To set on a wrong object or eventuality: his trust had been misplaced; synonyms: lose, mislay.
Feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy: SELF-REPROACH; synonyms: contrition, penitence, regret, remorse, repentence, shame.
The title of this post is something I have often encountered in my time, both personally and professionally: people blaming themselves for the actions of others, or for some “imagined offense”. I have included only the relevant definitions for the words, “misplaced” and “guilt”, above, for the purposes of the following discussion. (If you want the entire list, please click on the hyperlinked words.)
Sometimes this misplaced guilt is an internal phenomenon based on people’s perceptions of certain situations. In my experience, however, most of the time this mistaken sense of responsibility for a wrongdoing comes from an external source: parents, teachers, lovers, spouses, children, some ‘authority’ figure, such as government officials, media personalities, religious/spiritual gurus, medical/psychiatric professionals, etc.
When people are guilty of wrondoing, they can take action to make it right which will alleviate their guilt. For example, if they stole something they can return it, or pay for it. In the absense of any real wrongdoing, then the only thing that will release the guilt is a change in perception. I will illustrate this with an excerpt from my autobiography:
Guilt is something I have come to define as ‘misplaced responsibility’ – only after much soul-searching did I understand that I did not cause in any way what happened to me as a child. Before this revelation I blamed myself for everything that went wrong in my life, in the lives of those around me including the rest of the world. I recall feeling guilty about the people starving in Africa… “Oh my God, what did I do?”
I believe the initial shameful feelings came from the attention I received from the Chesters (pseudonym for “child molesters”) as a child since my parents weren’t paying any attention. That is, I must have asked for it or deserved it since I enjoyed the focus on me to begin with. I also felt guilty about the fact that I often could not prevent the other children from being abused. I believed it was my responsibility since I was usually the eldest amongst them. It was such a devastatingly awful feeling each time I witnessed the abuse of one or more of the others.
Feeling so ‘bad’ because I thought I had done something ‘wrong’ made me want to make up for it by being good or trying to make things better for everyone else but me. I went above and beyond the call at home, at school, with friends, other relatives, at work later in life and so on. Of course, I was taken advantage of but on some level I believed I deserved it even though I resented it at the same time. This lack of self-esteem was a result of not only feeling bad…it was also related to being treated like someone who had no inherent value. I was important only when someone wanted something from me and even then I wasn’t appreciated for what I had to offer (or for what was taken from me in most instances). This was such a vicious cycle that only I could get myself out of by realizing that although I did not cause nor did I deserve any type of abuse, I was still responsible for taking care of and changing myself.
This self-responsibility meant ending many relationships including those with relatives who chose to continue to have these Chesters in their lives after they knew the truth about them. This is a very difficult thing to do in Greek culture because it entails even more guilt – “blood is thicker than water” and all that nonsense. Taking charge of my life in this way dramatically boosted my self-esteem later in life.
Are you carrying any unwarranted guilt? If so, maybe the time has come to drop that burden for once and for all.