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Recognise illegitimate guilt—don’t let them define morality

This is a section of a longer paper. There is a roadmap for the entire paper, and you can download the PDF.

We noted above that a person exhibiting SBCMB tends to define morality primarily in reference to themselves and also tends to make themselves into the greatest victim in any situation. This distorted “moral world” can exert a powerful influence on you. If you have engaged with such a person in any depth or for a significant length of time (e.g. as a child growing up in a household with a person exhibiting SBCMB), you may have had your own conscience “trained” in line with their distorted reality, so that you feel guilty when you should not. That is, you may find yourself feeling deeply guilty whenever you think of the person badly, or whenever you do anything that you think may cause them to feel any kind of pain. This may be true even in situations where you have every right to think badly of the person, e.g. if they have hurt you deeply; and it may be true even in situations where you have every right (or even a need) to act in a way that results in them feeling hurt—e.g. if you need to stand up for yourself or state personal boundaries in a way that may cause them to complain.

You might be able to recognise that this kind of guilt reaction is illegitimate by comparing it objectively to the way you feel about other people. That is, you may be perfectly capable of disapproving of certain bad behaviour amongst other people, and you may be perfectly willing to state your own regular personal boundaries to other people, without ever feeling guilty (or perhaps only feeling mildly guilty). However, you may find you cannot easily do the same thing when it comes to the person exhibiting SBCMB. Exactly the same behaviour with this particular person might provoke a strong guilt reaction in you, because your past experiences with them have trained your conscience to over-react when it comes to this person.

If this kind of reaction is deeply ingrained through long association with the person exhibiting SBCMB, you may need to seek professional help. Yet even if your association with the person has been shorter or less intense, you may still find yourself experiencing illegitimate guilt reactions. If this is the case, we have found the following responses helpful.

  • It can be enough simply to recognise that this reaction is happening, and name it as illegitimate.
  • You could talk to others whom you trust and ask them for their objective opinion on whether you should feel guilty in the situation.
  • Or, you could ask yourself whether a reasonable person who is observing your situation would think you have a reason to feel guilty.

It is helpful to remember that it is quite legitimate for you to feel pity or empathy towards a person while at the very same time naming their behaviour as wrong and asserting your own legitimate personal boundaries. This is a normal way to think and feel, but in our experience, one of the effects of SBCMB is that it can thwart people from being able to think normally when it comes to that person. People find themselves unable to both empathise with or pity the person and realise that they have been truly hurt or wronged by them. One way you might be able to overcome this is to consciously practice feeling both things at the same time—i.e. feeling pity/empathy and feeling legitimate grief/anger at what they have done to you or others. This can help you to “retrain” your conscience away from their distorted moral world to one that is more real and true.

Read the next section: Don’t be afraid of disengaging

Copyright © 2021 Lionel and Bronwyn Windsor

Note well: Because of time and energy constraints, we’re not personally able to respond to any queries or comments about this paper. So please realise in advance that if you send us a message about this paper, you are unlikely to receive any response from us.

To read the whole paper: Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours

Slow-burn crazy-making behavioursOnline: a roadmap for the entire paper Download the entire PDF

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Lift Yours Eyes is a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.



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