Guilt: Parents’ Weapon of Choice Do you ever wonder if your parents graduated magna cum laude from Guilt University? Do you ever suspect that they majored in Suffering with a minor in Acting Out of Control? All the while earning high grades for other maneuvers that make you feel guilty instantly? I’m making light of something serious to make a point. That point is that we keep many of these guilt-provoking techniques in a place deep within us that affects our outlook, self-worth and future behavior. Imagine a forest alive with trees that are growing taller year by year. Then, one day, a woodsman comes in, ax in hand and swinging hard. The damage he does to the health of the forest is extreme, harsh, and long-term. Now think about these statements, some of which may sound familiar: “How could you do this to me?” WHACK! “Some day you’ll realize what I’ve done for you!” WHACK! “I hope your children do to you what you’ve done to me!” TIMBER! Just as the trees fall to the woodman’s ax, so does your ego under the blows of your parent’s comments. And their damage on you is just as extreme, harsh and long term. But just as the forest comes back to good health over time, so can you come back to your own state of health and happiness. Communication takes many forms and so does manipulation. We’ve just touched on the verbal kinds of guilt-provoking examples, what about their nonverbal counterparts? Pouting. Withdrawing. Icy stares. Cold shoulders. Helpless sobbing. Forlorn looks. If all this drama is directed toward one small child, how could he or she not be affected? Manipulation: Two New Varieties, Same Old Guilt Ever experience the Knife Twist? How about the Bludgeon? Both bring you to the same place–guilt. Let’s start with the parent who manipulates via “knife twisting.” For the child whose parents want him or her to be excessively devoted to them, no matter how unpleasant it is, here’s what may be heard around the dinner table: “I’m so miserable without you,” or “How could you be so selfish and so inconsiderate of me?” or “After all I’ve sacrificed for you” (note this one may be accompanied by one of the already mentioned nonverbal “forlorn looks”). What’s the effect of all this knife twisting? Maybe your fear of having to be too devoted will cause you to be afraid of close relationships and so your search for love will never end well. In the chapter “Why Can’t I Fall in Love and Stay in Love,” you’ll read stories of people whose relationships were damaged by just this issue. Let’s continue with our other style of guilt-provoking manipulation–the Bludgeon. An example of this type is found when you act independently of your authoritarian parent and he or she loses control, explodes in anger, and screams at you because you weren’t obedient or submissive enough. What’s the effect of bludgeoning? In the chapter “Why Am I Fat and Why Can’t I Lose Weight?” you’ll read about Alice, who rebelled against her controlling parents by getting fat and staying that way. Whether it’s a slowly twisting knife, a bludgeoning from a hammer, an icy stare or a cold shoulder, the effect of these over-emotional displays of exaggerated suffering is the same–to manipulate you to change a normal behavior or abandon a normal goal. But why would you change what is normal and acceptable? Because you feel so guilty for inflicting such terrible pain, you’ll conform to their personality flaws no matter how resentful or damaging that may be for your life. The Stranger at the Party As a child, it’s hard to imagine that you have the power to inflict so much damage on your parents or siblings just by being yourself and doing the normal things that children do. But because they constantly act so wounded, it’s difficult for you to be unaffected by their guilt-provoking behavior. Now think about this: If you had a brief encounter with an unpleasant stranger at a cocktail party, would you assume then that you were responsible for his offensive behavior? Or would you say to yourself, or to a friend, “What’s up with him?” Chances are you’d know that if that person behaved badly, it wasn’t your fault. But with your parent or sibling, you’ve been blamed for their unhappiness over a long, long time and you’ve been burdened by long-lasting feelings of (unconscious) guilt. Why is it so difficult to avoid feeling guilty toward your parents when you probably wouldn’t blame yourself for the badly behaving stranger? The Gods Must Be Angry As children, we view our parents in the same way that members of a primitive tribe view their gods. When the gods are angry, the heavens erupt and earthquakes, floods, and droughts occur. Tribal elders know for certain that the gods must be appeased. Amends must be made for hurting the gods. With a lack of knowledge about the causes of the natural disasters it experiences, the tribe assumes that it has angered the gods of nature. And so by altering its behavior through prayer, performing rituals and sacrifices, the tribe believes it can placate the offended gods and so alleviate the punishment. But in altering its behavior in order to amend and atone, the tribe may make accommodations even if they’re detrimental to its well-being–for instance, sacrificing a cow even if there’s a shortage of cows. In the same way, as a child you assumed that your behavior was responsible for provoking your parents. Though this assumption was often just a general feeling and not clearly well thought out, it was based on real experiences with siblings or parents who constantly acted hurt, threatened, or angered by your normal behaviors. Remember the mother in the joke at the beginning of the chapter–the one who made her son feel guilty about not paying enough attention to her? Have you ever been in a similar situation? If so, what did you do? Did you act like the member of the indigenous tribe and make sacrifices to appease your gods (okay, parents)? Did you change something normal in yourself in order to not hurt them again? Was the result that you resented yourself for appeasing your parents at your own expense? If so, your resentment will also have you trapped in self-defeating responses as you go through life. What might that look like? You might rebel against the mother in the joke and become unresponsive to anyone who wants your interest. Or, in response to a controlling parent, you might become stubborn, defiant, and disagreeable, no matter how severe the cost is to you. Throughout your life these qualities will undermine your relationships with others and also your goals. Congratulations, You’ve Been Hired by Mystery Firm X Changing to keep our parents happy, or at least to not make them angry, is something you may have tried while growing up. But did you know exactly what you were changing and why? And if you didn’t, did you still try to change anyway? Compare your situation to this one and see if it helps put it all in perspective for you. You’ve been job-hunting for a while and now at last your search is over. You’ve landed a job. Only problem is, you don’t know what the job entails, what is expected of you, and what the requirements actually are. One day you walk into work and your boss is angry with you and you don’t know why. You find yourself thinking, “What did I do?” “Was it the way I handled report A, was it the way I dealt with situation B, or maybe it was how I dealt with customer C?” You decide which situation you think it was and then you make what you think is the appropriate change. Next time, you think (and hope) it will be different. Your boss will have nothing to be angry about. You’ve taken care of the problem. Does that make sense to you? Changing but not knowing what you did wrong or fully understanding the situation before you start to make the change? If you don’t know what the problem is, how can you possibly be expected to fix it? To an adult this probably doesn’t make sense, does it? But this is what we, as kids, do. Right or wrong, sense or nonsense, we try to change to make sure our parents (or other siblings) won’t be angry or hurt. We’re always trying to keep those “gods” of ours happy so they don’t get angry. Excerpted from Self-Help for Smarties: Secret Success Codes for Weight Loss, Love, Career and Parenting by Irwin Gootnick, M.D. (Penmarin Books, May 2006).