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Unearned Guilt Syndrome

Do you suffer from "Unearned Guilt" Syndrome? - A short interview with Dr. Steve Orma

(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)


Movie clip       

Male:               Beverly, how did you know?

Female:           Because I hired a detective. I thought you were having an affair. It’s ridiculous, I know, okay? You could have told me about it though, couldn’t you? You just completely left me out. Why didn’t you tell me John? You’ve got to answer that.

Male:               I was ashamed.

Female:           Ashamed of what? Dancing?

Male:               No.

Female:           Of what?

Male:               Of wanting to be happier. When we have so much.


Dr. Kenner:      And that is from the movie Shall We Dance. It’s a fun, fabulous movie, but that emotion of wanting to be happier and feeling guilty, feeling ashamed, is that an earned guilt or is that an unearned guilt? That’s our topic today. Talking about guilt and different types of guilt. Do you think you’re powerless to do anything about your guilt? Are all your feelings of guilt equally valid? And we are going to talk about that with Dr. Steve Orma. He’s a clinical psychologist and he’s a coach in the San Francisco Bay area, specializing in helping adults overcome anxiety and stress-related issues. Welcome Dr. Orma and let’s talk about guilt!


Dr. Orma:         Let’s talk.


Dr. Kenner:      Lying to a good friend. Cheating on a spouse. Stealing from your boss. Manipulating a sales clerk. Not pleasing your parents, your husband, your boss, your wife. Not performing perfectly on a test or doing a project to perfection. Not winning a game or a competition. Getting an A- and not an A on a test. Teaching a dance lesson and feeling you didn’t do your best. Are those all the same type of guilt?


Dr. Orma:         No. I would say that we have two different types of guilt in there. We have the earned type of guilt and we have the unearned type of guilt.


Dr. Kenner:      Let’s start at the beginning. What is guilt?


Dr. Orma:         Well, guilt is an emotion that we feel when we think we’ve acted against our own moral standards. So for example, if we lied to a friend and lying or being honest to a friend is a moral standard and we lied to them, we’re going to feel guilt. Another example would be cheating on a spouse. If that’s important for you to be honorable in your marriage and you cheat, then you’re going to feel guilt and that would be a justified guilt.


Dr. Kenner:      But if somebody yelled at me because I’m not wearing a Burka? Would I feel guilty?


Dr. Orma:         Yeah.


Dr. Kenner:      I would not feel guilty. Why wouldn’t I feel guilty? I’d be laughing.


Dr. Orma:         Because it’s ridiculous. It’s the fact that you’re not wearing a Burka is not violating any moral standard. It’s an optional choice about what you happen to wear and that’s not something that anybody should feel guilty about.


Dr. Kenner:      But someone from another country, someone from the Middle East, if they’re not wearing one? If they’re wearing hot pants, a sexy outfit, and they see their parents and they may feel some guilt.


Dr. Orma:         They might. I think that would be, I would classified that as the unearned type of guilt. I think what happens there is a mistake that there are certain standards, so for instance, in that kind of society where there are certain standards that you have to wear a Burka to be moral, to be a good person or be a good woman, and you don’t meet that standard, you feel guilty. But the standard is false.


Dr. Kenner:      So the standard is irrational.


Dr. Orma:         Exactly. And when we try to meet irrational standards, such as I should be able to get an A all the time, even if I’m studying really hard or I need to be perfect all the time and we don’t meet that standard, we’re going to feel guilty quite a bit because it’s an irrational standard that you can’t really meet.


Dr. Kenner:      So there is a positive value to guilt, and you’ve even called it in one sense, I mean obviously it’s a painful emotional, but you’ve called it a positive emotion. In what sense is it a positive emotion?


Dr. Orma:         I think it’s positive in the sense that it gives us information. It’s like an alarm. When we feel guilty, what it tells us it that we’ve taken an action or we believe we’ve taken an action that goes against our value system and then it gives us a chance to do something about it. Assuming it’s the earned type of guilt. So in the case of let’s say, like we said, lying to a friend, if you lied to a friend, you can make amends. First of all, you can identify it because you feel guilty that you did something wrong, and you can say, “What did I do wrong? I lied to my friend.” Then you can do something about it. You can apologize to your friend and you can commit to not lying in the future and trying to be a more honest person and that can help to dissipate the guilt.


Dr. Kenner:      So if you use guilt as a signal to repair the damage done, then that’s good. If you did damage. Now, talk about a little bit more about unearned guilt. You have four rules for distinguishing the difference between earned guilt, like stealing, robbing, cheating, and unearned guilt, feeling like you didn’t please your parents in every single way that they wanted to unreasonably be pleased or not getting the A+ on the test when you really did do your best. What are your four rules?


Dr. Orma:         Rule number one is that you’re only responsible for your own actions. You’re not responsible for the actions of others. This is a big mistake I think a lot of people make, in terms of guilt, is that they feel that they should have control over what other people in their lives decide to do. So for example, let’s say their spouse starts drinking heavily and they feel like, “I should be able to control my spouse and prevent them from drinking.” And they try everything they can and the spouse doesn’t stop drinking and then they feel guilty because they can’t stop the spouse. That would be an unearned type of guilt, because you can’t control what your spouse or anyone else in your life decides to do.


Dr. Kenner:      So you’re not responsible for that person. They’re responsible for themselves. And the second rule you have is that you are not responsible for making other people happy. Tell me more about that rule. I don’t have to make my mother happy?


Dr. Orma:         No, you don’t have to, and in fact, you can’t. Happiness is something that only, it’s an individual achievement for a person. They have to do certain things in order to become happy in their life. Pursuing certain values. You as a person, even though you may love and really want to help that person, really can’t make them happy. You may be able to cheer them up in a moment and tell them a joke, but that’s different than a long-term happiness.


Dr. Kenner:      So they really need, they should be responsible for their own happiness. The mother that says, “You never visit me and you make me so unhappy,” the mother needs to have a life of her own. She can’t put the burden on the kids. Another rule you have is make sure your standards are rational versus irrational. Tell me about that.


Dr. Orma:         I touched on this a little earlier – if you have a standard that you’re trying to live by, such as let’s say you’re a college student, and when I work with college students I saw this quite a bit, students who felt that perfection, the student who felt like they had to get straight As on everything and if they fell below that, they had an A- or a B+, they felt guilty, because they weren’t meeting that standard. Really, that’s a good goal to have to get good grades, but if you’re putting in your full effort and you’re not getting the A but getting the B, you should feel proud that you’re doing that, that you’re working hard and not feel guilty for not being able to meet an unrealistic standard.


Dr. Kenner:      You can always ask myself, “Is my standard rational? Is getting straight As all the time a rational standard? It’s a goal, but that doesn’t mean that if I don’t completely reach the goal that it’s a problem. Your rule four, I know we only have less than a minute, is that you should not feel guilty for thoughts that you have or images or pictures in your mind, even if you consider them immoral. Now, that sounds counterintuitive. Just a moment on that one?    


Dr. Orma:         Yes. I think this is a misnomer, that the way our minds work is that thoughts and images pop into our minds all the time and we don’t have direct control over what happens to pop into our head and if we happen to think of something we consider immoral, whether it’s a sexual thought or something like that, depending on your morality, that we don’t have control over that. It’s important to know that what pops into your mind –


Dr. Kenner:      As long as you don’t act on it.


Dr. Orma:         Exactly. As long as you don’t act on it. What’s most important is action.


Dr. Kenner:      How can we reach you?


Dr. Orma:         The best way to reach me is through my website, which is


Dr. Kenner:      Thanks so much Steve.


Dr. Orma:         Thank you.