Guilty? Or Not Guilty?

Internal motivation is a foundation of choice theory/reality therapy. The idea is that our actions—the behaviours we choose—aren’t forced on us, but are the result of choices made in our own brains.

Because reality therapy views behaviour as not only what we do, but also what we think and feel, then internal motivation applies to our feelings, too.

Can anyone make you feel happy, sad, or angry? While our automatic response might be, “Of course they can!” is it really true?

For example, a great opportunity to choose a feeling is when someone tries to “get your goat,” but you choose to respond in a pleasant, unruffled way. Try it…it can be remarkably satisfying!

One feeling that’s often used to manipulate, coerce, and control is guilt.  Whether you are the “guilt-er” (you’re trying to make someone feel guilty) or the “guilt-ee,” (someone is trying to make you feel guilty), the choice theory view is…that doesn’t work! More correctly, that doesn’t work toward building effective, long-term, satisfying relationships.

I’m sure you can think of examples where guilt can, in fact, manipulate people into doing things they wouldn’t do otherwise. In the short term, it may seem successful. In the long term, however, what’s the result? Resentment, avoidance, and ultimately a relationship that’s not satisfying for either party.

For example, your mother-in-law is attempting to coerce you into spending your family vacation with her.  You don’t want to; you’d rather take the family to the beach. However, past experience has indicated that if you don’t go along with what she wants, you’ll feel guilty.

So, you may choose to give in, even though you resent it and sulk throughout the vacation. Your obvious misery ensures that your mother-in-law fully understands the sacrifice you’ve made, even though you may not be trying to send that message deliberately. Is anybody happy in this scenario?

If you’ve ever found yourself on the receiving end of the efforts of a skilled guilt-tripping individual, you know it’s not obvious that you have choice in whether to feel guilty.

However, rather than reacting out of guilt, it may be more satisfying to directly address the differences between what you want and what the guilt-er wants from you.

One reality therapy approach to differences is negotiation, with the goal of everyone getting at least some of what they want, even if the result is not perfect for anyone.

With your mother-in-law, there are plenty of negotiation possibilities. For example, you could spend a few days with the mother-in-law and the rest at the beach. You might consider inviting the mother-in-law to the beach with the family! Or perhaps she really just wants to spend the vacation with her grandchildren; your presence not required or desired! You won’t know without a conversation.

Next column, I’ll offer three questions to consider when you’re trying to figure out whether that guilty feeling is your choice, after all.

Do you think you have any choice in whether you feel guilty?

This article is the first in a series on guilt.
The next article in this series is here.
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