Friday, April 17, 2009

Teflon

Since Good Friday, I've been brewing up a post on guilt - or lack thereof, perhaps, because guilt is something I very rarely feel. I've always been comforted by Mr. Bennet's conversation with Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Realizing that Lydia's elopement was caused primarily by his neglect, Mr. Bennet blames himself:

"You must not be too severe upon yourself," replied Elizabeth.

"You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough."

That has been exactly my experience of guilt: though I may experience it from time to time, it is transitory. I don't necessarily have to talk myself out of it, or do something to dispel it - I can just wait awhile and I find that it evaporates of its own accord.

But in spite of Mr. Bennet's ironic reflections on how prone human nature is to excessive guilt, I know that there are people who are habitually too severe upon themselves. My mother is one of them. In fact, one theory I have about the origins of my mental Teflon is that a lifetime of listening to my mother beating herself up about things that are not actually her fault has made me skeptical about the usefulness of guilt. (My other theory is that guilt levels are purely hereditary, and I got mine from my father.)

Related to my ability to deflect guilt is my ability to convince myself that my character flaws are actually strengths. In this case, my inborn resistance to guilt has a number of positive side effects. I do not have to engage in destructive guilt-avoidance practices like blaming the victim. I am not traumatized by or resentful of the guilt trips inflicted upon me by others. (Well, okay, I am traumatized and resentful, but surely not AS traumatized and resentful as I would be if I were more guilt-prone.) Of course, I also do not have the life-changing remorse that would allow me to emerge as a much better person ... but you can't have everything, can you?

The mental Teflon that protects me against guilt also has other uses. It convinces me that my tummy roll is actually invisible to the naked eye when concealed by a long shirt. It allows me to ignore the students falling asleep during my lectures so that I remember only the alert, engaged faces of the two students who spent the class doing something other than catching up on Facebook.

A bit of amateur dabbling in psychology suggests that these are fairly widespread traits. Most people consider themselves to be above-average drivers. Men, at least, habitually overestimate how attractive they are to the opposite sex. Selective awareness seems to be the norm rather than the aberration.

Perhaps what makes this quality feel unusual to me is that it's not the norm among MY people: the bloggers, the book-readers, the introspectors. My mother, I think, is more typical of people like us. She's the kind of person who, when someone is rude to her, dwells for hours on what she did to provoke it. She lives with a general free-floating guilt about not doing enough, and not doing what she does well enough. She is one of the most beautiful 65-year-old women you will ever see, but when she looks in the mirror, all she sees are jowls.

Which kind are you? Guilt-proof or guilt-prone? And where do you think those traits come from? Is it in our DNA or the product of our upbringing?

32 comments:

planetnomad said...

I am definitely guilt-prone, and I blame my personality and my mother, who was, as I like to say, the travel agent when it came to guilt trips. I spent my first year in Africa nearly crushed under the burden of guilt I felt for being wealthy; I was absolutely paralysed by it. And I envy you your teflon! I would love some of that. My husband has it too. We'll see how the kids turn out; I try very hard not to do guilt trips and we'll see which ones are susceptible to the guilt trips of friends.

Bea said...

PN - It does seem as if Teflon is far more common among men than women. But to debunk my heredity theory, I don't think either of my parents ever characteristically used guilt trips as a parenting strategy. Well, only once that I can recall, and that was totally accidental: I had lied about forgetting my piano lesson (when really I just wanted to go play at my BFF's house), and when my dad caught on my mother protested, "But Bea never lies!" And I burst into tears. Then I went up to my room and found the Bible verse, "A lying tongue is an abomination to the Lord." So apparently I had a working conscience as an 8-year-old. What happened?

slouching mom said...

I think you already know the answer to this, for me -- it's guilt all the way, baby!

And like a good psychologist I will cop out and say that I think our tendency to feel guilt, like nearly everything else, is derived both from genetic and environmental factors.

Mimi said...

Guilt-prone! I can even feel guilty about things I've done to myself, which is Advanced Class stuff I think. (eg, my post where I feel guilty about not feeling thin, even though I am thin.)

I'm trying to not be like this. Guilt *is* overrated. You are living the life, you are!

Mary-LUE said...

Guilty of guilt--all the way.

I am actually much better about it than I used to be. I have some perspective and wisdom that Life has given me.

It is interesting, though, that one way I have now of judging how I am doing emotionally is to look at my guilt levels. When I am not dealing with life very well, avoiding issues, not practicing spiritual disciplines, etc., my guilt levels go WAY up.

I'm in the nurture AND nature crowed on the issue. I think one can be stronger than the other but that the two probably can't really be separated entirely.

Bea said...

Mary-LUE - Interesting. For me the emotional barometer is fear, at least during the summer months. When I'm not doing well, a bee will make me jump out of my skin, and outdoor activities are like a heart attack waiting to happen. When my stress levels are lower, I can rein in the phobia a bit more.

Janet said...

Guilt-prone.

And beating myself up incessantly for not being more guilt-free.

Clearly I have issues.

kate said...

I was all set to respond with a fairly confident guilt-proof (relatively speaking of course), but then I read planetnomad's comment and realized I do suffer from middle-class guilt AND photographer's guilt -- both of which I'm working on, and both of which I've blogged about in the past. I think both of those serve a purpose in that they bring sensitivity and respect and not taking my luck for granted - and seeing it as luck, not entitlement or skill.

My mom is a pretty good guilt-tripper. Just last week I thought I was being mature and stating my preference up front, not expecting her to just read my mind, but she read it as a guilt-trip.

Anyways, I think I'm not as guilt-free as I think I am. Now I'm wondering if maybe there are different kinds of guilt? Or maybe some of us are mistaking guilt for something else like a lack of self-confidence? Or an unwillingness to treat ourselves well? You and I are both pretty self-forgiving and confident, I think...

Gwen said...

I feel guilty about not feeling guilty enough, which, I think, makes me guilt-prone. For me, it was probably the perfect storm of genetics and upbringing (oh, hey, try the evangelical christian missionary life for a generous dose of "you will never be good enough.")

What's weird about the genetics, though, is that my mom is completely ruled by what she should do, as opposed to what she wants to do. And yet, she is the most (err, what's the nice word for arrogant?) self-loving person, convinced of her own bestness, I know.

Andrea said...

Guilt-prone. You know that already, and most of the reasons: I ended up bearing the guilt that should have been my parents', but they are both made out of teflon. Anyway.

You're right, though, in that I think it does spur me on to become a better person. I'm working on striving for the same level of being without needing to believe that I'm a thoroughly evil person beforehand. (See, the guilt inspires self-improvement even when my goal is to get rid of it!)

lar said...

I'm like you--I rarely feel guilty (or wrong) about much. It's caused more than one argument with my husband, who does not believe me to be infallible! (He's wrong.)

I think it's because my parents raised me to have a high self-esteem and believe that I was super-awesome, and while that sounds nice, it can turn out a person who is somewhat dogmatic and convinced of her personal right-ness. It's been hard to overcome, actually, and has led to more than one broken relationship.

Hairline Fracture said...

How I wish I had the mental Teflon. Both my parents tend to be guilt-prone (although my mother feels guilty far more than my dad does) so I guess that whether it's nature or nurture, I didn't have a chance. I'm working on not mentally beating myself up so often.

Bea said...

Kate - Mmm, "self-forgiving." I like that word - so much better than "remorseless" or "without conscience." All kidding aside, I think it's an accurate description: it's not that I think I'm never in the wrong, but rather that I seem to assign little importance to it when I'm in the wrong - like "sure, that was bad, but let's not lose sight of what an awesome person I am in general."

Gwen, Andrea - The Christian upbringing is an interesting element. I credit it for some of my Teflon, in that it makes consciousness of guilt safe, and beneficial even. But your stories are probably more common than mine. Is that the particular dynamics of my church and family were healthier, or that the teachings about sin are a good match for a Teflon personality like mine and a poor match for guilt-prone personalities? What prompted this post, on Good Friday, was my sense that I have difficulty seeing myself as sinful, though no difficulty at all thinking of myself as forgiven.

Bea said...

To put it another way, Andrea, I recall reading about your church upbringing and the particular effect on you of the doctrine that we are totally sinful and deserving of hell, and that God loves us for no merit of our own. I grew up hearing that teaching as well, but it didn't really "stick" - it seemed like a kind of technical description of humanity as a whole, but nothing personal. For me, what stuck was the "beloved child of God" part, which is a message I assume you heard as well, but dismissed as a kind of technicality.

I don't suppose we need to look far to see why the two of us would absorb similar messages in completely different ways: it all comes down to which message we were receiving from our parents. So this is kind of the same point I made already: a lot of Christian teaching can be salutary for people of one kind of upbringing and personality (leading, for instance, to a readiness to examine one's conscience which might otherwise be absent), and totally toxic for someone with another upbringing and personality.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Good point on how the same message is absorbed differently by different personalities. My sister and I grew up hearing the same messages, but I was a guilt-ridden child who could not believe God loved me, and she was a teflon soul certain that God was her buddy.

Now that we are adults, the roles have switched, somewhat. I have a steely-eyed resistance to anyone who tries to MAKE me feel guilty, while she discovered guilt in her thirties and now fights it like an addiction.

Karen said...

yes, I am afraid I am more guilt prone that I want to be...and even more than I realize in daily life. I go through days unbothered, but when it all comes crashing in, it is ugly, ugly and sad. I tend to not worry about small things, like someone being rude at the store, at the time - but rather the cumulative effect of all that makes me wonder, what am I doing wrong? will it always be this way for me because I am not good enough?

my dad is totally teflon - but was really quite hard on us as kids - mostly in the high expectations category, not in the you are depraved sinners category - though a minister, it was more liberation theology for us - we had to grow up & save the world. He once set a post card from Tienanmen Sq to my sis that read "your time will come." He didn't mean death - he meant her chance to fight for humanity and sacrifice for it. She was 17....hard to pick a profession in light of that.

Mad said...

I feel intense but fleeting guilt. Emotional amnesia has been my dear friend lo these many years.

I never intentionally try to make another person feel guilty and I simply cannot bear people who read my responses as passive-agressive or guilt-inducing. I am too forthright for any of that crap. The best way to lose my friendship is to read too much into it.

Mary-LUE said...

Oh, I do fear, too. Fear of natural disasters mostly. Earthquakes are the big one (not surprising considering where I live).

Anonymous said...

Remember my mother guilt was not feeling guilty enough. I could plop down those babies and toddlers in substitute care with aplomb but at work the guilt would try to creep in. Teflon sounds better than the hard heart of working mothers who card not a whit for their wee ones.

Great post.

(Your) Anon

Constance (the first) said...

My mom is a guilt-type, and it always seems to me that she uses it to get attention and reassurance, not because she actually feels "guilt."

I don't feel guilt much, but I do feel EMBARRASSMENT easily and often, and that's the kind of thing that makes me fret and stew.

Andrea said...

Oh yes, I totally agree. The church on its own can only do so much--it's only a couple of hours a week. It needs reinforcements to really sink in.

Christianity was a bad place for me to be for many reasons. The guilt thing was only one of them.

Kelly said...

This is really interesting. I'm enjoying the comments. I'm a dweller, through and through. The only time I wasn't was when I was pretty much crazy and heavily medicated. And then I just didn't give a shit.

I have a nasty habit of perusing the catalog (thankfully, it's rather small) of my past cruelties. I think it's because I wish there were a way to make things right, or make amends, or to just say "I'm sorry for being so terribly stupid and ignorant at that moment in my life."

One moment in particular still haunts me, some ridiculing I participated in, and perhaps my punishment is the guilt of it.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Guilt-proof. I am also a sunny optimist. Those traits may be related.

painted maypole said...

hhmm... i seem to be someone in the middle, but perhaps a wee closer to the guilty side

painted maypole said...

actually, no, as soon as I published that, I think I'm pretty far on the guilty side. When I'm with a group of people that gets generally reprimanded for something (say, backstage at a show getting shushed for being too loud) I always assume they were talking to ME, even if i KNOW I was sitting quietly with my crossword puzzle. they might have THOUGHT it was me. and so I must work harder to be even quieter

trudymorgancole said...

Relatively guilt-proof -- and like you, I'm pretty sure it was either a defense against my mother's constant guiltiness (and attempts to make me feel guilty) or else I inherited my dad's natural lack of guilt, just like I inherited his optimism and disinclination to worry.

Yes, there are downsides. My mom is one million times more kind and thoughtful than either my dad or I are. She remembers everyone's birthdays and gets thoughtful and appropriate gifts, she knows exactly who is going through a hard time and why, and calls to encourage them. Presumably she'd feel guilty if she didn't. My dad and I know some of that stuff too, but then we just forget to do anything about it.

rivergirlie said...

verrrry interesting question. i think i've changed a bit - make that a lot - since having the twins. i used to be delightfully guilt free and could brush off contradictory evidence very easily, but since i've been responsible for them (note choice of words), i get far more worked up.
i don't, however, feel too guilty about dropping in here after a v long absence to tell you that my new novel, 'busy woman seeks wife' is no out in the us. if you see it, plz treat it kindly. xx

Reluctant Housewife said...

I used to be relatively guilt free. Then I had kids. Now I routinely worry whether I'm doing a good enough job and feel guilty if I feel I'm not. If someone is rude to me though I don't worry what I did to provoke it, I feel angry. Then I get over it. So I guess I fall on the less-guilty side of the scale.

I think guilt, like most traits, is caused by a mix of nature and nurture. Someone who is brought up to feel guilty often feels more guilty than someone who wasn't, but I think some people are more predisposed to it than others.

niobe said...

My parents are both encased in layers of teflon. Neither of them has ever been the least bit sorry for anything they've done.

My bad feelings about the past aren't guilt exactly. They're more ruminations on the idiotic things I've done and the dumb things I've said and thought. "How could I have been so incredibly stupid?" is my constant refrain.

DaniGirl said...

What you said about your mom: "She lives with a general free-floating guilt about not doing enough, and not doing what she does well enough." Yep, that's me. My guilt comes entirely from my need to please, and my need to be all things to all people. My mother has tried to teach me to turn it off by asking, "Are you doing the best you can? If so, what more do you expect from yourself?"

I feel guilty for the time I steal from one project (i.e. parenting) to feed another habit (i.e. work) and the time I filch from that to come over here and play with the other bloggers, then I feel guilty when I go home because I didn't do enough for anybody -- not enough housecleaning, not enough worky-stuff, not enough participating in the online community. I feel guilty for not giving everybody the 100% of my attention that I deserve, and then I feel resentful, and then, like Janet, I feel guilty for feeling so guilty...

Antique Mommy said...

I don't do guilt. I think that's why the nuns didn't like me.

Moondance said...

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty

Bea, you said "a lot of Christian teaching can be salutary for people of one kind of upbringing and personality (leading, for instance, to a readiness to examine one's conscience which might otherwise be absent), and totally toxic for someone with another upbringing and personality." The comments and discussion here have given me a new way to look at my guilt about not raising my son in the church. maybe he woudl get the messages differently becasue he has different parents. Hmmm....