed to love and care for us, is too overwhelming to bear.  And so we become internally wrong, which, paradoxically, makes the world understandable once again.

There are many varieties of early experiences that can create an instinct to assume blame, but in the interests of space, I will elaborate on only one other.  Some of us grew up in families in which apologies or ownership for bad behavior never happened.  When we expressed our upset, we were either informed of our crime, in other words, what we did that caused them to do what they did to us, thereby legitimizing their behavior and turning empathy for us into a moot point.  Or, we were told how we had done or were wrong, in a more global sense, which then made us undeserving of any kind of treatment other than the kind we received.

For those of us raised in this environment, empathy for our experience was simply not available; we did not know the experience of someone hearing our upset and simply caring about it, taking responsibility for and validating it, without blaming us for it.  We did not have the safety of knowing that our experience mattered no matter what it contained.  All expressions of upset were met with a lesson in our own culpability in our suffering.  The mantra in families like this is “Look at your own behavior…that’s what you never do!”  As the recipient of this kind of blame we then come to believe the mantra, to think that we are somehow responsible, not just for the situation and our own suffering, but also for not being willing to take responsibility for our deserved guilt.

How to Heal?

So, how do we stop the cycle and heal the core belief that we are to blame?  Can we free ourselves from the deep sense of fundamental guilt?  How do we remove the Velcro inside ourselves to which any wrongness seeking a home will stick?

In my experience as a therapist and also as someone who has struggled with guilt, and who was trained early to look to myself for the cause of my own or another’s suffering, I can offer a few thoughts, which I hope are helpful.

To begin with, we have to unpack the original source and conditions for our assumption of blame, to navigate through the who, what, where, how, and why (carefully) of our being blamed, and also see what that created in us.  Secondly, we need to bring compassion to our own experience, to open our heart to the suffering that comes with feeling always to blame, with having to play the role, and worse, believe the role of the bad one.  So too, we need to notice where we started to agree with our accusers, and understand and forgivewhy we needed to do that to be okay, how the system of blame worked. This involves spending time unraveling our relationship with blame and guilt, and looking deep into our conditioning, and the making of our identity as the one who’s wrong.  We do this with another human being: a therapist, counselor, spiritual teacher, friend, or anyone else who is fundamentally on our side, and can keep our eyes and heart open when we’re inclined to slip back into the darkness and pain of self-blame.

We also, in this process, need to separate outcome from intention.  That is, we need to look through our lives and notice where we blamed ourselves or were blamed by others for an unwanted result, but without considering what we were trying to make happen—our intentions.  Most of the time we’re doing our very best to make something good happen, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  We can’t control outcomes, only intentions.  Most of the time, blame is about having created a wrong outcome and yet it utterly ignores the intention that was mother to the process. In turning the light from results to our intentions, we re-train ourselves to connect with our goodness (which lives in intention).  We befriend the part of ourselves that’s ignored when we’re being blamed or self-blaming.

As we go through this process, it’s also profoundly important that we examine our life now and identify the areas where we ourselves are adding to and creating our sense of blame and shame.  Often, we engage in behaviors that initially alleviate our sense of guilt, but then end up fueling and justifying that guilt.  For example, I recently worked with a woman who started drinking casually, in part to ease her sense of unshakeable (although non-specific) guilt.  But over time, her drinking had become more secretive and frequent, which then gave her ever more reason to feel guilty and bad.  The coping mechanism for our guilt becomes its cause.  We need to be fierce and rigorous in our self-inventory, and most importantly, to terminate all those behaviors that in any way strengthen our underlying sense of being blame-worthy, or in any way contribute to a sense of self that forms a handshake with our earliest blamers.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, breaking free from the assumption of blame relies upon having a different experience of ourselves in the world.  When we put ourselves in the company of people who are kind and reliably on our side, who start (and end) from the belief that we’re good and our intentions are positive, who are willing to listen and care about how we are, even when it might not be what they want to hear… then, we learn to see ourselves through the lens of kindness and support we see in their eyes when they look at us.  Miraculously, we come to know ourselves as innocent.  When we consistently put ourselves in an environment of acceptance and love—the opposite of blame— surround ourselves with people who are fundamentally for and not against us, we then awaken to our truth, the one we knew a very long time ago, before it had to go away.  We awaken and discover that our acceptance of guilt, of badness, is inherently unkind and unfair—to ourselves.  We see ourselves, at last, as good.

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Can I Let My Child Be Bored?

Perhaps the most common question I get in all my talks to parents and families around the country is What should I do when my kid says he’s bored and I don’t want to give him the device? 

Just this week, a mom told me that her son is always asking her What’s next? I’m bored, what should I do next? This mom, like most parents these days, feels a tremendous pressure to occupy her son’s every moment, to urgently get rid of his boredom and provide him with activities to quell his what’s next? plea.

Children these days have remarkably busy schedules; their time is filled up to the last second of their day.  Our kids’ attention is unceasingly attended to and for.  Afterschool classes, sports, tutors, playdates, the list goes on.  Even at birthday parties, when a dozen kids are gathered together in the same room, the parents feel responsible for accounting for every moment of the children’s attention.  Fifteen minutes for arrival gift-placing, juice boxing, greeting… next the magician and balloon artist, (attention occupied, 45 mins)… next pizza, cake, and candles (20 mins)… next some kind of “freestyle” dance or art period led by an adult (10-15 mins)…next swag bag (5 mins) followed by shoes and coat retrieval (10 mins)… next, it’s time for the children to go (and someone else to occupy their attention).

Being bored has become this frightening and dreaded experience to which we parents must respond immediately.  Boredom is not up to a kid to figure out anymore, it’s a parent’s issue and a parent’s problem.  Boredom is a state that our children shouldn’t have to endure, and allowing our kids to experience it, not taking it seriously, might even be a sign of parental neglect. As we mistakenly imagine it, boredom is a case of a moment not fully lived, a moment deprived of interest.

In addition, we relate to boredom as an absence, something missing.  We experience it as a state of nothingness: nothing to do, nothing to think about, nothing to learn, nothing to be with, nothing to play with, nothing to experience.  Boredom, as we see it, is emptiness, a void.

As a result of our fear of boredom, we’re encouraging our children to be hyperfocused (not unfocused as we hear), with their attention perpetually focused down on some object of attention. At the same time, technology has created a new normal, namely, constant engagement. With tech has come the expectation that our kids (and even us adults) should be able to live in a state of uninterrupted entertainment and pleasurable busyness, 24/7. Tech makes it possible to meet this expectation by offering a forever-stocked refrigerator of free and interesting food for our attention.  We even get to congratulate ourselves for eating around the clock from this fridge, under the guise of learning more, doing more, communicating more, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is the definition of living more.

Sadly, we no longer trust our kids’ ability to tolerate or even survive open, unfilled time.  We’ve stopped seeing the value in time without a focus, the profound possibility and potential in the cry I’m bored.  Instead, we’ve learned to relate to time without an object of attention as nothing—as opposed to—nothing, yet. The truth is we’ve lost faith in our kids’ imaginations, and the power of human creativity—to generate something when it needs to.

Two things of great value (and more that I don’t have space for here) happen when we’re bored.  First, we have to use our imagination; we have to invent food for our attention.  This is a skill whose importance cannot be underestimated.  Some people say, but Nancy, our kids no longer need this skill of being able to engage themselves because they can just use tech to stay entertained and occupied.  It’s an obsolete skill.  While it might be possible to stay attached to the IV that is technology for the rest of our lives, to agree with this premise would be like saying that as human beings, we should no longer learn to walk because we have cars now, or no longer attempt to discover peace, because after all, there’s always wine.  Regardless of how available and rich the opportunities have become for avoiding boredom, the ability to self-play, create, generate, self-engage is still a profoundly important skill in the development of a healthy human being.

It’s our responsibility as parents to build the skills of imagination and creativity. The way we do it, in large part, is by giving these skills (that are in seed form when our children are young), the chance to play, evolve, do their work, and become. Boredom is water for these seeds.  When we’re supplying all the goods for our kids’ attention, we’re actually encouraging our children’s imaginations and creative capacities to atrophy and die.

Secondly, when a child says I’m bored, it’s because he can’t find anything that interests him.  But where is he looking?  Usually, he’s looking outside himself.  When we say we’re bored, it’s because, in essence, we have nothing to distract ourselves from ourselves. We’re stuck with just ourselves and our own attention to pay attention to.  Unfortunately, we’re being conditioned to experience ourselves, our own company, as nothing interesting, or simply nothing.  When we frantically shove a next activity in front of our child because he’s bored, we’re creating (and supporting) his belief that without something added to himself, he’s nothing.

The remarkable invitation that boredom offers is the invitation to spend time with, take interest in, or at the very least, learn to tolerate our own company.  It’s in the gaps between focused activities that we can turn our attention to our own thoughts and feelings, and maybe even to the experience of boredom itself. We can ask, Is paying attention to boredom, boring?  When we don’t have an object for our attention to chew on, something else to engage us, we’re left to play with just ourselves.  Even if technology now makes it possible for our children to outrun themselves all the way to the grave, to never have to be alone in a room with just themselves, nonetheless, the ability to be with themselves, to not fear or dread their own company, is the most valuable skill our children will ever learn.  In boredom lies the possibility that we ourselves can become a worthy destination for our own attention.

In answer to the question my title poses, it’s not only okay to let your child be bored, it’s paramount that you do so.  When your child complains that he’s bored, you can simply say, it’s okay to be bored now and then, it won’t hurt you and it will help you, in ways you can’t yet know. And just before they leave the room, just whisper, if only to yourself, Your boredom just means I’m doing my job as a parent.

Read more Nancy Colier on Psychology Today:



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How Long Should You Wait For Your Partner to Commit?

Commitment is a topic that brings a lot of couples into therapy. The word has a single definition, but it holds infinite meanings. For many people, commitment includes an emotional acknowledgment of a we, in that we are with each other and choose to be part of a couple. And on a practical level, it means the possibility of planning for a future—even if it’s just the weekend—and a sense of continuity.

For others, commitment is about living together or getting married and sharing a home life. And for still others, a child expresses the commitment desired. But wherever we fall on the spectrum, when our partner cannot provide the commitment we want and need, we are left to live in a difficult limbo: There’s something we want, that we want more of and more from, and yet we don’t know if we’ll ever get it.

How do we know when to stay or leave this type of relationship?

There are no hard fast rules, ever. Each time we make the choice to stay or go is unique, and sometimes we make it again and again within the same relationship.

At the most concrete level, we can always ask our partner if and when he or she will be willing to meet us at the level of commitment we desire. Sometimes the answer we get is comforting and gives us the sense that we are heading in the direction we want. But more often the answer is unsatisfying and leaves us not knowing if what we want in the relationship will ever happen, usually because our partner doesn’t know. Living with such uncertainty can cause pain and anxiety, and lead to insecurity and resentment.

What’s most important is that we own our truth, which is our desire for more commitment.

We must stop judging and blaming ourselves for needing what we desire. For years I have heard women condemn themselves for being too demanding or not being able to figure out how to be OK without what they fundamentally want. I have heard every possible rationalization for why it makes sense to do without something we fundamentally want. In the context of a relationship, there is nothing “Buddhist” about not being able to make plans for the future, or with someone who is not sure about us. Even if everything is impermanent in the absolute sense, we still need to create places of security in our lives, where the ground is solid—or at least, as solid as it can be.

We get certain things in relationships and give up others. When we’re not getting the commitment we want, we must ask ourselves if the balance is workable, that is: Am I receiving enough to give up what I’m giving up?

We can only answer this one moment at a time, and the answer changes over time. We know we must leave when we can no longer tolerate or bear the situation we are in, when the equation shifts and it’s too painful to do without what we really want. We leave when the unrealized desire for commitment becomes resentment, and we can no longer enjoy or appreciate what our partner offers.

Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Flickr Creative Commons

No one can answer the question of whether to stay or leave for us. But when we stop judging ourselves for wanting what we want, and dive deep into our own truth, we will find the answer we’re looking for.

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Wellness from Within

Delta Sky: How does our relationship with technology impact our health and well-being?  

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Are You Ready to Stop Being a Victim?

A victim, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a person who has been attacked, injured, robbed, killed, cheated or fooled by someone else, or harmed by an unpleasant event. Everyone gets attacked, injured, cheated, fooled and harmed during their life, if not physically then emotionally. And everyone gets harmed by unpleasant events.  We’re all victims, in moments, to life’s challenges and difficulties—life’s lifeness.

Alex Iby/Unsplash
Source: Alex Iby/Unsplash

It’s psychologically healthy to acknowledge the suffering and feelings of powerlessness that accompany such experiences.

And yet, there are those people who feel like victims all the time, regardless of the circumstances. Those with victim mentality are always being victimized in their own mind.  They maintain a consistent victim identity and see life, perpetually, through victim-tinted glasses.

We all know people who seem to be constantly commenting on some injustice done to them, how others are denying them what they need, want, and deserve, controlling them against their will, making them do what they don’t want to do—how life is against them and the universe is designed to punish them, personally.  Or perhaps, you yourself are someone who experiences life this way?

To always feel like a victim of life, or, to love someone who’s always convinced they’re the victim of life—neither is easy and both are painful.

To illustrate some of the most common forms of victim mentality, here are three cases in point.  Read more…


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