Privileged Existential Guilt Gets Us Nowhere

By Bex vanKoot

Wikimedia Commons
We can make a difference in the lives of the people around us by releasing ourselves from the burden of fixing every problem.

“I’m tired of being the better person,” I whined into the phone to my mother. I was a few thousand miles away; she was urging me to craft a message that could somehow bridge the divide — quickly forming — between me and my anti-immigrant family, people who I only ever see on Facebook.

“You’re so smart,” she said. “You do your research. You’re always so well-informed.” But maybe you can’t change the world. She didn’t say it, but the words rang in my ears nonetheless. Maybe you’re just a little too smart for your own good.

I know these words mean different things to different people. When my husband first heard them as a child, it was after winding an elaborate maze of string all through the family home, tying the end off to a door knob. His parents, no doubt, said the words with a sigh and a smile. But for me, they’ve always seemed to contain a hint of pity.

Maybe you would be happier, my family would ponder, if you weren’t smart enough to notice everything wrong with the world. Or if you were not sensitive enough to care.

Hindered By Privilege

It is at this privileged intersection of academic intelligence and emotional sensitivity where people, especially white youth, seem to have the most intense experiences of guilt associated with their very existence. I asked Dr. Deborah Serani, professor of psychology at Adelphi University, how this guilt manifests. “When you’re bright, when you’re privileged, and when you’re sensitive, and you see that it’s not a just world, it can cause what we call a psychic annihilation: a feeling of overwhelming dread that there is such inequity in the world,” she told me.

This psychological affliction begins with a recognition of systemic injustice in the world, and a deep sense of responsibility for righting these wrongs, but it doesn’t end there. While many harness these feelings to do meaningful good, for others it becomes a source of inaction, and the crushing sense of guilt seems insurmountable. Compounding this feeling of culpability — how can I not create change when I’ve been handed every privilege — is a lack of the hopefulness often exhibited by peers. There is a gnawing sense that fundamentally changing the world is impossible to accomplish.

‘When you’re bright, when you’re privileged, and when you’re sensitive, and you see that it’s not a just world, it can cause what we call a psychic annihilation.’

Many of us, Serani says, are met with disdain and disgust, or at least disinterest, when we exhibit this guilt. Parents and peers alike are prone to brushing off our feelings as oversensitivity, an encroaching vulnerability that one must harden themselves against. The problems of the world are too big for us. We shouldn’t worry our pretty heads so much. This reaction further discourages young people — already struggling for a sense of autonomy — from becoming agents of change. These first impressions, seeds of the idea that ignorance is bliss, tell us not to reach further, not to seek answers, and to retreat back into not knowing — to choose not to see the suffering around us.

But returning to ignorance doesn’t come naturally — I would argue it’s nearly impossible. So we are left suspended between feeling the weight of the change we want to see, and the belief that we are incapable of creating that change. And as a result, in short, we do nothing. Serani explains:

“People who struggle with existential guilt are the ones that are not really aware of the control they can have over their life. If you’re struggling with existential guilt, a little bit of it is really good, it makes you a better person, it makes you more sensitive and aware. But there are some people that I work with who are almost masochistic to the point of punishing themselves or shaming themselves, and it’s because they want to do more than they’re capable of doing, so then they feel completely helpless as a result.”

Some people recover from a psychic annihilation and come away with a plan, roused to action. Others turn in on the guilt, often falling into depression and self-destructive patterns. The nature of so-called “masochistic guilt” has been clinically studied. Duke University research from 2013 identified certain people they called “moral masochists.” In response to feelings of guilt, these people indulged themselves in punishing behaviors, from negative self-talk, to deprivation of pleasure, to actual physical harm.

All of these punishments engage the body’s natural analgesic system, flooding the body with pain-relieving chemicals; the same chemicals that urge us to feed an addiction, or remind us to do things we generally enjoy, can also relieve pain of both the physical and emotional variety. Like cutting and other forms of self-harm, this rush of hormones leads to short-term reduction of negative feelings. Scientifically, wallowing in guilt and negative self-talk is an easy way to mollify our feelings of hopelessness and impotence — much easier than actually taking action, even if the relief is only temporary.

If you find yourself lamenting, “What can I do?” and feeling overwhelmed with the answers, Serani advises you to slow down and realize that the answer is, as much or as little as we want. We need to give ourselves permission to focus on what’s close at hand, what we can do within our communities. Practice breathing through overwhelming situations and focus your energy on projects with immediate, visible benefits to the people around you. “In little tiny steps,” she says, “you can change your little world.”

Get Over The Guilt — And Yourself

My parents did actively help me to deal with some of these feelings, in the best ways they knew how. When I took my first overnight trip to Toronto from my rural Ontario high school at age 14, I came back absolutely devastated by the poverty and homelessness I saw on those cold city streets. My parents promptly found us a local church (we hadn’t been in several years, since moving to a new town) and I tried to find a place for myself in the outreach community. Christianity wasn’t for me, but after that first shock of human suffering — what privilege to not even see homelessness until my mid-teens — engaging with community helped instill in me a belief that I could use my privileged life to help others.

But with every passing year, my sense of defeat creeped further and further until finally, slowly, it turned my passion into apathy. Looking back now, I’m ashamed to admit that it was only when oppression began to impact me personally — when I started to see the results of homophobia, sexism, classism, and ableism in my own life — that my anger finally burned its way through all the layers of lazy guilt.

What privilege to not even see homelessness until my mid-teens.

“It’s actually a privilege to indulge in existential guilt,” says social justice educator Robin DiAngelo. “It’s normal to have some guilt, but is it motivating you to action? Or is it rationalizing your inaction? That for me is the question.” DiAngelo recognizes that someone suffering from clinical depression isn’t likely to be moved by a pep talk; overwhelming existential depression can be just as debilitating as any other persistent depressive disorder, and no self-help formula can replace a personal treatment plan. But working through depression with a mental health professional probably won’t free you from feeling responsibility for your privilege — nor should it.

Once you work through feelings of hopelessness, you may find that existential guilt is just a roadblock you use to put off taking effective action, an endless feedback loop that leads to a lot of conjecture, but no satisfying change. According to DiAngelo, we need to transform how we perceive the fundamental framework of the world. She believes that we can choose to see the world as a system we are forced to participate in, or we can recognize that with privilege, every choice we make is a chance to interrupt that system.

Serani agrees. “I think insight is the key to change. Neurologists say that if you change your thoughts, you change your mind. Studies show that if you change your thoughts, you change your world. You actually can influence the functioning of your brain to become more healthy.”

When we can let go of the idea that we must “Do All The Things!” in order to address inequality, we free up our potential to see ourselves, our privilege, and our power as they truly are — a series of choices we make. This small shift in perspective allows us to make changes in our behavior, as well as in our understanding of the world around us — changes that build on each other over time, improving our relationships to others and to ourselves, and bolstering our confidence to take greater action.

Stop Trying So Hard To Change

Perhaps the most difficult possibility to accept when in the depths of existential guilt is that maybe you really can’t change the world. When we talk about transformation, we usually mean somehow influencing the outcomes we envision for the world as we know it. But what if the only real way to change anything is by influencing the way we perceive the world? We might not be able to stop climate change, or put an end to all war, eliminate poverty, cure disease, feed the hungry, or house the homeless. Are we willing to face that possibility?

In The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness, Pema Chödrön writes about our misguided drive to change ourselves, and everyone else, into better people. Humans so often strive to make the world a better place by vowing to stop being racist and sexist and ableist, to eradicate from ourselves all the prejudice we have been taught over a lifetime. Well-intended white people say that they “don’t see race” and in doing so, hide from the impact race has, both on ourselves and others.

Through practicing mindfulness and meditation — something known to also have positive effects on depression — Chödrön describes many methods for “interrupting the system,” as DiAngelo suggested. There is no one right way to do this, to train the mind to see itself thinking, reacting, and influencing our perception. Chödrön writes that the basic point of it all, of the various teachings on meditation throughout the many mindfulness traditions, “is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind — thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations.” It is in devotion to a technique that works with our individual personality that we can develop the skill of being able to interrupt our own systems of thought and feelings.

This method of turning inward for self-reflection can seem like a deep sigh of relief after obsessing over what to do for days, weeks, or months at a time. But this approach can also present us with a great deal of discomfort, because the aim isn’t to rid ourselves of all the negative aspects of ourselves that we encounter. Our prejudice and privilege are — no matter how much we abhor them — part of who we have grown up to be.

We are all born with privilege of one kind or another. We all learn prejudice, we all discriminate. Even when when we try our hardest not to, we all cause harm to others in some way — directly or indirectly — one day or another. To completely excise the ugly parts of ourselves is impossible. Instead, our aim should be to first see our prejudices up close, become intimately familiar with them, learn their ways. Chödrön calls this “making friends” with ourselves, because it allows us to approach the harm we have done and the prejudice we possess with a sense of compassion and grace.

By training ourselves to pay close attention to our thoughts and feelings — sans judgment — we’re better able to find space in which to make more informed choices. In turn, we can use this space to respond to the choices we are presented with based on our true desires to change the world — or at least how we experience it — rather than continuing to act out the preprogrammed, prejudiced reactions we’ve learned from a lifetime of privilege.

We all learn prejudice, we all discriminate.

In light of all this, I wonder if my family is right; maybe I am too smart for my own good. Or, more accurately, maybe I spend too much time thinking for my own good.

We were all raised in a deeply flawed world, one that is predicated on the intricate intersections of privilege and oppression. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we believe ourselves to be vigilant allies, we will continue to make mistakes and perpetuate what privileges we have. Trying to change who we are, ignoring our privilege in the hopes that it will go away, hasn’t done any good for us so far, individually or as a species. The key to real change is in finally admitting our flaws and naming our prejudices.

Instead of getting caught up in a loop of guilt and idleness, we can make a difference in the lives of the people around us by releasing ourselves from the crushing — and impossible — burden of fixing every problem. We can focus our energy on the specific ways we can help individual people, and we can do little things to dismantle the structures that support our privilege. We can let go of our obsession with changing the world outside of ourselves, and instead transform the way we show up in it.

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