I met a new friend with CFS recently who fell ill after breaking up with his girlfriend. He had been living with her for some time when he met another woman with whom he fell more deeply in love. As a result he broke up with his now-ex and started a relationship with the other woman. Although he didn’t cheat on his ex, the timing was rapid and it was a complete shock for her. He had a dilemma: It didn’t feel right for him to stay with her when he really loved someone else, but it didn’t feel good to dump her either given that he still cared about her and she’d done nothing wrong.
While he didn’t regret the choice to leave his ex-girlfriend for the woman he felt more strongly towards, he felt extremely guilty about hurting his ex’s feelings. She was understandably upset and her friends turned on him. The whole thing sounded extremely stressful.
It turns out that we have a lot in common. His day job is working as a software engineer, similar to my old career. He’s also very intelligent, articulate and creative; but in my experience engineers aren’t often well trained in the emotional coping skills required for dealing with stressful life events.
This is not the first friend I’ve met who came down with CFS after a guilt-inducing life experience. A woman I met through this blog, who had the most sudden and extreme nervous system failure I’ve ever come across, also came down with CFS shortly after ending a relationship with someone who she cared about and who hadn’t done anything wrong, but she just couldn’t see a long-term future with.
All this got me thinking more about guilt and how it might stress our nervous system.
I’ve studied a lot about the nervous system impact of various emotional stressors since falling ill. There’s a lot of material out there about fear, anxiety, anger and shame, but not too many people talk about guilt.
Like all emotions, guilt is an unconscious response that we have very little control over in the moment that it triggers. It indicates that we’ve done something that violates our internal values, like damaging ourselves or other people. But what if we’ve internalised someone else’s values rather than our own, or we have a plain old values conflict like my friends?
My own most extreme experience of guilt also involved a relationship breakup. I had been dating a woman for about four and a half years when she hit me with the marriage ultimatum: “Either agree to marry me, or I’ll break up with you”. Fair call too, really. I can’t blame her for wanting clarity on where we were headed. I had been trying to make the relationship work in my mind for at least 3 of those 4 years, hoping that the parts of me that didn’t want to marry her would come on-board with the parts that loved her and didn’t want to go through the pain of another long-term relationship breakup. But my doubts wouldn’t go away, and since I lacked the courage to break up with her myself, we ended up in ultimatum land. I said “No”, and we split. She was very angry that I hadn’t made this decision years before. I was devastated. I felt a tremendous loss of the relationship with my best friend, but also a truckload of guilt over disappointing someone I cared about a lot. In my case, the guilty feeling lasted for at least a year.
Another time that I felt guilty as an adult was when I first stood up to my critical mother and attempted to set boundaries between us regarding some of her toxic behaviour. My mother wasn’t used to having people close to her stand up to her, and I suspect I triggered a lot of guilt and shame in her since for my whole life she had been habitually behaving in the ways that I was now objecting to. Even though I knew that standing up to her was in everyone’s best interests, I felt guilty about the pain that it was bringing up in her and terrified about the potential consequences of cutting the emotional umbilical cord. I had to keep reminding myself that even though I was flying in the face of religious and family admonitions that parents should be respected no matter how badly they behave, what I was doing wasn’t bad, evil or wrong.
I like to think that in western culture we’re all free to live our lives however we want, but it’s not always so easy given that unconscious conditioning is usually running our lives. The impression that our decisions are conscious and our choices are rational is an illusion generated by our brains. Our unconscious mind is the most powerful and it deals with emotions rather than rationality, no matter how much our culture likes to prioritise the rational intellect. Things go awry when we’re dealing with the unconscious emotional impact of cultural, religious and family conditioning that we may no longer consciously agree with or appreciate.
As kids, we internalise everything around us like a sponge soaking up water. We learn how to behave from the people around us, even if they aren’t deliberately trying to instruct us. I grew up in a family where nobody shared their feelings openly and cleanly. Like the other human emotions, I don’t ever remember anyone in my family of origin talking about feeling guilty.
One way this manifested was that nobody ever apologised for anything. When my mother used the word “sorry”, it was usually in the context of “I’m sorry that you …” followed by yet another cutting criticism; it was more of a thinly veiled put-down than an apology. I still feel angry when I think about it now; I can even feel the tension in my head growing as I write about this. If other family members felt guilty, they had some other way of dealing with it than to express it in an apology. I seem to have simply internalised my own guilt.
Given that there were no apologies offered while growing up, that meant there was no opportunity to practise forgiveness either. I found it hard to learn to forgive people who never apologised for anything and instead pretended externally that everything they ever did was perfect all the time. I suspect what was going on internally for them was very different, but as I’ve already mentioned they never shared that with me. It was crazy-making to feel scared or hurt by the people around me and then have them respond with denial and avoidance of feelings. It was the perfect breeding ground for insecurity and perfectionism.
Another unhealthy pattern I internalised from my family of origin was to not talk about what it was really like at home with people outside the family. At the time I fell ill, I was 400 pages into a tell-all book I was writing about how I had developed a dreadfully low self-esteem growing up in my family of origin, and the steps I had taken to overcome it. I was angry, and I wanted the toxic narcissism of my mother and the passive complicity of my father and older sisters exposed.
After years of cathartic emotion-based therapy I thought I had the answer. Coming down with CFS taught me that even if I was headed in the right direction, I still had a lot of work to do before I could publish such a book with integrity. I began to question whether I was really right about expressing feelings and how to go about it. As much as I wanted healing light of truth as I saw it shone on the family, perhaps I felt more guilty about the pain that it would cause than I realised. Here I am breaking that same pattern by posting about my experiences on the Internet for all to see. I feel a little guilty about that, and I notice that I feel really tired all of a sudden.
Then there’s religious conditioning: As kids, my sisters and I were taken to Sunday School at the local protestant church that my parents still attend each week. The church had a process there for releasing guilt: Give your life to Jesus and confess your sins directly to him and/or God.
My first problem was that I had to come up with new sins to confess each week, and I often couldn’t seem to think of any at the time. Sure, my room at home was always a mess, but keeping it clean and tidy to my mother’s standards seemed totally impractical and I couldn’t see the point in just confessing that same thing over and over each week. I accidentally broke a window at my local primary school one weekend, and I was mostly worried about getting in trouble about it; but I did also feel rather guilty. I can’t remember if I confessed it to Jesus; after all, it was an accident. If I did, I probably just wanted him to stop anyone finding out that it was my fault.
I guess that’s what guilt really is though: a form of anxiety about the consequences of actions that seem to violate our own values. Fear of getting in trouble is just guilt in disguise.
The second problem with church was that the God they talked about never actually showed up. We were all hanging out for Jesus’s triumphant return to make everything all right; but after 2000 years of waiting, I was running out of patience. The whole Christian ideology I grew up with was based on the notion that mankind has fallen from grace and we’re all fundamentally evil and in need of salvation. Although it looked like a sham to my naïve childish eyes, I deferred my intuitive rejection of this nonsense to the adult authority figures in my life who were supposed to know better than I did, and surrendered my life to Jesus. Several times in fact, just in case he hadn’t heard the first few or I’d said the words wrong or something. I didn’t want to end up in hell for all eternity based on a simple misunderstanding between me and Yahweh.
Ancient people living in a more superstitious age with only superficial knowledge of biology chose to declare all human illness the result of sin. It’s true that a lot of modern illness is stress-related or otherwise impacted by life choices and therefore preventable. I suppose if you define sin as “any action destructive to self or others” then perhaps the ancients were right. But life isn’t that cut and dried, and the cause of illness is better explained by modern science than theology. Yet I suspect the sense that sick people deserve to be sick because of their personal sin still pervades Christian thinking, and could be one reason why healthy people sometimes lack compassion for people with a chronic illness. I think this superstitious notion just compounds a sick person’s suffering while allowing a self-righteous healthy person to avoid the scary reality that they too could come down with a debilitating chronic illness through no fault of their own, no matter how noble they may be.
The woman involved in my big break-up had joined my church while we were dating; so things got awkward after we split. It was painful seeing her there, and my faith was at rock bottom anyway so I really didn’t want to keep going each week just to feel even worse about myself. I started visiting other churches and embarked on a long process of exploring what I actually believed while trying to deal with the intense feelings of loss, grief and guilt that I was experiencing. By the end of the process I had decided that Jesus probably didn’t rise from the dead, he wasn’t God’s son, and I didn’t believe in the God of the bible any more anyway. I didn’t want control of my life in the hands of an imaginary friend who wasn’t real so I took back my childhood pledge of allegiance and renounced Jesus as my personal lord and saviour.
Taking control of my life back was a painful but liberating process for me. I had several counselling sessions with the minister of my church where I faced my fear of what life would be like without God and Jesus running the show. I remember feeling very frightened at the prospect that Heaven didn’t exist; despite the upside that this meant Hell didn’t exist either. The thought that this life was all that there was really scared me at first and for a while I declared myself agnostic. Eventually he suggested that I stop sitting on the fence, and I decided that my old belief system was a sham. From then on I started using the label “atheist” to describe my religious convictions.
For a while I attempted to educate every believer I met into my new way of thinking. These conversations generally didn’t go well; I was so attached to being heard and accepted that I got upset whenever anyone didn’t want to listen or refused to see things my way. Given how I felt at the time I really needed support from other people, and you don’t tend to get that when you start attacking their belief system. That tends to just trigger their defence mechanisms.
Yet another friend of mine, who I met after he had fully recovered from CFS, also had a challenging deconversion experience from Christianity to atheism. Like myself, he had a dominant mother and a passive father, and worked as an engineer. When we first met he was my roommate at a residential course for overcoming depression and anxiety, and I saw so much of myself in him that I disliked him immediately. Plus I was pissed off that the course organisers had paired us up. I was sick of hanging out with cold, unfeeling engineers. Why wasn’t I paired up with one of the cool people in the in crowd who I so wanted to be accepted by?
I eventually got over myself and we ended up good mates. I even ended up playing drums in his band for a couple of years. Some people hang onto their childhood religion for life, others seem to grow out of it without any drama, but for people like this friend and I, letting it go is a difficult, emotionally fraught experience. The subconscious programming didn’t just go away for me over night; it has taken a lot of therapy and emotional healing courses for me to be able to stay calm when I’m around members of my family discussing God, Jesus and The Bible as if they were real people they would rather have a meaningful relationship with, than with me.
Emotionally meaningful relationships with real people require a level of vulnerability that you don’t need when relating to an idealised imaginary friend. That can be particularly frightening if you grew up in an environment where people were afraid of vulnerability.
Christianity, in it’s best incantation, offers an intimate relationship with a perfect, unconditionally loving imaginary friend who you can be really honest and vulnerable with without ever facing the possible rejection that imperfect human love offers. Revealing your sins to God might give you some personal guilt relief, but it deprives an aggrieved party of the healing benefits of hearing your apology unless you also follow through with expressing your guilt via an apology to the person you have harmed in the real world.
It’s a particularly big problem when religious devotion occurs at the expense of intimacy and connection between parents and children. Infants require a healthy emotional connection with their care-givers in order for their brains to develop a sense of safety in the world, and that requires a level of emotional availability on behalf of their parents. Without this healthy emotional attachment in early life, we often end up experiencing a lot of anxiety and panic as adults. Call it “blaming your parents” if you like, but I believe this is what happened to me.
When I challenge other people, especially in my family of origin, about the more destructive aspects of their religious beliefs and/or emotional unavailability, it rarely goes well. My primary goal at the moment is to get my health back, and that means establishing boundaries where I’m not routinely getting triggered by other people. So I avoid those conversations now. No point saving the world at my own expense. I used to try to do that when I was a Christian, but no more.
During my deconversion I was also seeing another counsellor to deal with my overwhelming feelings about the end of my relationship. Emotionally I was all over the place and my life was a mess. To complicate matters, I had a huge crush on a female flatmate who I had first met at church and now didn’t talk to me, making life at home super-awkward. I was on the verge of burnout at work, on a downward slide from loving what I did so much that you couldn’t tear me away, to the depths of anxiety and depression where I couldn’t stand being at my desk any more.
I changed jobs, inadvertently landing on the dysfunctional team project from hell. A few years of that put the final nails in the coffin of my engineering career. I was a highly valued employee because I was so good at what I did, but I knew my performance was slipping. Nobody else had noticed yet, but I noticed. I was running on empty. Watching the clock every day. Sitting at my desk staring into the empty void in my work computer’s soul while trying to come up with opportunities to escape. On a business trip to China, I noticed that the brakes on the plane didn’t work properly, and thought “Oh well, if this thing goes down I’ve just saved myself a whole lot of problems”.
Eventually I quit working in engineering full time. Because of my reputation, people from leading companies kept knocking on my door offering me lots of money to work for them, but I just wasn’t interested. Being highly skilled and not particularly interested turns out to be a great bargaining position. Eventually I started doing a little consulting work at high rates where I figured that each contract wouldn’t last long in case I hated it. But I just didn’t enjoy the work any more. I enjoyed the interview process where people told me how great my reputation was and I gave them free advice like “You need someone with my exact skill set”; but even just a few hours of consulting work felt like torture. I owned my own home outright by this stage so I didn’t have rent or a mortgage to pay and the money didn’t motivate me any more. I did excellent work, but I would sit in engineering meetings thinking: “Why aren’t I at the beach?”
Eventually I quit doing any consulting work too.
I finally felt free, but I was anxious and restless. I took a long holiday to Europe and embarked on a tour of French nudist resorts to clear my head, where I had the worst panic attacks I’d ever experienced. I felt incredibly lonely. In France I came down with a rotten cold that just wouldn’t go away. This was all several years before CFS, but it was a precursor for what was to come.
I was living life on my own terms but I was doing a lot of things that went against my cultural, religious and family conditioning: Men in my extended family of origin usually marry dominant women, and the women marry submissive men. I had declined my opportunity to follow suit. The conservative Christianity I had been raised with frowns on sex outside marriage and I’m unmarried, yet I’d had sex with a few different women. Church is big in my extended family, and I no longer believed nor attended. I had quit my job, giving up on the sense of self that was attached to my job and the protestant work ethic. Volunteer work is a mainstay of self-esteem in my family of origin, but since I had met my now-ex girlfriend doing it I’d quit that too. And I had committed the biggest sin in Christendom: rejecting the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Is it possible that I was feeling a little guilty deep down?
Maybe. I was certainly going against the grain in a lot of areas of my life, and although on the surface I was living the dream, feeling good about having escaped the rat race and set my own course in life, it may have been playing havoc with my unconscious conditioning.
Nowadays, the more I can disconnect from unhealthy cultural, family and religious behaviour patterns like internalising feelings, prioritising being right over everyone’s well-being, and pretending not to care what other people think while actually hiding huge amounts of shame, the better I feel deep down where the anxiety and guilt are generated.
At the same time I’m learning to deal with my own fear and loneliness without relying so much on other people, be they real or imaginary, for salvation. I avoid overly needy people who drain my energy. I don’t take on clients who aren’t willing to acknowledge the emotional dimension or impact of their illness. I actually like who I am when I spend time by myself, where my habitual approval-seeking behaviours aren’t running. I let myself feel what I feel, and I don’t judge it. I’m letting go of guilt, however deeply entrenched it may be.
I guess you could say I’m finally learning to love myself.