Guilty Placeholder Feels and the Art of Self-Neglect

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So, I’m starting to think that a lot of the most common forms and expressions of “guilt” are, in Western, Eurocentric culture, socially validated placeholders for our more truthful emotions.

Is it, perhaps, a bold and blustering thesis?

I’m not sure yet.
This is what I have so far:

“I think I  need to have a heart-to-heart about some things in our friendship but _____ is having such a hard time and I would feel so guilty piling on.”

“I need _____ to change in our daily routine but it makes me feel so guilty to ask for something when _____ already gives so much.”

In these two scenarios, the primary narrative is tied to some sort of dissatisfaction in a friendship/relationship while the secondary narrative is about the friend/partner’s overarching life struggles or generous nature. The fact is, though, that the use of the word “guilty” immediately makes the speaker’s root dissatisfaction subordinate to the other party’s struggle or generosity; the invocation of “guilt” makes the A-Plot become a B-Plot.

By using the word “guilt,” this demotion of the actual A-Plot also applies to the speaker a quality of sensitivity and suggests a willingness to self-sacrifice. Sensitivity to the needs of others and self-sacrifice are, in many scenarios, viewed as “good” qualities. And, please, make no mistake, I do believe that being sensitive and willing to put the needs of others ahead of our own are indeed valuable – even crucial – traits. I just think they are more valuable when engaged from a grounded, humble, and sincere place. The times I have heard (or even articulated) versions of the two scenarios proffered above, I’m just not sure how grounded or sincere has been each utterance.

Subordinated A-Plot dissatisfactions, it seems, tend to hide in plain sight behind a show of ego-validating concern and self-effacement.

Is some aspect of the concern for the other person real in these scenarios? One hopes so. Again, we are meant to love and care for one another so holding awareness of someone else’s stress levels or generosity of spirit seems like a good practice to me. Also, there is obviously an over-time ebb and flow to reciprocity in healthy relationships. There are times, for example, when care is far more unidirectional in light of things such as illness and/or various intergenerational dependencies (e.g. parent-to-infant, adult-child-to-aging parent).

Even so, we really aren’t supposed to ever treat our selves like we don’t matter. Nor should we, I don’t think – even inadvertently – allow ourselves to feel good about treating ourselves like we don’t matter due to some misguided form of socially validated martyrdom.

I have been saying to my child since he was about five:

“We are all made of the same light and stardust so if we say mean things to someone or we say mean things to ourselves, the harm to that glorious all-stuff is the same. So. Be nice to my baby and be nice to his friends.”

That last part always confused him… “But I’m your baby, Mommy… What do you mean be nice to your baby, Mommy?” Later, as he got older, he finally had the “AHA!” moment when he realized the power of the third-person to help us see our own value more clearly. Important, too, is that this oft-repeated conversation is just the humancentric version of this ethic. I have also asked him to apologize to clumps of grass he ripped up unthinkingly, or to a tree if he bumped into its branches insensitively.

It ain’t just humans who are made of the same light and stardust…


If we are all made of the same light and stardust and we are supposed to care for ourselves as tenderly as we care for others, what is “guilt” actually doing in the above sentences and narrative structures? What master does it serve?

In times of dissatisfaction there is often some combination of struggle, pain, and/or anger at play. Different types of resentment are also likely to rear their heads. As most adults know, resentment pretty much only heads in one size direction the longer an issue goes unaddressed and/or unresolved. Thus, *not* talking about something with someone simply because they are already doing/going through so much is not likely to make anything better. Sometimes a choice not to address a particular issue, to step back and breathe, can lead to realizations that perhaps the issue is not particularly pressing or serious. When something is truly getting to us, however, and time and space do not provide a new perspective, the longer we wait to air our share, the more explosive (and therefore burdensome) the encounter may become.

Why the delay, then? Why stick “guilt” into the spot where action should be? Why allow so much space for resentment(s) to bloom?

The first reason I have seen and experienced is “fear of confrontation.” Plainly observed: it’s hard to face people and offer our truths. We are vulnerable in those moments and vulnerability is always difficult. If there are also differences in conflict style, then touchier conversations become especially challenging and occasionally rife with emotional landmines. It makes sense that the more peaceful-seeming path would appear to be one where we hang back and speak well and supportively to others of the person with whom we are frustrated. Again, this posture allows us to foreground feelings of self-sacrifice and kindness, and those feelings become a kind of gracious-seeming armour around those A-Plot truths (and potential resentments) just beneath.

The second reason, I suspect, is tied to the aforementioned and unavoidable feelings of vulnerability that arise in these situations. When we ask someone for change, we are completely at their mercy. We do not know if  they will honour our request and have freely set ourselves up to be disappointed. We do know, however, that if they do not honour our request, if they do not meet us where we are with an open heart and mind, we will be drenched in disappointment. We will be disappointed that our bravely articulated need is not being met and disappointed that we were brave and it seems that nothing good came of it. Maybe we will even feel we stirred the pot for no reason.

But there was a reason.
We were dissatisfied or unhappy.
That’s the whole point.
The A-plot.

And, that has to matter.
Because of the glorious all-stuff.

So, if we’ve done our soul searching and work and know that our request was not unreasonable, then there is actually a lot of power in coming clean even if the other party is not willing to budge. The unpleasantness of finding out that the other party won’t budge is, in fact, another motivator for hiding “fear of disappointment” behind “guilt” and “care.” Let’s say the person we are speaking to is our life-partner (our beau, our shorty, our mate) and we were brave, and it was truly important, and they said “no” or – worse – they said “no, and why would you ask me this when I have so much going on?” Suddenly, it’s like the whole world is telling us that we were right to make our A-Plot into a B-Plot; it’s like our needs really aren’t as important as someone else’s. Only it wasn’t the “whole world” was it? It was one of the people who was supposed to love us most…


And, depending where we are in our relationship, sometimes these exact exchanges become one more nail in a coffin we are trying really hard not to build. The loitering ghosts of a coffin-shaped truths being yet another reason we might have been hesitant to reach/speak out in the first place.

So, why does any of this matter?

Because if we think “guilt” or not wanting to be burdensome to others might be a “feel-good” placeholder for all this subversion and fear, then maybe we can choose not to hide behind it. If we can flag those feelings of “not wanting to bother someone” that sometimes provide a socially validated shield of pseudo-honour then perhaps we can choose a path other than self-neglect.

Yes. It’s scary to put ourselves out there and ask for things we want/need.
Yes. It’s varying degrees and types of painful when our needs/wants are not met.

I’ve just begun to feel that it’s way worse to pretend we don’t want or need anything because someone else is more important and we will score ego-validating societal points for seeming/being selfless. Plus, I’d rather know now if who I’m dealing with is even ready to meet me part way. The truth is, a bunch of times in my life that “other person” hasn’t be ready to meet me with an open heart and mind. It’s also true that I have been the person who decided she didn’t want to do the work being asked of me by someone’s newly liberated A-Plot. The lesson of not burying our truths behind “guilty” or “burdeny” feelings holds true on both sides of the equation it seems…

Ever since this potentially “bold and blustering thesis” came to mind I now just try to stay awake. I watch the language I’m using to talk about an issue and the sensations in my body that arise. Sometimes, I really do catch myself hiding fearfully behind what appears to be self-negating kindness. I also discover that some issues truly can wait for a better time. When it’s the latter, I find ways to settle down but stay observant. When it’s the former, I now do more to take action.

To take risks.

Because though I honour the validity and importance of fear, I really do not wish for it make my important decisions.*

The key, it seems to me, is to “check in” and flag those “guilty feels” in all their variety. Are they serving as placeholders? Are we harming the all-stuff of light and stardust that makes and binds us? Are we burying the real lead in burdeny feels because we simply do not want to face some form of change or loss that may lurk both beneath, and beyond, that “guilt?”

Whether or not I am on to something here is obviously up to each person who might read this. Since I’ve started thinking about it, though, I’m pretty sure it’s not just going to go away.


Here’s to all the A-plots hiding in plain sight and here’s to letting them take centre stage, come-what-may.


*Honest-for-truth-and-realzies, I started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic after I had finished this post, but – as I feel she herself would likely say – the timing doesn’t really matter and please do go check out her book. I can’t say my perspectives dovetail perfectly with hers in all regards, but she has very juicy things to say about fear and its affects on our creativity and our lives.

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