Tag Archives: guilt

Guilt and triggering

Content warning – abuse mechanics

There’s nothing like being triggered to bring on the guilt. It kicks in for me around any situation where I experience panic, but once I’m into flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, the guilt comes thick and heavy. I experience the trigger as my responsibility, my fault. I’ll end up apologising to the person who triggered me, for my being so unreasonable and for over-reacting. This makes it hard to even ask people not to do things that bring on high levels of panic in me.

It’s not an accident. The situations where I was most hurt, I was explicitly blamed for what happened. Complaining is a sure fire way to make an abusive situation even more dangerous. And it was, always, always my fault. Maybe because of what I did or didn’t do at the time. Maybe because of a comment I made years previously. Perhaps my being too tired to articulate things clearly made it my fault for not being clear enough. Perhaps I was upset over emotional pressure, which I should not have been because it was fair and justified, for reasons. You get the picture.

This is normal. Abusers blame their victims. It is an effective strategy to keep the victim in place and stop them from seeking help or going to the police. I was told many times that the problem was me – I was unreasonable, over-reacting, and worse still I was told that I was emotionally abusive, an emotional blackmailer, manipulative, cold, calculating… So when things go wrong, one of the places my triggers take me is back into that deep sense of shame, guilt and responsibility. It is even worse for child victims because they have nothing to set it against and no way of even wondering if what’s happening isn’t their fault.

It is so hard to ask for help when you think everything is your fault. It is so hard to ask for kindness or care when you feel like you don’t deserve it. There are regular shoutouts for people with mental health problems to ask for help and speak about our troubles, but that’s really hard to do if abuse is how you got here. It’s hard to ask for help when what damaged you in the first place was also blamed on you. If expressing distress has been dangerous for you, that’s an enduring barrier to asking for help.

The only things I know of that truly help with this are as follows. Boost self esteem and confidence – make an active effort to lift people and they may be able to handle all of this better. Take triggers seriously, even if they don’t make sense to you. Your understanding the process is irrelevant. If someone trusts you enough to flag up what triggers them, it means they think you won’t deliberately hurt or punish them. If you can honour that, you might be able to do a lot to help them feel safe and to heal. And if someone gets very weird with you and starts apologising for things that were not their fault, and especially if they seem scared when apologising, it’s a pretty reliable sign that they have some serious issues and need your care.


Pain, Shame and Guilt

I think in many ways it’s a reflection of how seldom mental health is taken seriously that we add shame and guilt on top of people’s existing pain. No one who considered themselves kind and well meaning would tell a person with flu to just pull themselves together and try harder as though this is how you get over flu. We don’t tend to tell people whose bodies have been seriously injured that they should ‘man up’. Culturally we do have some serious and parallel issues around how we treat chronic pain and long term disability, but that’s a post for another day.

We treat psychological injuries as though they are personal failures and in doing so, add to the burden already wounded people are carrying.  Telling people the reasons you think they shouldn’t be in pain doesn’t ease pain. What it does do is help that person internalise shame and carry guilt about their own suffering. That in turn makes it harder to ask for help.

Depression isn’t an individual failing. Often the reasons for it aren’t personal, but systemic. Poverty and the stress of insecurity makes people ill. Overwork, leading to exhaustion and burnout makes people ill. Distress caused by mass extinction and climate chaos makes people ill. Being made responsible for things we have no power over also makes us ill. Here in the UK we have a culture of working people to death, blaming them for not being able to find work in a shrinking jobs market, causing poverty and then blaming people for being poor and a host of other such horrors that pile on the misery. The result is that not only do you get to suffer the consequences of stress and insecurity, but you get to feel like it’s all your fault for not being good enough in the first place.

If you do get help with mental health issues, the odds are it will be meds. That’s what we can have. Huge numbers of people are suffering depression and anxiety as a direct consequence of our messed up work culture and precarious lives. How can the answer to such system failures, be chemical? Use it to get by if it helps you, but don’t buy into the idea that meds are the answer here.

We have to stop blaming individuals for suffering and start talking about the way in which our culture is sick. We get less time off than your typical mediaeval peasant. The safety net of welfare is being eroded. We are punished for misfortune and poverty. We don’t have enough green space, enough quiet space or enough time to benefit from exercise. Many of us can’t afford to eat well. It is difficult to be mentally well in such a situation.

Mental health is a collective problem that needs solutions on a societal level. When we treat it as a personal problem to be solved at the personal scale, we add to the guilt and shame that makes people ill, and perpetuate the stories in our culture that are causing bodily and emotional sickness. Mental health is a cultural issue, a societal issue, a political issue.


Flight Shame

In the last few weeks I’ve seen the words ‘flight shame’ used to describe the motivation for people flying less. I can’t point at any sources off the top of my head, but people are flying a bit less in Europe by the sounds of things, and this is being attributed to flight shame. It’s also worth noting that (and I got these stats from MEP Molly Scott Cato) 70% of flights are taken by 15% of fliers, so if those people cut back it will have maximum impact.

Flight shame is clearly a good thing. Flight shaming is not something I’ve managed to do. I have a fair few friends who fly – some for leisure, some for work, some because their families aren’t all in the same country. I don’t call them out when they tell me about it. I do not flight-shame them and I am undecided as to whether I should. Flying is so desperately bad for life on Earth. But, if we did it a bit more modestly, it might be feasible. If those who had most took less, it would perhaps be viable for some people to spend the odd few hours in the air now and then. The flight-shame of people who seldom flew anyway might not be a game changer.

My suspicion is that the people who are most easily persuaded to be uncomfortable about their less-sustainable choices are the people who weren’t so very bad in the first place. It’s the folk who jet off regularly who are least likely to feel uncomfortable with their choices – I suspect. I have little evidence aside from the way, this morning, I’m seeing people with a lot of money proclaiming their lack of flight guilt as Greta Thunberg sets off to cross the Atlantic in a boat.

But perhaps that need to assert the ‘no guilt’ over flying shows that flight-shame is creeping in. You don’t have to speak up to justify something that doesn’t need justifying.

The greatest harm to the planet is caused by the smallest number of people. Many of us are living within the planet’s means already. Many of us who are not living in a passably sustainable way would not need to make massive changes to achieve that. How can it possibly be tolerable that those who have most are allowed to take so much at such a cost to life as a whole? When that becomes shameful behaviour, and when we treat it with derision rather than admiring it, things may change. We could do this quickly. I’m not generally into using shame as a way to change behaviour, but we’re talking about people with monstrous levels of privilege who are choosing to do obscene amounts of damage – and they really should be ashamed of that and pressured to change.


Warning: contains naval gazing

I lost most of yesterday afternoon and evening to a welling up of pain. It’s left me feeling sore and disorientated today. I’m in a place of unpretty introspection. It isn’t what other people do that haunts me, it is the fear of having got it wrong, of not having given enough when it was needed, not being able to offer a sufficiently tolerant and open heart, not being able to take the knocks. I’m a creature of finite resource, no kind of saint, and alert to the ways in which I could have done a better job. Yesterday I was caught in a web of ghosts and mistakes, trying to figure out where I could have done better, in the hopes of not repeating any of it.

I’m fascinated by people who shrug of mistakes and failures, of any magnitude, and move on. I’ve encountered a few folk down the years who were remarkably untroubled by their errors of judgement and acts of unintended cruelty. I’ve met people who genuinely didn’t seem to care when they caused pain. I have noticed an interesting discrepancy though, because the people who feel they should be able to shrug off their mistakes and move on seldom take the same attitude when they feel hurt. If they are suffering, it matters and needs taking seriously. It has also been my experience that people who make less fuss about their own discomfort are often more compassionate when other people are hurting.

I’ve learned the painful way that guilt and regret are the things I am least able to bear. Being hurt by someone else is as nothing compared to what I carry over mistakes I cannot fix, things I cannot undo, or unsay. I have made a lot of mistakes along the way. Poor judgement calls, misplaced expectation, dodgy interpretation… Nothing a person would wind up in court for, just regular human failure born of not seeing clearly, not knowing myself well enough, not getting it right. I pick over these like a scavenger picking bones. If there is a means to put right, I’ll try and do it. At least I can learn, with a view to making new and different mistakes next time.

My most problematic reoccurring mistake goes like this: I accept people as they present themselves, so I fall foul of miss-selling. There are qualities I’m drawn to, and if someone fakes those, I can be suckered in. The bitterness that comes from realising it was all pretend, is horrible. I find it hard to forgive in those circumstances, but I realise it may often be the case that people do not realise they are faking it. They have learned the language of passion and intensity. They’ve learned what sounds dramatic, poetic, inspired and wild. They like the image. Perhaps they do not realise that all they have is a shiny surface. The shock of realising they do not know how to live what they are voicing cannot be comfortable for some of them. The ease with which the shrugging and walking away often follows though, suggests to me that they mostly do not care. They only ever wanted to look the part.

How I let myself get into one of these again? How was I bewitched by the surface appearance, by an illusion of authenticity? Is there some magical way of discerning between people who truly speak from the heart, and people who know how to sound that way? I haven’t found it yet. Do I become cynical and mistrustful, and keep at a distance those who do come into my life open hearted, honest and full of integrity, so as to also keep away the players of games? I oscillate. There are days (yesterday was one such) when I feel no confidence in my ability to relate to people at all, and the call of hermitude is strong. But there are those few souls who were not faking, who have brought depth and wonder into my life, and I would not have that if I’d carefully insisted on keeping everyone at arm’s length.

I’ve been told that I expect too much of people. I have unreasonably high standards, am demanding and unfair. I expect so much that I set people up to fail; they can never be enough to meet my outrageous demands. I’ve looked long and hard at those accusations over a lot of years. There is some truth in it. I can be decidedly all or nothing. I do ask a lot, but I ask no more of others than I ask of myself. Just occasionally, I find someone who isn’t affronted by how I am, someone who does not disappoint, or turn out to be more hot air than substance. In the meantime, what I get is the guilt of feeling that my being let down is a measure of my unreasonableness. The uncomfortable sense that I ask too much and judge too harshly, and that if only I could seek for less, I could enjoy the easy, non-committal, shrug off the mistakes approach of others. I would have to be someone else. Still, there are losses that I grieve, and mistakes that haunt me.