October 13, 2009

Guilt and empathy

"Hard though it may be to accept, remember that guilt is sometimes a friendly internal voice reminding you that you're messing up."
--Marge Kennedy

I went to the monthly G.U.S.T. (Gwinnett Understanding Secular Truths) meeting last night. I don't often make them since B works nights. Luckily for me, it was on a Monday this month and happened to be on a day B didn't have to work. His schedule changes in a couple of weeks though and I thought I'd have the chance to make more of them. Looks like the Monday night change will be sticking for a while and I can't do Monday nights. I'm really bummed! Hopefully the AIR meetings will pick back up. We are still working behind the scenes, but it's just nice to get together. The topic for the meeting was guilt. I've got plenty of it, but none for religion. Well, I do have some atheist guilt as Richard's wife brought up. Shouldn't I be out there being more open?

What is the function of guilt? I mentioned I thought it was related to empathy. Kate, (Hi Kate!) sitting next to me suggested both guilt and empathy are things we learn along the way. I don't think we know for sure. It seems to me that we are certainly born with the capacity for empathy, but that how we are treated in our first years of life can greatly determine how empathetic we become as adults. But does that mean those people also feel more guilt? I don't think so. If you learn to care for others feelings, then you will have a natural little twinge of guilt if you hurt someone. I think that's completely different than if you are taught to feel guilt for your thoughts, feelings, or actions. It's amazingly easy to make kids feel guilty and I'm sorry to say I've done it myself. It's something I am working on avoiding. EI parenting is about making sure you separate people from their actions, while respecting their feelings. It's not about imposing external guilt, but about triggering their own internal warning system.


  1. Hi Sarah! ;o)

    This sums it up:

    "It seems to me that we are certainly born with the capacity for empathy, but that how we are treated in our first years of life can greatly determine how empathetic we become as adults."

    This is exactly what I was trying to say....but certainly didn't do it this succinctly!

    It dovetails nicely with Bro. R's idea that genetically those with the capacity for empathy helped ensure group survival, and fits my belief that it still must be modeled or taught, to bring that quality to fruition.

    The quilt trip is how I was taught to parent, and it is difficult at times to separate the actions from the people, since this is NOT how I grew up. Shame and blame were the parenting tools used most often, and it hard to overcome that early conditioning. I keep working on it, though.

    And to tie in your last post...the ability and willingness to apologize to my children is one of the parenting skills/tools I am most proud of. As a result, I see my children willing to apologize without my verbal prompting or meaningful looks..they see that I am not wracked with guilt or diminished through apology, and so it doesn't seem like a big deal to them. It's just what we do when we step on toes, either figuratively or physically.

  2. I wasn't raised with empathy either. Somedays I feel like I am messing my kids up more by swinging back and forth in parenting styles. At the park today, all the moms were saying I've read more parenting books than anyone they know. I can't help it. I know I'll never be perfect, but I know I can do better. Every book helps me and I'll probably never stop reading them. I did a few things right when they were all babies though. At least I got a good start :)

    Wish I could make more GUST meetings. I love being with you all!