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Goodness in Guilt – Part 2 of Revisiting Guilt and Innocence

From Of Seeds and Sowers, NAICR’s distinguished newsletter that includes current programs, projects and tele-classes, as well as humor and inspiration. Visit the site to learn more about the work of Barbara Ashley Phillips and Kenneth Cloke.

Read Part 1

Not infrequently, coaches, facilitators and conflict resolvers must deal with people stuck in guilt. We feel guilty for a variety of reasons, some internal and some external. The source of guilt is not important. What is important is that while guilt can keep us stuck, it can also heal. When guilt spurs us to action or to response, it is healthy guilt – or primary emotion. Even anger can be healthy, when it spurs us to action that is not destructive.

Guilt that keeps us stuck is unhealthy. Inside, we’re doing a little rat-in-a-race, incessantly spinning our wheels, going nowhere. There is a push-pull quality to this stuckness. The reason for it is that we actually know what to do to make things better or to make them right, but we don’t want to do what we know to do. Such stuckness signals a secondary emotion is at play.

What we’re exploring here is the texture and character of guilt as a primary emotion that heals, and guilt as a secondary emotion that keeps us stuck. First, we’ll look at how guilt most often appears in conflict situations. Then, we’ll look at how a shift that can occur in a mediation or coaching framework – can move a person to abandon the stuckness for fresh ground.

In conflict situations, what we most often see is unhealthy guilt – guilt that keeps us stuck. By checking inside, we can often pick up from our own felt sense, when such guilt is present. When a person is in this feeling of guilt, they feel less than the other person. There is a contraction inside of them, a feeling of unworthiness, and often some unbearable pain. In med mal cases, I have seen doctors so imploded by guilt, that they have aged terribly and may even have had their hair turn white. In auto accident cases, a driver at fault who has killed or seriously injured another, may want to withdraw from life – as if hurting themselves could somehow help the one whom they hurt or killed.

Such guilt prevents us from acting constructively on our own behalf. It blocks perception of what larger good might be possible.Often, it invites ill-luck into our lives and at times, even serious illness. It makes us contentious – we become difficult people – because when we have such guilt, we do not act coherently.

Most of us have some of this guilt, somewhere in our lives.Once you identify the physical indicators of this stuckness within, you’ll pick it up more easily, in others. Here’s a way to check it out within yourself. . Notice your body’s response as you do this.

1. Recall a situation about which you feel guilty.

2. Notice inside of you whether there is both a push and a pull – and a feeling of weight, or tension.

3. If there is this stalling out going on within you – this is secndary guilt that may be ready to change.

Many situations induce the guilt that keeps us stuck. It can arise in adulthood not only from what we have done, but from the way we experience certain events. For example, when we survive a disaster in which others die; when, in combat, we watch comrades die under fire or when our children take self-destructive lifestyles. And it can occur when our action or inaction – or that of an organization for which we have responsibility – has hurt others.

In children, such guilt often arises when the child is faced with more suffering than she can bear. For example, when a parent dies (or wants to die) while the child is young, such guilt can arise and darken the whole life, until more mature understanding occurs. In a small child, it may be expressed internally as a desire to die in the parent’s place or to suffer, instead of the parent, or to follow the parent. In an older child, it might be some sense of having caused the death or disease, coupled with a drive toward atonement through suffering – suffering that could not possibly benefit the one that may have been hurt.

There is a destructive self-focused to the secondary emotion of guilt – often spawning an incessant chorus of self-criticism and blame. The person is going round and round inside, in a destructive, downward spiral. It is love gone wrong – based on a primitive world-view that does not take into account the love and feelings of others. Organizations, too, can be trapped in this manner, by denying responsibility for what everyone knows they did. For organizations, such stuckness in the exculpatory story undermines any commitment to the value of honesty.

Why would people hold onto such destructive feelings of guilt? Because it serves. Such guilt shields us from feelings of pain and loss. It seems easier to feel guilty than to feel that pain. Yet only by feeling that pain, can freedom be regained. Until then, we often separate ourselves from those closest to us. There is actually a pridefulness in being the greatest wrong-doer. What we did or failed to do was so bad! That is part of the trap.

In Bert Hellinger’s family and systems constellation work, we actually can see how that destructive self-focus can be released. We see how one caught in such guilt, when they are confronted, through representatives, with the feelings of those lost comrades, the lost or suffering parents, or the suffering children, or those they hurt or killed or those whom they survived inexplicably, there is often a sudden release – back into the flow of life. When they see the love of others that must be taken into account, blind love must yield to a more knowing or enlightened love. This can also be seen in constellations that look at organizations.

The secret is to acknowledge what is. To acknowledge and honor those who were hurt and to undertake to live a better life, in honor of their sacrifice. In working with people and organizations held by secondary guilt, a mediator, facilitator or coach can sometimes evoke, in caucus, the ones whose difficult fate has been a factor in creating the guilt.

If it is guilt around a parent, probing gently around how the parent might feel toward the child, even though the parent may be dead, might be evocative. A parent, no matter how terribly they behaved, is for each of us the source of life. When we look beyond the behaviors to this reality, we can feel the grace of what we have actually received from our parents. This reality then becomes part of our understanding and allows the bad behavior or loss to be put into perspective. Deep down, even the most disabled parent wants what is good for the child. The child instinctively knows this and it is this love that pulls it out of the downward spiral.

If it is a professional – say in a medical or legal malpractice matter – such guilt may arise from the event itself or from a connection into something difficult in the person’s earlier life. Again, gently probing for some place where perspective can be widened, may prove helpful. When the perpetrator looks outside himself or herself, and is willing to really see the victim, love and life flow again. In constellation, someone can represent the patient, or client, or accident victim, and it can be plainly seen that most of the time, there is no vindictiveness. Someone can also represent the perpetrator, facing the victim, letting themselves be seen, and actually seeing the one they have hurt. Seeing and letting yourself be seen are profoundly healing.

The perpetrator’s acceptance of the full responsibility for what they did – not as a matter of law, but as an inner state of awareness – dignifies and settles the perpetrator. It also brings peace to the system composed of the perpetrator and the victim. When this is done in constellation, the victim can lay aside the burden once and for all. No longer is self-destructive, pointless suffering seen as appropriate. There is now a choice of how the person expresses this in their life: either in a way that serves life, or in a way that denies life – for both victim and perpetrator.

Apology can upset the delicate balance. However, when words of apology are actually an acknowledgement of responsibility that leaves none for the victim, there is strength to each one. Ordinary apology serves the apologizer, and often transfers some of the weight of what was done to the victim. Asking forgiveness is even worse. The apologizer often feels better after an apology, but the victim, rarely. The victim may rail at the lack of an apology, but still find little comfort in the apology. Never once, in many years of mediation training, did anyone say they would feel better because of a big, public apology. But words expressing heart-felt contrition and acceptance of responsibility serve everyone: the underlying acknowledgement is felt, and is more powerful than words.

If the victim is part of the mediation, facilitation or other work, then what brings peace is for the victim to acknowledge that what is, is, and to agree with that. It is the classic acceptance of what we cannot change. Only through acceptance, can freedom come.

Healthy guilt spurs us to make amends. It is what victim/offender mediations work with. When we see how another has suffered at our hand, we may be moved to take steps that will in some way ameliorate or make up for what was done. Our focus has turned from ourselves to the other and by facing the pain of that, we become energized to act in a way that serves life.

When healthy guilt is present, we are fully able to act wisely in our own behalf. The act of accepting the consequences of what was done and opening to the pain it has caused, can be the catalyst that moves us past the stuckness we experienced in secondary guilt.

Companies and organizations, as well as individuals, are often counseled by their lawyers never to admit guilt. But coaching and mediations and some facilitations are conducted under confidentiality agreements precisely so that no one can say later “he said” or “she said.” Therefore honesty can be given a chance. A company – or government – laboring under false innocence is much burdened by the defensive posture. There are times when parsing just exactly how wrong we were, ends up making things far worse. When a leader or leaders in the organization can acknowledge guilt cleanly and clearly, a door opens. If the organization – or the leaders – can accept the consequences of what was done – not in the legal sense, but in the larger sense, then, there is energy and motivation to make amends constructively. Then, the organization can step out of the denial into a new dignity, just as individuals can do.

How not to do this can be seen in the Bhopal incident of some 20 years ago. The well was poisoned by a narrow, legal response (throttling a brief, initial compassionate response) – which may have been justified in the legal arena, but fell far short of what was appropriate in a situation where a larger perspective was called for. So despite great efforts to make amends, little has come of it. Suffering and loss have been exacerbated and compounded for the company as well as the victims ever since. Although litigation is finally ended with the company “vindicated,” the real loss to it, and to its industry, continues.

Disaster response needs to be guided by a much larger perspective, and then, even when it is truly terrible what happened, real good can come of it. The desire to confess is universal, for it signals an acceptance of what is. This is bedrock, firm enough to move forward on. It is not to our credit that our legal system makes this so difficult.

In Tony Hillerman’s tale, Ashie Pinto, the old medicine man who liked his drink, goes in at the end to the judge to confess his guilt in the killing of a man who was stealing from his people. His lawyer, being aboriginal, accepts this. Whatever his fate, it cannot be worse than his painful and destructive conscience. Sometimes, confession is the means by which secondary guilt is transmuted into healthy guilt.

By listening through your heart, you can begin to hear these subtle realities and see their influence on the situation or negotiation at hand. You can then take steps that will build people’s capacity to choose to acknowledge the real pain and the real loss and to begin to act more constructively. To be present here is to participate in something dignified and meaningful.


Barbara Ashley Phillips

Barbara Phillips has 19 years of widely varied mediation experience, specializing in complex, technical and sensitive matters. A graduate of Yale Law School, Phillips served as an Assistant United States Attorney and practiced primarily federal civil trial law in Oregon and California prior to becoming a mediator. In Phillips' mediations,… MORE >

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