Do you recognise the so-called ‘good little girl and boy syndrome’? As long as you meet the other person’s expectations, work hard and are kind, everything will ultimately be okay. ‘Dream on,’ says family-system expert Els van Steijn. If in adulthood you don’t move away from the idea of always wanting to be blameless, then you’ll remain a child watching from the side-lines of life. What a waste! What’s inevitable though, is that when you fight for your place, you’ll sometimes have to make victims along the way. Only then can you follow your own path through life, in line with your soul. So, guilt is part of life, however much we’d prefer to avoid it… In this article, Els explains how the dynamic between guilt and innocence ensures healthy relationships, how to gain more insight into your family conscience and the wonderful things you get in return for having to be the perpetrator now and again.
Els: Blame and feelings of guilt can be connected, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. You can feel guilty without there being any blame and you can also ‘be’ blamed, while not feeling guilty at all. And then there’s also that thing called innocence. When you do something that falls within the framework of a group or family, you feel innocent and good. If you act in a way that goes against the system, where you run the risk of eventually being ostracised, you feel guilty and bad. This is your personal conscience, something you’re always aware of. You feel this conscience. It’s like a sense, letting you know to what extent you belong or don’t belong. The personal conscience applies to your family, but also to other groups. Different rules apply to different groups. Which can allow you to do the most terrible things without feeling guilty: take for example youth gangs or the persecution of Jews during the Second World War. These people have carried out atrocious acts, but still experience a clean conscience.
HOW CAN DEEPLY-ROOTED FEELINGS OF GUILT CREEP INTO A FAMILY SYSTEM?
Els: You are an inherent part of your biological family. Without being aware of the fact, you’re an intrinsic part of the so-called family conscience. In the family conscience, all the memories and events relating to your family history are saved. In contrast to the personal conscience, the family conscience is not tangible or perceptible, although its effects definitely are. It plays out at a deeply unconscious level. The primary objective of the family conscience is to keep the family together, and where necessary, to restore the balance between giving and receiving for the entire family system. The family conscience does not tolerate a single person belonging to this family system being shut out, and will intervene. Should this happen, this conscience will then be activated and designate someone else from the family system — often a child from a later generation — to represent the person who’s been excluded. The child in question is totally unaware of this random selection. Without realising, the child becomes ‘symptom carrier’ of what’s happening within the family. The unaware child that’s been designated will experience the feelings and behaviour of the excluded person. They will even start to live according to the dynamic of: ‘things won’t go any better for me than they did for you’. This is also called an unconscious identification or entanglement. In my book, ‘The Fountain, find your place,’ I explore this and what I consider as ‘ascending in the fountain’. I’m fully aware that this is difficult to grasp. A family constellation can make visible how feelings of guilt for/with each other are being carried by the family system. One person can be much more heavily burdened than the other. This is pure coincidence, luck or bad luck. But to return to the above; although you can be innocent because you’ve been carried along in the unconscious dynamic of the entanglement, you always remain responsible for your actions. Complicated, right? And that’s not to mention the theme of ‘guilt’ promoted by certain religions…
HOW CAN THE THEME OF ‘GUILT’ APPEAR IN YOUR LIFE?
Els: Are you familiar with the so-called ‘good little girl and boy syndrome’? As long as you meet the other person’s expectations, work hard, are kind, don’t complain and are always ready to help others, everything will ultimately be okay. Dream on… Because all this means you remain a spectator of life instead of fighting for your place. There will always be conflict in our lives — whether squabbling over something minor or struggling with conflicting ideas. And in the patterns that emerge, you want to remain innocent and keep your hands clean. Although you may appear to be extremely responsible, are you actually taking responsibility for your own life instead of only someone else’s? Does it take you becoming sick to start protecting your own boundaries? In order to grow and become an adult, you have to face the dynamic of making yourself guilty. We live in a world of duality: of two sides. The flip side of the good little girl/boy syndrome is being a perpetrator. This doesn’t mean you have to enter the murky world of criminality, but it does mean that you take responsibility for your own life. You take your space and allow things to go well in your life. Even if this may mean that people like you less, are disappointed in you or that you even perhaps inflict mental pain on someone. Perhaps you have to end the relationship because it’s better for you, while you know that by doing so, the other person will tumble into a black hole. Which makes you feel guilty. You have to tolerate this guilt, because if you were to stay in this unhealthy relationship, you’ll once again land in the good little girl/boy syndrome.
WHEN DO YOU THINK IT’S RIGHT TO FEEL GUILTY, AND WHEN NOT ?
Els: So, looking at the above, there are multiple dimensions to guilt. On a more concrete level, think about the child (especially if small) who wants to do everything to make the parents happy (read Els’ article on how defining the bond with your mother is for your relationships as an adult). Suppose that parents, objectively speaking, display ‘strange behaviour’: a child would rather blame himself than consider something may be going on with the parents. The immense love of a child for its parent simply won’t allow for that option to exist. It’s simpler to blame yourself: if only you’d been smarter, kinder, better behaved, prettier etc., then this would never have happened. This is also known as false hope and false power. This pattern often keeps repeating itself in adulthood — it’s easier to blame yourself, than to face reality. This feeling of guilt is misplaced, the result of great loyalty. Sometimes though, it’s clear that you are guilty. Suppose you end the relationship. Your share in ending the relationship lies with you, and what belongs to the other with him or her. So, in this case, guilt is not something bad. But it is something you have to endure and face. If you’re feeling extremely guilty because you’re ending things, you may not want to feel this guilt. This means that you don’t accept the benefits of being the perpetrator, one side of the duality of life. Your feelings of guilt are then a kind of penance that serves no obvious purpose. The art is to feel ‘the guilt’ as a primary emotion (read Els’ article here about why primary emotions can be so healing).
AND WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO DEAL WITH A DEEPLY-ROOTED SENSE OF GUILT, SO THAT IT NO LONGER STANDS IN YOUR WAY?
Els: Accept that being guilty is part of life. Even necessary. A relationship (romantic relationships as well as all other kinds of relationships, except between parents and children), is a constant exchange of giving and receiving. You give something to your partner, colleague or friend, and this person is able to receive. Accepting (receiving) by definition creates a sense of guilt (read here Els’ article about the dynamic of giving and receiving, and why receiving is the basis of every healthy relationship). Guilt can feel unwelcome, something you want to get rid of, meaning the person will give back, to settle the balance. Accept, and the other person no longer feels guilty. But you do, because you have accepted. Again, you want to settle the balance, meaning you start giving and if the other person accepts, you once again become innocent and the other person guilty. And in this way, a wonderful turnover of giving and receiving emerges. Accepting is thus making yourself guilty. An absolute necessity. Fail to accept, and you’ll be unable to enter into relationships. Because relationships are established on this continuous back and forth of acceptance. And so, teaching yourself to accept guilt, ensures that you bring about connections. A healthy balance, therefore, between guilt and innocence.
AND HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH A SUPERFICIAL SENSE OF GUILT?
Els: Processing something always happens at two levels. On one hand, at a (rational) cognitive level, and on the other hand, an emotional level. You process on an emotional level by feeling your primary emotions. And what’s great is that if you truly accept your guilt and say yes to it, you’ll always get tenacity and strength as a human being in return.
WHAT IF SOMEONE DOESN’T HAVE ANY FEELINGS OF GUILT? IS THAT DANGEROUS?
Els: I think we’re in an unhealthy spectrum here. Someone is damaged to such an extent that he or she has no empathy or feelings of guilt. These people, I feel, are sick and can be dangerous. Because the ability to feel guilty ensures you can adjust your behaviour to that which is socially acceptable. If a child is raised without any boundaries and is able to do everything, that child will often appear to lose their way once in adulthood. Because if you never experience a bad conscience (because everything was allowed), you also don’t recognise a good conscience. Meaning you never get a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction. So, you need all kinds of kicks to feel alive. How dead are you then, on the inside…?
IS THERE ANY OTHER WISE LESSON OR MEANINGFUL QUOTE YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?
Els: You can’t avoid the dynamics of guilt and innocence if you want to go through life as an adult. You need to come up with your own answer to the question of how you do this. Which is something only you can decide. What choices do you make, and are you prepared to accept the consequences of these without complaint? If you don’t want to, or don’t dare to do this, then you remain a child and innocent. At a certain level, you’ll continue to feel empty, because you’re not dealing with what’s part of life, which is making yourself guilty. Because of this, you probably lack a certain compassion and acceptance that you’re actually not any different to other people. You may also lack kindness towards others. After all, you’re not dealing with the nuances of life’s struggles. Subsequently, you’re likely to be quick to condemn other people and probably yourself too. Facing your guilt is facing life. Taking responsibility for your life. Do this, and I suspect you’ll leave this world a satisfied person! It’s easiest to do from your place in the family fountain. I hope that you are firmly in your place. To finish, a quote from Barack Obama in Cairo from 2009: ‘It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path’.
For more information, and the book ‘The Fountain’, go to elsvansteijn.com