We all know guilt. And some of us understand first chakras. Both are about our primal sense of safety: acceptance
The need to belong and be accepted by the tribe/family provides the fundamental sense of safety and well-being.
The threat of being abandoned by the tribe is experienced as the threat of death.
When we live at the level of the first chakra — in the ancient Eastern tradition, the chakra hierarchy assigns this energy to your genital awareness, and the hegemony of survival and material needs over your psyche.
The sense that we have done something wrong sets us outside the circle of tribal acceptance. And restoration is accomplished through confession and re-admission/forgiveness.
Even when we try to live according to our developing sense of personal values, we can still get caught when someone from the “tribe,” or family, disapproves.
Dealing with guilt
A personal example? My father could tell whether I was lying by asking me to look him in the face and say, “I didn’t do it.” A sense of shame prevented me from being able to look him in the eye.
Keeping our actions a secret can trap us because we continue to fear discovery and disapproval. Knowing we have violated a value of the tribe creates the same inner remorse, which is experienced as shame. Having internalized the tribal values, we beat up on ourselves with the same or more powerful condemnation. We do to ourselves what we expect the tribe to do to us — so complete is the internalization and the need to belong
Of course there is some guilt that is appropriate. If I steal, murder, or lie, I have violated important values that provide social cohesion. Guilt then helps hold society together.
And repentence — the original purpose of “penitentiaries” — provides the means for restoration into society.
However, many of us feel guilty or shameful even when we are trying to live from a higher, more personally true value system. From homosexuals “staying in the closet”, to someone choosing not to attend their traditional Thanksgiving dinner with family because it really is an uncomfortable ordeal, the power of guilt and shame is still very real.
The problem is our belief that we need tribal acceptance for survival. We equate disapproval with being unloved/unlovable, and therefore exiled from the circle of protection — sent to our room, effectively.
Childhood realities affect adult behavior
As small children, we are not capable of surviving without the family/tribe. But many of us have not developed enough inner strength to feel we can make it outside the circle of acceptance. We continue to act from the memory of childhood, and what we feel as “guilt” is actually the feeling of anxiety about survival we felt as small children.
I actually “disappeared” from my parents for several years rather than deal with their subtle disapproval. There were a number of areas that were emerging for me that were not finding “appreciation” at home.
I was accepting my homosexuality and, perhaps as a consequence, developing my own sense of values. It wasn’t until I realized (after a lot of psychotherapy) that I was no longer afraid of my family’s disapproval — or more accurately that I was able to take care of myself — that I was able to return.
I have also seen in many of my clients debilitating levels of guilt and shame, especially in clients from cultures where shame is a tool for social cohesion — Irish Catholics, certain Asian cultures, and second generation Jews, for example.
Although not engulfed by much guilt these days, I still have some issues around its sister, “shame” in the form of, “What will people think?” This is just another mask for the question, “Does the tribe approve?” In fact, much of our consumerism is fueled by this issue. How do people see me? Do I have the latest gadgets? Am I seen as “cool”, or as interesting, and apparently “in” as opposed to the dreaded “nerdy”?
Concern about how the world sees us is just another form of the primal need to belong, be loved, be safe and secure.
How to deal with a personal sense of guilt
When you have that “I feel so guilty” feeling, here are the steps to move out of it:
1. Ask “What have I really done that I feel guilty about? Do I really believe that was wrong?” If the answer to the second part is “yes”, then confess and make amends, but if it is “no”, ask yourself, “Do I really need their approval?” or “Do I really want to remain controlled by the values of my tribe?”
2. Look at your own life history, and note the ways in which you have survived on your own and been independent. If there aren’t many of those ways, then that is where the work begins. But chances are, if you have come this far, you have accomplished a lot on your own. Honor that! Ground yourself in that realization. Perhaps takes steps to further proclaim your independence.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut yourself off from your tribe. You may actually discover that their love for you and desire to stay connected will bring them to recognize your individual self, and honor you for it.
3. If need be, find or create a group that shares and supports your higher values. None of us can easily survive or be happy completely on our own. But there are enough people who will understand you for you to create a new family with a higher level of consciousness.
Apart from true guilt, guilt and shame can be very enervating. They can keep us from evolving to higher levels of consciousness. As Caroline Myss (pictured at right) has pointed out in her work in Energy Anatomy, personal power in present time is essential for physical and spiritual health.
Working to move beyond the binding power of these primal emotions will create the vibrancy and creativity which is our birthright as spiritual beings on a human journey, as Teilhard de Chardin has called us.
David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.
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