Few psychological conditions in life are as debilitating as what I call the “shame, blame, guilt game”. As you’ll see below and as you may have experienced in your own life, the emotion of guilt can lead to chronic anxiety, mental anguish, depression and worse.
Yet many cultures live on a steady diet of shame and guilt. Sometimes these are religious cultures, sometimes just individual family cultures. Whatever the case, though, if you’ve been a victim of this kind of psychological manipulation – and all chronic guilt-tripping is a manipulation designed to gain and maintain control over you – then you need to know how to free yourself from it.
On the other hand, guilt can also be the inability to forgive yourself for something you’ve done or failed to do. That’s when you feel like one of the characters in this amazing video…
Religious Guilt Culture
The epitome of neurotic guilt culture in the West has certainly been the Roman Catholic Church. Here are just a couple of abridged accounts from emotionally abused “recovering Catholics”:
1. From a young woman:
“I experienced this guilt most intensely during high school. Every morning I would wake up with the most painful guilt. In my mind, I would walk back through the day before trying to remember what I had done wrong, but I could never come up with anything. Then I would get in the shower and say the our fathers, hail mary’s and glory be’s until the pain had passed. At the time I had no idea why I felt so much pain and guilt.
“I’ve been trying to understand better how the Church operates psychologically. It most certainly makes claims to Truth where questioning Truth is coded as sin / evil. And the weekly embodied ritual seems to embed Catholic doctrine into people’s psyche in a way that people can’t explain. The mass also provides an embodied ritual which is meant to both teach people that they are sinned while at the same time relieve people of this sin. It is this aspect of the mass that creates a kind of addiction – I’ve heard some people state that they just have to be Catholic and receive the body of Christ each week – but they can’t explain why. It seems that it is this imparting and relief of guilt and sin that people feel they have to get through the mass each week.”
2. From a young man:
“I consistently beat myself up, and put myself to shame, and live with debilitating bouts of depression and anxiety. Not because of anything I’ve done, but because I have thoughts and feelings… natural thoughts and feelings that the Catholic church of my upbringing would have called ‘sinful’.
“I was raised Catholic of course, and I went to 12 years of Catholic school, during the 70’s and 80’s. I believe that much of what we were taught to believe can only be described as insane and medieval.
“Let me just say that the Catholic Church has done many wonderful things, in ways of charity and meeting the physical needs of people. Things like creating hospitals, homeless shelters, food-shelf’s, etc. But when it comes to meeting the emotional and psychological needs of people, the church has done tremendous damage and abuse to the psyches of millions (billions?)of people.
“And I was taught that to even think lustful thoughts was the same as doing the act. I was a teenage boy, coursing with hormones and natural impulses on a regular basis. I’ve read that research shows that young males have sexual thoughts and impulses roughly every 30 seconds or so, and I was certainly no exception. At 15, all it takes is for an attractive girl to walk by, the hormones jack up a bit and boom, mortal sin, eternal damnation, the fires of hell… it’s all there. To be able to feel that I was safe from the fires of hell would mean that I would need my own priest following me around so that I could make constant confessions. Not having this accommodation, I concluded that I was doomed… that my soul was destined for hell. Unless I could somehow shut off all of those impulses and feelings, and feel nothing!!! So, I became a robot.
“The only logical way to save myself from eternally being on Satan’s This is the definition of spiritual death and being un-human. And an ironclad recipe for chronic depression, anxiety, self-loathing, self-abuse and self-punishment. In short, not much less painful than Hell.
And to top it off, we were taught that to suffer here on earth, was a GOOD thing, something to be STRIVED for. We were to be martyrs, living in self-induced pain and suffering.”
You’ll Be Shocked to Learn Where This Came From…
The origin of Catholicism’s rampant guilt culture is not Christianity itself and proof of that is the general absence of the neurotic guilt complex in the history of the Eastern Christian tradition (a lot of my own pastoral work as an Orthodox priest has been cleaning up the emotional messes left by the rampant guilt culture).
The guilt culture has theological roots that stem directly from Augustine’s teachings on “original sin” back in the fifth century. Basically, he taught that all human beings have in some mystical way participated in the sin of Adam and Eve, and are therefore automatically “guilty” from birth on. In other words, guilt is a condition you inherit!
Where did he get this absurd notion? Amusingly enough, from an error in biblical translation! You see, Augustine didn’t know Greek and had to depend on St. Jerome’s translation of the New Testament into Latin. Just one problem…
Jerome made a minor error when he translated Romans 5, verse 12. By translating a single conjunction as “in whom” instead of “because of which”, he accidentally provided Augustine with the basis of a wrong theology that has screwed up the lives of countless millions of people ever since.
That’s why the original Christian tradition regards the whole notion of original sin / inherited guilt as lunacy. You can’t be held responsible for something you didn’t do (seems pretty obvious, right?). And, of course, Augustine’s theory requires a judgmental God who condemns your failures, as opposed to the God of direct mystical experience who, as the original tradition says, “only bestows blessings and never does harm”. Remember, though, that an individual family culture can also be based on chronic guilt-tripping and other forms of dysfunctional manipulation that may or may not have a religious basis. Whether religiously motivated or not, your task is to find your way out of that culture and undo the damage to yourself. So how do you do that? This way…
Freeing Yourself from the Shame, Blame, Guilt Game
If you’ve been a victim of this form of crass psychological manipulation and realize you need to break free, there’s a simple 3-step process to follow. It may still take some time and effort, but the steps will certainly help you get there:
1) Recognize it! Take stock of the full extent to which it has impacted your life.
2) Treat it! The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is certainly one excellent tool you should always have with you. There are also support groups available, and you may derive some value from talking to a therapist or counselor. Be sure to find the help you need!
3) Resolve Not to Play! Identify those people in your life that use this guilt against you and take steps to terminate or minimize contact. If you can’t avoid them entirely, learn to recognize their behavior and call them on it.
We are all “guilty” of many things, for sure – that’s part of the human condition. However, we’ll never get anywhere unless we free ourselves from the chains of guilt that bind us emotionally.