Black bird is cruising
Looking to blot
Eyes have sighted
Aiming to peck
Feeble mind has opened
Thinking to brew
I wrote a poem about a black bird of guilt in order to express the inner experience of “pecking” in my head that haunts me day and night. Introverted nature determines the path of life, existence, identity. I live from inside in close proximity of my inner world, instead of being immersed in a social, interpersonal field. My mind is never quiet, even in the middle of the night, except in the deepest sleep without memory. Will it ever stop? I wonder why, and the answer doesn’t come. I wonder how, and I can’t find a solution. I wonder when, and time stretches. Guilt is my destiny. What is my sin? Is it a personal or a transpersonal transgression of a man who rebelled against others, or harmed them, or wronged God?!! My “reward” for immersion in the depths of the individual and collective psyche is paid off by karmic debt, a feeling of guilt for something I did or didn’t do and should have done, for benefits I didn’t deserve, or for not helping others enough.
The most impactful memory related to the feeling of guilt is the event in the school classroom when I was 9 years old. One day during the break I was goofing around swinging my body. At one point I fell on the ground and while I was falling my ear caught the edge of the desk and got severely injured. I don’t know what followed. My mother’s recollection was that someone called her. She hurried to the school scared and angry at the teacher, blaming him for negligence. She was beside herself. We rushed to the nearby clinic for treatment. My ear was profusely bleeding, and clips needed to be applied but I refused. The doctor reluctantly allowed me to leave after he stopped the bleeding and bandaged my ear. After the initial shock, my mother asked me what had happened. I lied. I said that a boy, a known troublemaker, pushed me. Since I was a “good child”, she and everyone else believed my lie. I don’t remember what happened to the boy I wrongfully accused, but I know that I suffered a painful feeling of guilt because of the injustice I inflicted on him. In addition, I have been “marked” by a scar on my left ear and occasional physical pain that reminds me of this event and my misdeed. Later on, I tried several times to explain to my mother and brother what had actually happened, but they still believed my original lie.
Maybe that’s why I had an unusual reaction to Dostoevsky’s famous book, Crime and Punishment. I read it as if in a trance, trembling all over, immersed in the suffering and moral dilemma of the protagonist of this extraordinary novel, which delves into Raskolnikov’s agony. I fully identified with his neurotic character, drawn into the dynamics of the rationalization of murder, the intense sense of guilt, the confession of crimes, and the punishment that followed. It was as if I was repeating a primordial ritual embedded in the deep layers of the psyche, initiated by reading this book. The tumultuous manifestation of this process is proof that I have stumbled upon a psychological complex with a compulsive force that restricts freedom of choice and leads to suffering and a desire for resolution, forgiveness, and justice. The expression pang of conscience is appropriate to describe subjective state attributed to the activity of the superego, the moral structure of the personality, our inner critic, the black bird from my poem.
Unlike the so-called primary emotions (anger, fear, joy, sadness, disgust, and surprise) responsible for dealing with immediate and urgent threats and opportunities related to personal survival and reproduction, guilt (along with shame, pride, and embarrassment) belongs to the group of social emotions useful in regulating cooperation, group life and social relations. More precisely, the function of this emotion is to correct specific behavior towards another person or group that has disturbed social harmony, and to promote empathy, compassion, and caring action. In general, it can be said that a large portion of our emotions is dedicated to the formation, maintenance, and regulation of close relationships. Guilt is one important mechanism for this purpose. Even the mere expectation that we will feel guilty promotes a prohibition against socially destructive behavior. And if the harm has already been done and the guilt is experienced, that feeling drives us to admit, apologize, repair the damage done, all for the purpose of improving the relationship. As can be seen from the above, guilt has an important useful and adaptive function in promoting healthy interpersonal relationships. It teaches us responsibility for our own behavior and leads to the development of empathic and compassionate attitude towards others.
The problem arises when someone is “devoid” of guilt and empathy. A classic example are narcissistic and psychopathic personality structures that are not interested in social balance, but in selfish and unrealistic self-promotion at the expense of others, or criminal behavior due to a disregard for others. Such persons are relatively easy to recognize but difficult to cure or neutralize. They have a toxic impact on the social environment especially if they are intelligent and educated because they are skilled in manipulating others and infiltrating the power structures where their influence and damage expands and deepens.
On the other side of the spectrum are people with an exaggerated sense of responsibility for events beyond their control. Their self-criticism is sometimes so pronounced that it is completely detached from reality. Among the core symptoms of depression the pathological guilt holds a prominent place where the propensity for suffering and responsibility is always present and “free-floating” regardless of the context and specific behavior. Such people are hypersensitive to the effects of every action, overwhelmed by the possibility of making the “wrong” decision, struggling with the low self-esteem, and always putting others before themselves to their own detriment. In obsessive compulsive disorders, unwanted and repetitive thoughts (obsessions), frequently characterized by ego-dystonic sexual and aggressive themes, cause feelings of guilt and anxiety. This state of mind leads to a recurring compulsive action to relieve this unimaginable emotional suffering. But it never stops and leads such a person to exhaustion and despair. Sometimes there is a persistent sense of guilt over the harm a person believes he has inflicted. Such person lives in a constant fear that he will always make mistakes and that he can’t do anything right. Our body reacts strongly when guilt is present so that insomnia, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle tension and headaches become frequent companions which compounds the suffering.
People who are constantly exposed to the toxicity of the pathological guilt often want to get rid of it at all costs, so they tend to make excuses, avoid any responsibility, over-indulge another person, or project the blame to avoid judgments of others. Some apologize too much or try to elicit compassion to appease potential critics. All these measures are a temporary and inadequate solution and lead them down the rabbit hole. Better strategies are related to the principles of cognitive therapy, especially cognitive restructuring, the ability to perceive thoughts that stimulate negative feelings and states of mind. It is useful to notice when and where these thoughts occur and then re-examine them using the Socratic method of questioning to detect the erroneous nature of these automatic thoughts. After that comes the most important part, gathering evidence for or against perceived thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs. Ultimately, the solution lies in finding alternative explanations that are rational and positive and that will replace the psychological guilt complex adopted over time. Another successful strategy is to practice self-forgiveness. Assess the standards by which you judge yourself. Are these your values or the values of others? Do you need their approval? Do you expect perfection? Would you forgive someone else for the same actions? What good is it if you continue to punish yourself? Write an empathic letter of understanding, appreciation, and forgiveness. Repeat the words of kindness and forgiveness from your letter every day, such as: “I am innocent”, “I forgive myself” and “I love myself”. Talk compassionately and accept yourself completely and unconditionally, because in that way you will leave behind the old “mind programs” that brought about the current maladaptive and suffering state.