In Defense of Guilt

22 Feb

If we truly accept who we are, then we accept our full range of emotions. Guilt is an emotion that most of us avoid, but the following excerpt from Susan Cain’s book Quiet suggests that it is an important emotion for developing true empathy.

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The connection between sensitivity and conscience has long been observed. Imagine the following experiment, performed by the developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska. A kind woman hands a toy to a toddler, explaining that the child should be very careful because it’s one of the woman’s favorites. The child solemnly nods assent and begins to play with the toy. Soon afterward, it breaks dramatically in two, having been rigged to do so.

The woman looks upset and cries, “Oh my!” Then she waits to see what the child does next.

Some children, it turns out, feel a lot more guilty about their (supposed) transgression than others. They look away, hug themselves, stammer out confessions  hide their faces. And it’s the kids we might call the most sensitive, the most high-reactive, the ones who are likely to be introverts who feel the guiltiest. Being unusually sensitive to all experience, both positive and negative, they seem to feel both the sorrow of the woman whose toy is broken and the anxiety of having done something bad (In case you’re wondering, the woman in the experiments quickly returned to the room with the toy “fixed” and reassurance that the child had done nothing wrong).

In our culture, guilt is a tainted word, but it’s probably one of the building blocks of conscience. The anxiety these highly sensitive toddlers feel upon apparently breaking the toy gives them the motivation to avoid harming someone’s plaything the next time. By age four, according to Kockanska, these same kids are less likely than their peers to cheat or break rules, even when they think they can’t be caught. And by six or seven, they’re more likely to be described by their parents as having high levels of moral traits such as empathy. They also have fewer behavioral problems in general.

“Functional, moderate guilt,” writes Kochanska, “may produce future altruism, personal responsibility, adaptive behavior in school, and harmonious, competent, and pro social relationships with parents, teachers, and friends.” This is especially important set of attributes at a time when a 2010 University of Michigan study shows that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago, with much of the drop having occurred since 2000. (the study’s authors speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness.”)

From: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (pages 140-141)

We tend to resist feeling negative emotions, but resisting reality is  far worse than feeling bad. When we radically accept who we truly are we are able to learn from all of our emotions.

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