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Guilt vs. Responsibility is Powerlessness vs. Power

Understanding emotional pollution and power.

Most of us do not face a perfect storm of emotional pollution like the chain of events described in my last post, where an argument with a teenage daughter led to a highway altercation, which led to a young man getting fired from his job, which led to a wife and child being traumatized. Most of our reactive behavior stops short of abuse and boundary violations. Yet how many times have you thought something like the following?

"If this hadn't happened, I wouldn't have...."
"If he hadn't said that, I wouldn't have said...."
"If she would have done this, I wouldn't have done that...."
"If only he'd have done that, I could have...."

The difference between guilt and responsibility is more than an abstract moral distinction; it has a definite psychological reality that profoundly affects our behavior and our well being. On a gut emotional level, it is the difference between personal power and chronic powerlessness. Our heightened reactivity to emotional pollution has made us view guilt not as a result of violating our own values but as something done to us by others. Thus we have expressions like, "Don't guilt me," and, "She's laying a guilt trip on me."

Because it feels like someone is punishing us by making us feel guilty, we often have an urge to retaliate against those who do. No one felt guiltier about failing to provide for his family than the young man who was fired from his job and then brutalized his wife in front his child. He blamed them for invoking his guilt, when in reality it came from violation of his own standards. Likewise, the guilt the abused mother felt for failing to protect her son caused her to blame him for having to stay with his father and suffer abuse.

Responsibility, on the other hand, comes from basic compassion, with its inherent motivation to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect. As we act on these motivations, we remain true to our deeper values and feel empowered to make the situation at least a little better.

In the course of my research on the treatment of domestic violence offenders nearly 20 years ago, I observed many group sessions for batterers at seven different agencies. In these group sessions, the leaders forcefully confronted court-ordered clients with the full range of their abusive behavior. The clients were not permitted to give any context for their behavior because that was "making excuses, justifying, and trying to blame the victim." The protocol of our research required us to phone the spouses of the group members after each session to see how their partners behaved during the week. More than half the women reported that their guys came home from the group defensive, resentful, and irritable, only to blame them for having to endure the humiliation, "Because of you, I have to go to that group and be treated like a criminal!" It got so bad that 30% of the dropouts were initiated by the very women the programs were trying to protect. "I told him to stop going," one of the battered women told us. "It was expensive and it was only making him worse; it took several days after each session for him to get over it."

The group leaders in our study were right in the content their confrontations, of course; there was no justification or excuse for the abuse these men perpetrated on their loved ones. The confrontations weren't the problem, it was the contempt and moral superiority the group leaders conveyed, never realizing that their contemptuous attitudes were contributing to more abuse by increasing the emotional pollution of these men's lives.

The group leaders we studied were good people with the best of intentions to make the world safer. They simply did not see what was happening to them in their reaction to emotional pollution. They not only failed to change the abusers (by ignoring the part of them that did not want to abuse), they were changed by the abusers, in that they, too, began to think and act in terms of power and control. They tried to control what their clients thought as well as how they felt and behaved, by dismissing their perspectives and manipulating their guilt, shame, and fear of consequences, which is exactly what the men were doing to their wives. The counselors unwittingly reinforced the abusive dynamic. Along the same lines, researchers who have worked with violent criminals have noted that many play out revenge motives against ordinary citizens for the humiliating comments made by judges during their sentencing. When you demean a violent person, you virtually guarantee that some innocent victim will pay for your indulgence of moral superiority.

The first step toward personal responsibility -- and true personal power -- is to realize that if you do not reduce the amount of emotional pollution in your environment, you will certainly contribute to it, at least indirectly.

Think of this when you're tempted to be rude to a surly waiter or to lean on the horn in response to an aggressive driver or when you want to dismiss or ignore to insult or malign someone you think deserves it: You are contributing, however indirectly, to child abuse, domestic violence, and other harmful behaviors. At the very least, you are spreading emotional pollution that cannot have anything but a negative effect on you and your environment.

Emotional pollution will continue to spread rapidly as long as we confuse guilt with responsibility and think that if we're not guilty of anything, we are not responsible. And as long as we believe that our negative regard of others is justified or that they are deserving of whatever we do in response to their negativity, we are responsible for the virulent spread of emotional pollution we are now experiencing.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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