Pleading Guilty

Today was the second day of my ten-day program at Alternatives, the partial hospitalization program at Lehigh Valley Hospital. One of the things we learned about today was a type of therapy called “Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy,” or REBT. I found that this type of therapy really resonated with me. It was created by Albert Ellis in the middle of the twentieth century, and it has some similarities with the philosophy of stoicism and, I think, with Buddhist thought. I’m no expert in it, but I’ll try to explain it I understand it:

The idea behind REBT, I think, is that we often have irrational thoughts and feelings about the pains and struggles in our lives. When we are angry or upset, we often blame the world around us for our problems. We might claim that “that person made me so angry when they such and such,” but in reality, that other person did not make you angry. That person did something, and you reacted to it by getting angry. It’s our reaction that actually causes our emotions. This isn’t to say that all your problems are inside, and everyone else is perfect. Rather, it says that if we focus on what the other person should do, it’s very easy to get stuck in a place of anger and anxiety. The handout we received said this:

“REBT Theory says that it is generally irrational and self-defeating to get all worked up about someone else’s behavior. The anger is based on a fault assumption, which is that the other person SHOULD behave in the way you want them to. If you think about it, whatever the other person SHOULD do is not necessarily what they DO do, right? This is a very important element of the equation – reality.”

When we demand that other people act according to the way we want them to, we accomplish nothing. REBT theory asks us to recognize reality as it is. It doesn’t mean we have to approve of people’s actions. It doesn’t mean we have to sit back and take whatever abuse is heaped upon us. There are certainly times to try to change our situation. But there are also plenty of times when it’s not appropriate to try to change external reality, and those are the times when REBT can be helpful. It teaches simple tools that help you move from the irrational beliefs and feelings to more rational ones. (To me, this move is basically a move from expecting the world to be the way you think it should be, to accepting the world as it really is.) It’s not something that necessarily makes life easy, but at least it means that you can move on and not make things worse on yourself.

Like I said, I’m no expert. Google REBT if you want to learn it more accurately and fully.

But I brought all that up because I wanted to talk about this. (I told you that story so I could tell you this one.)

The REBT handout we received included a table with two columns. On the left was a list of “rational emotions,” and on the right, a corresponding list of “irrational emotions.”

RationalIrrational
SadnessDepression
Irritation/AggravationAnger/Rage
Anxiety/WorryOverwhelming anxiety/Distress
RegretGuilt
EmbarrassmentShame

For instance, the first rational emotion on the left was sadness. This is a very common emotion, and it’s rational to have it sometimes in response to situations. It can also be a helpful emotion, because when someone observes sadness in you, it can lead them to try to help. On the right side was the irrational emotion depression. I can see how depression could be seen as an extreme, irrational, version of sadness. It carries similar feelings to sadness, but taken to a far worse extreme, and with no rational connection to reality. I can own that idea.

The second rational emotion listed is irritation/aggravation. Again, this is a reasonable response to things going a certain way in our life. The corresponding irrational emotion is anger/rage, when we irrationally move that irritation into a bigger, less helpful form.

The third pairing is the rational emotion anxiety/worry, with the corresponding irrational emotion of overwhelming anxiety/distress. I think here the word “anxiety” on the left means the colloquial definition, something that causes us to be a little nervous and worried, whereas on the right, it means the clinical definition of anxiety as a disorder that needs to be managed.

Okay. Yet again, I told you all that so I could tell you this:

The final two rows were these: regret on the left, corresponding to guilt on the right, and embarrassment on the left, corresponding to shame on the right. This really surprised me. If I had drawn up this table, I would have put guilt on the left, corresponding to shame. I always thought that guilt was a rational belief that you had done something wrong, whereas shame is the irrational belief that you somehow are wrong. I thought that guilt was an appropriate feeling to have because it led you to make amends for your mistakes, but that shame was the problem because it meant you had internalized that guilt and made it your identity. I mean, when it comes down to it, you certainly could write this table that way. It’s all a matter of how you are defining each of the words.

But seeing it written out this way on the sheet really struck me. And one thing it helped me to see is that the guilt that clings so closely to me, the guilt that I so easily become obsessed with, is absolutely not a rational emotion. When I look at things that I have done, at words that I have said, I am so good at twisting them in a funhouse mirror into something bad. This is one of the reasons email is my preferred communication medium. Because I can take as long as I want, sometimes the better part of an hour, to write my words out perfectly, so nobody could possibly misinterpret them, so that I can’t possibly hurt anybody. Because I have this fear that whenever I communicate with anyone, I’m going to say or do something that will cause them to be upset, or hurt. So it’s not guilt I’m feeling – it’s like some kind of pre-guilt, a sense that “I know I will feel guilty later,” so try to cut down on the chances of that as much as possible. That is not rational!

Recently, I’ve been apologizing a lot. I’ve been apologizing for things that were not actually worth apologizing for. I’ve been apologizing for things that others have done. I’ve been apologizing for things that didn’t even happen. About a week and a half ago, I sent out apology emails to a bunch of people, some of whom I haven’t seen in decades, apologizing if I had done anything to hurt them. In retrospect, this was all a pretty clear sign that I wasn’t in a good place. This was clearly a sign that I had begun seeing myself as nothing but a pile of guilt, something infused with nothing but guilt and shame, able to do nothing but evil, and the only thing that I could do to assuage these feelings was to cry out for forgiveness.

I was looking for someone outside me to offer me the forgiveness that I couldn’t offer myself. But it wouldn’t have helped. Even if someone had told me, “You know, you did do something that hurt me, and you know what? I forgive you. Let’s move on.” If I had heard that, it would have felt good in the moment, but ten minutes later I’d be back in the same place, crying out for someone else to say it.

But REBT shows me this: no external solution would have worked, because the problem I was trying to solve wasn’t really an external problem. It was internal. The problem I was trying to solve wasn’t that I needed to repair a relationship; the problem I was trying to solve was that I felt broken and guilty inside. And nobody else could just fix that for me. I have to find a way to fix that myself. I have to find a way to reframe my understanding of myself. I have to look rationally and say, “Is this really a rational thing to feel? Is it rational to believe that I am a hopelessly irredeemable steaming pile of negative impulses?” I mean, have I ever seen anyone else like that? And don’t I believe in a God of grace and forgiveness? Paul Gilmartin of the “Mental Illness Happy Hour” often says that if someone else talked to us the way we talk to ourselves, we’d get a restraining order on them.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s not rational to view myself through such a lens. Maybe I can learn to say, “I regret certain things I have done. But most of them are not really a big deal. Everyone makes mistakes. These were mine this week. And I’ve also done a lot of good things this week. The makes my human, and that’s okay. Human isn’t a bad thing to be.

Okay. I’m starting to drift here. I’m exhausted. This program wiped me out today. Not in a bad way – not at all. I just feel like I had a strenuous physical workout. I guess I’ve had a strenuous mental workout. I’m not feeling bad right now, just tired. I think that’s it for tonight. Good night.

2 thoughts on “Pleading Guilty

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