College is a fresh start where students find new beginnings. Figuring out the next step in life and who you want to be is the hardest part about it. For me, all it took was one class and one pretty cool professor, and in that class I discovered the root of all my problems.
The class was titled “The Dark Side of Communication.” You bet your ass I picked it based on the title, just like I pick my wines by the label. I was intrigued. The assigned textbook was “The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication” by Brian H. Spitzberg and it was the only textbook I read cover to cover that sits on my shelf today. In this class we covered topics like relational uncertainty, avoidance, secrets, bullying—the list goes on. However, the one topic that changed my life was guilt.
Everyone has felt guilt in one-way or another. One study claims that we experience guilt at least 5 hours a week and it can really toss a curveball in our day. When we experience guilt, it literally takes over all emotion and focus. If it gets out of control, it can make us reluctant to even enjoy the simplest things in life.
Guilt serves many good purposes in our life; it is one of our unique human tools. Feeling guilt helps protect our relationships. It is like an alarm that goes off in our head until we take the appropriate action. If we don’t take action (like apologize), the alarm will continue to sound no matter how many times we hit snooze.
Like so many other traits, everyone’s guilt sensor is different. Some are super sensitive and some have pretty thick skin. Some people are so sensitive that they actually punish themselves when they have feelings of guilt. Yes, just like Dobby in Harry Potter. In fact, psychologists have named it “The Dobby Effect!” While sitting in that class, I discovered that I have a very sensitive guilt sensor and I believe it is the root of my number 1 fear: letting people down.
Another way guilt can play a role is in manipulation. Those with sensitive guilt sensors are easily manipulated because they simply want to make others happy. As a child it could be used as a threat. “I wont be your friend unless you….” So you end up doing that one thing just so you can stay friends. As an adult, it can be considered abuse. “I guess you really don’t love me because you wont…”
All it took was one guy to figure out my weakness. Yes, I have this deep desire to make others happy. It’s truly one of my joys in life! He saw the opportunity and then played my like a puppet on strings.
Over time, this boy completely changed who I was. I couldn’t wear certain clothes because “you are just trying to get attention from other guys.” I even had to ask my coach for different shorts because he didn’t approve of the length. I wasn’t allowed to attend sporting events with my friends because I was just trying to be part of the “A-crowd.” I adapted my likes and interests to his. I changed my classes to line up with his schedule. I even quit a sport just so we could have more time together after school.
It didn’t stop there. He guilt me into doing things I wasn’t ready for. Things I was saving for the right person and the right timing in life. And then it got worse and worse and worse. “You must not love me because you wont….” Or “If you really loved me you would….”
Those were his mantras.
I cried myself to sleep every night. My grades started to slip. I lost all of my friends. I became very self-conscious of my body. I didn’t recognize the girl staring back at me in the mirror anymore.
Guilt trips not only make you feel guilty but resentful. As his fear of losing me grew, the leash he had me on shortened. He convinced me that we were supposed to be together forever and I was responsible for his happiness. I was on an 18 month guilt trip and it gave him all the power. Yes, resentment eventually kicked in and I finally did something about it.
The hardest side effect of guilt is learning how to manage it. You have to recognize when you are using guilt and when it’s being used against you. It’s what makes forgiveness and healing that take so long. The next time you feel the alarm go off, step back and self assess. Did you really do something wrong? Does this person truly deserve your apology? Does your happiness really matter to this person? If the answer is yes, then do the right thing. If no, it’s time you remove yourself from the relationship.
Guess what, after I finally broke free of that toxic relationship I was able to recognize that I was being emotionally and sexually abused. I learned how to stand up for myself and take control of my actions. My friends forgave me and my coach took me back next season—in fact, 3 years later I went to State.