The delicacies of tasting guilt

I love feeling guilt. It isn’t an easy feeling to taste; I often compare feeling ‘difficult’ feelings like hatred or jealousy or shame to sampling complex wine. Or a delicacy. Something you only take a little mouthful of at a time, let it roll around on your tongue before you swallow, try and discern the textures and notes before it is gone. I think of guilt via Winnicott as concern for the other. He illustrates this with an example of an infant biting the breast of his mother, and because she doesn’t retaliate but ‘survives’ the attack, the infant moves from feelings of aggression to feelings of compassion- he understands he caused her pain and regrets his actions. Guilt happens when I’ve done something to hurt someone I love and I feel- not shame which is entirely self-centred- but compassion for the pain of the other and regret for what I have caused. It is a feeling that is nothing but concern for the other person, that focuses entirely on their suffering. It is really hard to stay in this place of witnessing the suffering of the other- particularly if I am the perpetrator.

I haven’t always been able to welcome guilt. And I think this is a product of having to take far too much responsibility for the pain of my mother at a young age. I felt chronic guilt for not being able to make her happy, for not being able to heal her, to make her feel loved. My sisters and I were bred to alleviate her suffering- she remarked once that she’d never felt unconditional love till we loved her. Perhaps most parents would have reversed the direction of the declaration of unconditional love- from herself to us- but she sought redemption through our adoring gaze. She is a deeply wounded human being, and she mistook the devotion infants and children have for their parents as unconditional love. She laid her wounds at our tiny feet and asked us to make her feel worthy and give her meaning. It was an impossible task- I feel like Hercules has nothing on me. If you think slaying hydra is hard, try lifting my self-loathing mother out of her existential crisis.

It took acquiring some boundaries, shedding my own messiah complex before I could latch on to my feelings of concern when I do harm. It is too much to be responsible for relieving the whole tome of someone’s suffering- it is just impossible to feel it 24/7. Guilt in those quantities numbs – it is a place to stay in only temporarily. Small mouthfuls, not the whole plate, not the whole pantry: I can just about bear my own wounds and the ones I occasionally inflict on others with my inter personal violence. There are things I can make good, and things I cannot mend.

To inhabit guilt, to own it, I’ve needed to get a sense of proportion. I can only apologise for what I am actually responsible for and it has been a long walk, beating the bounds of what is mine. What can I own up to? Where do you start and I end? Is this a historical wound of yours or is this a fresh scar that I have inflicted? I can’t heal stuff that happened twenty years ago; I can only feel convicted of my blunders and apologise for the harm I have personally caused. And that small, personal, portion of remorse is a far more satisfying meal than trying to eat the whole platter.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

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