Relationships and Toxic Guilt
by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W
I believe that most of us, especially those of
us who have mental health disorders, feel guilt in situations
where we have no business whatsoever feeling guilt.
It is easy to just look at our behavior, the situation and
ourselves and say "I'm guilty! I am ashamed." Now
let's back up a bit here.
When I say look at ourselves, it might benefit most of us to
look a little deeper. We are complex, complicated creatures
and our motivation for doing or not doing something is not
just based on our personality, our will, etc.
What do I mean? Let me give you an example of something that
may help you see this picture more clearly.
I have been seeing a man who is extremely emotionally and
verbally abusive. Now of course I was not aware of his abuse
issues at first but I will admit that I saw red flags right
from the start. Mind you, I have trained staff in domestic
The situation I recently faced was a history of ten months
seeing this guy, addicted to him, and no matter how much I
complained to him about his behavior, I kept going back. I
would continue to go back into a little denial that really he
is not abusive and that one day we will have a wonderful
relationship. I had a very difficult time facing reality
because like any addiction, I would occasionally get what I
call "adrenalin shots." These "shots" kept
me hooked in a situation that I could not get out of. I could
not get out of this relationship.
I did notice as I worked harder to get out, he trumped up his
abuse. Finally the emotional abuse became so bad that I just
could no longer take the abuse he threw at me.
Again I wrote him an email kindly asking him to end this thing
between us as it was killing me and that I was having a
difficult time getting out. Now imagine an abuser and their
personality and their agenda. Would he kindly assist me in
this? Of course not.
Of course I knew it was my responsibility to get out I noticed
that every time I tried to get out I felt sick. I prayed and
prayed to God and asked Him to assist me, started journaling,
which did help by the way, but I couldn't get out and if I got
close to getting out he knew just how to suck me back in.
Wonderful words he would say - tell me just what I needed to
Abuse of any kind decreases your self-esteem and for me I felt
like my mind was literally being twisted. His behavior did NOT
make sense and the more he did strange stuff, the more twisted
During this time I felt TREMENDOUS guilt that I could not
leave the relationship. It was humiliating to keep enduring
his abuse. Every one told me he was playing head games with
me, playing with me, etc. This knowledge was very difficult to
assimilate and I so needed to believe that he truly loved and
cared about me and that I was special to him. I felt I
couldn't face any other reality, as it was too painful.
One day I was eating lunch and watching a movie on television
in the midst of all the craziness. In the movie the husband
was verbally, emotionally and physically abusing his wife. Two
times in the movie he said to her, "I own you." The
first time it went over my head but the second time he said
that to her my jaw dropped and I probably looked shocked, like
I had seen a ghost.
My father repeatedly told me he owned me when I was growing
up. I never understood that. Once in high school I remember
him telling he how he wanted my hair cut. I kindly said I
wanted it cut differently and he in no uncertain terms told me
I belonged to him, I was his property and he will do with me
what he likes.
I had many times questioned whether my dad was verbally and
emotionally abusive to me for many years but I never got to
the point where I completely came out of denial until now.
I think we are more inclined to unconsciously look for the
environment we were raised in, even if it was abusive. We are
familiar with that environment and a non-abusive environment
People that have been abused don't see a lot of the red flags
that others see because that way of life for them I normal.
Many of us feel that love is pain.
It is vital to remember when you look back on your life or you
are currently facing a situation where you are unhappy with
your behavior, that you are struggling so much due to your
history of abuse. You may appear "weak" and unable
to get out of that situation without outside help. It says
nothing about your character but everything about your past.
So it is that in my opinion we go to therapy and learn what
"normal" is so that we can behave more and more that
way and be attracted to healthy people.
Experiencing guilt is not looking at the entire picture and is
inappropriate in many cases.
There is "good" guilt that motivates us to do the
right thing but in these situations we are experiencing toxic
shame as John Bradshaw calls it. Many of us feel we are bad
all the way to the core.
Should we crucify our parents for our issues now? No. They may
have done the best they can. Take a look at their family of
We are always responsible for our behavior however and we are
responsible to get help if we feel like we are drowning.
Mental Health Matters for information
and articles. Get
help to find
a therapist or list
your practice; and Psych
Forums for message boards on a variety of MH topics.
Copyright © Patty Fleener, M.S.W. All