Question: How many daughters does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: None. “It’s okay. I’ll just sit here in the dark all by myself. Go out and have fun.”
Guilt is a complicated emotion which can work to our benefit and make us feel better about ourselves by reminding us how we ought to act, such as feeling guilty that you didn’t participate in the last fundraiser for a worthy cause and deciding to volunteer at the next one. Feeling guilty about how you treated someone or how you behaved can be a source of positive motivation, signaling your recognition of how you should have acted and how your lapse affected a person you care about. Guilt can prompt you to apologize, repair, or make other amends.
Because not one of us is perfect and our best self doesn’t always show up when it should, guilt can provide the glue a relationship sometimes needs. And feeling guilty can provide the incentive to change ourselves and our behavior.
That said, other people can also induce guilt—as the light bulb joke makes clear—to wield power over us and make us do or say things which ultimately don’t serve us and which, in the long run, may actually set us back.
This is a particular issue for all mothers and daughters—after all, you owe the person who put you on the planet big time—but it is an especially fraught one for daughters whose mothers are unloving, dismissive, or downright combative. As one woman ruefully noted in a message on Facebook: “I wasn’t going to let my mother dragoon me into visiting her for a whole weekend because I knew it would be a disaster but she went on and on about how lonely she was and I felt too guilty not to go. Well, it was a predictable disaster. She had 48 hours to dump non-stop criticism on me which was horrible. And I did it to myself even though I know better.”
In their study of guilt, Roy Baumeister and his colleagues hypothesized that while guilt is a personal emotion, it performs an interpersonal function in three ways:
1.Guilt helps repair relationships when someone’s behavior falls short and it elicits affirmation of caring and commitment.
This is the glue I referred to above.
2.It can alleviate imbalance in emotional distress within a relationship.
Yes, when one person has acted hurtfully or destructively and feels guilty and acknowledges it, the relationship may be strengthened because the wronged person feels better and the transgressor sees the errors of his or her ways.
3.Guilt can be used to exert influence.
Specifically the researchers discuss one person with less power in the relationship using the power of guilt to make the other more powerful person do what she or he wants. This example is drawn from my life: You love the beach but your husband hates it so you always end up going to the mountains. Finally, one year, you remind him how his vacation desires are always being met and, with luck, he feels guilty enough to end up lying on the sand with the surf lapping at his feet. Ditto the girlfriend who always insists you go to a wine bar downtown when you’d rather be walking in the park now and again.
It’s pretty clear that while guilt can be used to correct an imbalance as in these examples, it can also be used like a connection-destroying brickbat in any relationship if a major transgression of trust is involved. Making someone feel guilty for the hurt he or she caused on the daily—despite amends made and the passage of time—will, inevitably, eat away at the very foundations of the connection.
Guilt in the context of the mother-daughter relationship
The cultural pressure on daughters to acknowledge the gift of life they’ve been given, to honor their parents as the Biblical Commandment frames it, and to be grateful for the food and shelter they’ve been given freights this particular relationship with more guilt per inch than perhaps any other. When the relationship is stressed or toxic, either feeling guilty on her own or being made to feel guilty by her mother or other family members further complicates her ability to make sense of the connection and how it affects her. One reader recently messaged: “Every time I read an article of yours that describes my mother perfectly, I feel guilty and terrible for liking it. I know I have to do something to help myself—I’m 42 and not a kid anymore—but the guilt makes my head spin and leaves me confused. Aren’t you supposed to love your mother even if she doesn’t love you?”
Understanding how a toxic maternal relationship has affected and shaped your behavior is already complicated by the fact that the hardwired need for maternal love never abates; guilt adds another layer of complexity. Since daughters never fully stop hoping that, somehow and some day, their mothers will love them after all, doing something for your mother because you feel too guilty not to also feeds into renewed hopefulness: “If I do this for her, then she’ll love me.”
Then too, mothers themselves use guilt as another tool for wielding power and to manipulate, especially if they are self-involved and see their daughters as extensions of themselves, combative, controlling, enmeshed or role-reversed. Ellie, 50, wrote: “Every time I tried to become more independent, my mother guilt-tripped me into not doing what was right for me. I couldn’t go away to college because then she’d have no one to help her with my younger brothers. Then my father died, and I couldn’t take a job in Chicago because it would mean she was all alone. I felt too guilty to draw boundaries until I got married and my husband said that he wasn’t going to live his life by her terms. A therapist finally helped me sort it out.”
The yin/yang nature of guilt—like regret—is something we all need to acknowledge. Yes, it can inspire us to act as we ought to—morally and emotionally—but it can also leave us hopelessly tied up in knots. Sometimes, for her own well-being, a daughter must realize that her mother has to learn to change the light bulb herself.
Photography by Ashes Sitoula. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Baumeister, Roy F., Arlene M. Stillwell, and Todd F. Heatherton, “ Guilt: An Interpersonal Approach,” Psychological Bulletin (1994), VOL. 115, NO.2., 243-262.