NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Overcoming Guilt that Affects Family Relationships

Guilt can have a powerful negative effect on your relationships with family members.  Even when people know logically that there is no objective reason for them to feel guilty, knowing this is often not enough to help them overcome guilty feelings.  

Overcoming Guilt that Affects Family Relationships

The following fictionalized scenarios illustrate how damaging guilt can be between family members:

Rose felt guilty when she found out that her  younger sister was sexually abused by their father.  Her sister had never told anyone about it when it was happening.  It wasn't until they were both in their 20s that she revealed the sexual abuse.  Rose knew logically that, even if she knew about it when it was happening, she couldn't have prevented it from happening.  Their father was a severe alcoholic, who spiraled down after her mother died when she was 10 and her younger sister was eight.  Apparently, the sexual abuse occurred after the mother's death when the father was drunk.  After Rose found out about the abuse, she felt so guilty that she dreaded seeing her sister.  Even though her sister had no resentment or anger towards her, Rose was consumed with guilt.  Rose's guilt put a strain on her relationship with her sister.

John  moved out of the family home when he was 18 because he and his father had a difficult relationship.  There were a few times when their arguments almost escalated into physical confrontations, so John thought it was best that he leave, even though he felt very conflicted about leaving his younger brother, Sam, at home.  Sam got along well with both of their parents.  But John still felt guilty about not being around for his kid brother.  He knew that Sam looked up to him, and he felt he abandoned Sam by leaving.  When they were in their 20s, John broached the subject with Sam and Sam tried to reassure John that he understood and he had no resentment towards him for moving out--although he missed him after he was gone.  But John couldn't get over his guilt and he left he was "a bad person" for leaving his brother, even though Sam turned out to be a happy, well adjusted young man.

Lynn's elderly mother asked her to drive her to a medical appointment.  Lynn was unable to get the time off from work, so she paid for a car service to take her mother and the mother's attendant to the appointment.  While she was at work, Lynn got a call from the police that her mother and the attendant were in a fender bender.  No one was injured.  Her mother wasn't upset, but Lynn felt guilty.  She blamed herself, berating herself for not taking her mother to the doctor, even though she had taken her many times before.  Lynn felt that if she had driven her mother, there would have been no fender bender.  She couldn't help ruminating about "what if" the accident had been worse--she never would have forgiven herself.

In each of these fictionalized scenarios, we have the objectivity to see that these people aren't culpable in any way.  Yet, it's not unusual for people to engage in this type of self blame. We can also see how damaging guilt can be for the person who blames him or herself as well as for the relationship with the family member.

This type of guilt can erode a person's sense of self, especially when it involves a situation that can't be changed as in the scenarios above.

When clients come to see me about this type of problem in my psychotherapy practice in New York City, I help  them to work through their guilty feelings, often using EMDR or Somatic Experiencing.  If they're able to work through these feelings, most of the time, they experience it as if a burden has been lifted from them.  Once they're free from these guilty feelings, they also feel freer to have a closer relationship with their family member.

Although there was no reason for the people in the above scenarios to feel guilt, there are times when guilt is appropriate.  For instance, in the first scenario, if the father were to feel guilty about sexually abusing his daughter, this could be the first step in recognizing that he traumatized her and also the first step in his taking responsibility for it.  Only sociopaths and psychopaths feel no guilt when they've committed an offense.

There are times when we can see the distortions in our thinking, but seeing it isn't enough to change it.  Often, we require more than logic to change it.  Both EMDR and Somatic Experiencing offer an opportunity to free oneself from misplaced guilt.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.