“Chronic remorse is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time.”
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
To move comfortably but dishonestly through the world is easy.
- Step one: Accept no personal responsibility or blame. This can be facilitated by caregivers who excuse and justify your every wrongdoing, or a wider culture that does the same.
- Step two: Cast blame outwards through the neat little psychological trick of projection so that everyone else is always to blame, never you!
Sounds pretty good, right? But like many things that sound pretty good, there are some nasty side effects.
The first one that springs to mind is crushed relationships. After all, never accepting responsibility is a classic tactic employed by narcissists, who tend to be pretty good at getting into relationships but terrible at keeping them.1
Another side effect of refusal to see one’s own part in any negative outcome is the tendency to feel bitterness towards the world. How unfair life seems when everything you don’t like comes from without! A victim mentality may be a sign of an underdeveloped conscience. And while it isn’t usually associated with arrogance, it certainly can be.
Yet another downside of being light on conscience is a tendency towards passivity. After all, why should you make an effort to bring about success when you’re not even capable of failure anyway?
Just as refusing to accept your canoe is headed for rapids can feel better in the short term but will likely end in disaster, denial of responsibility tends to cause a whole raft of life problems (which are, of course, blamed on others!).
So never or seldom accepting responsibility in screw-ups, mistakes, and bad actions is one extreme. But what about the other extreme?
Shame, remorse, regret, and guilt
Excessive, shame, remorse, regret, and guilt, an over-amplification of one’s own mistakes, may, paradoxically, not be far removed from the narcissistic tendency to minimize personal wrongdoing. Indeed, excessive self-praise and excessive self-blame are often two sides of the same coin.
There is a kind of inverted arrogance in believing one’s own mistakes or ‘sins’ to be worse than all others. And strangely, it requires real humility to see one’s own sin’s as pretty run-of-the-mill aspects of the human condition. This isn’t about making excuses for ourselves, but rather being more objective about our foibles.
Not too long ago there was a question about chronic guilt on one of our monthly Q&A calls (all our course delegates and Uncommon Practitioners’ TV members get access to these). You can listen to the question and my answer below, or read the transcript.
As you’ll hear, this is about the chronic contrition, regret, remorse, and guilt of a 12-year-old boy with an almost monastic sense of needing to confess his ‘sins’. But at the risk of sounding self-chastising, I could have done so much more in my reply! So make sure you read on at the end of the transcript to see what else I feel I should have added.
Of course, anyone can talk about what they should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve done or suggested! Here’s what, for better or worse, I actually said:
Listen to Mark’s answer or read below
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I would love some help with a client who is not actually a client but my soon-to-be 13-year-old son. I feel confident in my understanding of anxiety and compulsions, but haven’t been able to help my 12-year-old manage a steadily growing compulsion to remember and confess anything in his past he may have done that was ‘wrong’. Like a parishioner going to confessional, he began confiding in me the ‘wrongs’ he had done as a small child and beyond, and this has become worse and worse.
Despite my attempts at reassuring him, reframing, normalizing, helping him understand how anxiety and thoughts interact, helping him with 7/11 breathing, etc., it seems to be steadily getting worse. We’re at the point where he blurts out past ‘wrongs’ and repeats them many times over, along with a sort of mantra which is his apology and expression of regret. I reassure him of unconditional love, but that doesn’t really help.
Any advice on how I may better work with this would be great.
Sometimes people have an underdeveloped conscience – and sometimes an overdeveloped one. Ruminating about our ‘sins’ or seeing perhaps neutral behaviours as sins can cause so much self-torment.
Conscientiousness as a personality trait is extremely predictive of professional and other kinds of success, but too much of anything creates diminishing returns. He doesn’t, of course, want to get rid of his conscience all together – heaven forbid! – but he does need to dial it down a bit.
One aspect to all of this is that sin, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Most behaviours or attitudes that have been a sin at one time in one culture have been seen as virtues in another. Pride, for example, was seen as a sin, and now often we encourage one another to feel proud, and so on.
So I wonder, where did his idea of what is right and wrong originate? Who says these are sins? Did these ideas come from him or elsewhere? If they came from elsewhere, are they excessively rigid or judgemental?
I think too much focus on whether we are good or bad people – if we can only think in binary, black-or-white terms about such things – causes people to lose perspective, or feel they have to be perfect in order not to be wicked. Sometimes we need to cut ourselves some slack – which isn’t the same as making excuses for ourselves.
He needs to sometimes be able to say, “Okay, I screwed up, but I didn’t know that was a sensitive issue, or I didn’t mean for that to be offensive, and intention is important.” So you could actually run through some scenarios with him with imaginary kids doing wrong things and have him generate mitigating ideas which don’t just damn the wrong action or damn the wrongdoer out of hand.
Get him good at doing this. Ask him Socratic questions such as “If John doesn’t know that James’ mother is dead and asks him about his mum and James becomes upset, is that worse or better or the same as John knowing full well James’ mother is dead and asking about her because he wants James to be upset?”
And if it’s not as bad, why not?
So you could discuss with him the difference between mistakes and genuinely ill-intentioned acts. How should each be dealt with in retrospect? Exactly the same way?
That’s maybe not a great scenario, but you could come up with many and discuss them with him or get him to discuss them with you to loosen up his thoughts.
You could also discuss the nature of right and wrong.
The nature of right and wrong isn’t always straightforward, and sometimes ‘good’ actions can lead to evil outcomes and evil actions can cause good to happen. You could discuss the law of unintended consequences and the idea that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that good can only come into being because there is evil, a kind of yin-yang idea, and so on.
There is also the idea that if we are perfect to begin with or naturally entirely good, then there would be little room for self-development and therefore a big purpose of life would be missing.
Now what you’ve been doing with your son sounds really good, and it’s certainly important to help him understand what’s been happening and learn to control his physiology more so he can relax. But it also sounds a little that his behaviour is obsessive-compulsive. Actually, you described it as a compulsion.
Often these kinds of obsessive compulsions begin during times of excessive stress, of not feeling secure, and are a way, at least unconsciously, of trying to feel more in control of a life that’s starting to feel chaotic in some respects.
Was he influenced by anyone who was extremely concerned with propriety – with rigid ideas of right and wrong, of shaming ‘wrong think’ or ‘wrong action’ and so forth? Or was he going through a period of uncertainty? Helping him feel more secure generally may well help naturally dissolve these compulsions.
It might be useful to talk with him about what he feels would happen if he didn’t carry out this ritual.
We are better people when we can register when we behaved less than we know we should have done in some way, or did bad, but then move on, hopefully no longer repeating such mistakes or wrongdoings. That is all we are required to do for a non-crime. In fact, that’s all we can do, other than try to make amends to a person we’ve really wronged in some way.
But I’d like to know, what is the nature of these supposed sins? Can you talk to him about sins or wrongdoings as a continuum? Is accidentally treading on someone’s toe once the same as intentionally defrauding someone over many years?
Should both wrongdoings be treated the same way?
But also, I wonder to what extent he is concerned with stopping doing this, or whether he feels it’s a necessary confession ritual to absolve sin. Does he see the behaviour from the outside and recognize it as something he needs and wants to stop, or does he feel the behaviour is not the problem but his sinfulness is?
So that’s one thing. Secondly, if he has reached, or when he does reach, the point at which he sees the behaviour from the outside – as something that is unwanted or has outstayed its welcome and no longer serves him but now serves against him – can you devise a plan with him to begin to cut it down, to taper off it? What would be a good replacement for a while? Until he no longer needs to do this.
If this judgemental part of him was a person, who might it look like and how might he stand up to it sometimes? You could get a bit creative with helping him externalize the problem in that way. In that way, also, you help him start to see it as an interloper, not who he really is. A part of him but not all of him, and perhaps an unreasonable part which can be tamed and butt out when it’s not needed, which is most of the time.
Can you relax him deeply and have him experecine inwardly doing it 30% less, then 50% less, and so on to the point where he no longer has to keep paying penance in this way?
What else I could have suggested
That’s where I left the discussion at the time, but in retrospect I could have added other suggestions.
Physical activity is extremely important for 12-year-old boys. Even tigers become neurotic and behave in repetitive and compulsive ways if they are confined to a cage.2 So I could have asked, how active is he? And does he need to be more active?
I could also have explored the idea of the mother (and others) using a strategy of reflection with the boy.
When we behave as another person does, we hold up a mirror for them to see themselves more objectively. This offers an opportunity for that person to break free of the pattern by seeing it in a wider context – seeing it and therefore not being it.
So if the boy’s family, perhaps before meals and at other pre-ordained times (sorry if my language is leaning to the theological!), all insisted on ‘confessing’ minor sins and infringements ad nauseam, they would be ‘joining’ the boy in his behaviour, showing it to him from the outside.
“Forgive me, for I have sinned! Today I took a little too long putting on my socks, I didn’t acknowledge the postman more, I had more than my fair share of milk from the fridge. Damn it!”
If everyone did this, it may begin to contextualize the boy’s behaviour for him (unless of course he really was committing terrible acts, in which case other interventions would be needed). But to even things out, they’d all have to ‘confess’ or ‘own’ good stuff they had done too, no matter how trivial.
By doing something more and more, by having to do it, and by having to endure everyone else doing it – perhaps to a boring and absurd degree – alters the pattern. And often altering the pattern of the problem is the first step to vanquishing it.
Pretty soon it all becomes burdensome, and it becomes much easier to just start living! These kinds of ‘ordeal’ or paradoxical tasks can be highly effective.
Another great aspect of this approach is that it reframes confession from a compulsion to a chore. And I probably don’t need to tell you that many 12-year-old boys are resistant to chores! Resistance towards a problem behaviour, reluctance to carry out what was once compulsive, is a sure sign of progress.
This kind of thing may seem risky, but reflection of this sort can work quickly. In fact, it is an age-old spiritual and psychological technique. Even the Sufi and Zen masters were known to inhabit, and therefore demonstrate, the behaviours of their disciples so they may have a chance to transcend it.3
An Uncommon Approach to Treating Depression
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- See Shah, I. (1994). The Commanding Self. Octagon Press, Limited.
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