Do you ever feel guilty about your success?
The other day, my younger brother posted the term "toxic empathy" on Facebook. I'd never heard the expression before, but felt triggered. Apparently, toxic empathy comes from overidentifying with someone else's pain or feelings and taking them on as your own. Growing up in an imbalanced, chaotic, or abusive household can sometimes cause us to develop this toxic behavioral pattern.
Before we can start to understand the why behind the overkill on guilt, let us first define it. Guilt means that we believe that something we are doing is causing pain to someone else. It is activated by our behavior, thoughts, or feelings that we judge to be wrong or bad.
It is healthy for parents to be protective of their children. But what if your parents were overprotective? What if every time you played sports, rode your bike, or roughhoused with friends, your parents became disturbed and worst, frantic?
“Watch out, you’ll get hurt!"
"You’ll break a leg!”, and so on. Would you have interpreted that as interest in your well-being, or rather, believed that you were hurting your parents by your sense of adventure and fun? Children who think that their actions are causing pain for their parents will feel guilt.
Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a parent’s normal range of caution and concern. I am talking about extreme caution and worry over small risks. But if you grew up always experiencing irrational guilt about worrying an overprotective parent, you’ll also experience guilt in response to risks as an adult. You’ll feel frustrated by your excessive sense of caution, but most likely you won’t be aware of its cause, and so you’ll be unable to change.
Here are three signs you may be carrying guilt, resentment, and shame from your childhood:
1. You feel responsible for your parent’s or sibling’s misery.
Have you ever felt guilty about pursuing your own goals? Have you tried placating them or atoning, in order to relieve your sense of guilt? This could explain some self-defeating life patterns.
2. You quietly developed self-hatred and resentment.
Were you taught that who you were was not acceptable? That perhaps your personality was too much? What about having to inhibit a normal behavior or limit your goals when your parent continuously behaved badly toward you? These experiences can build up self resentment.
3. You rebelled as a way of protesting.
This one is my favorite because it's me! Have you ever rebelled in the hopes people would get the message you were sending by your behavior and change for the better (that is, you became stubborn to protest against a parent who was too controlling in the hopes that he or she would get the message and be less controlling)? Been there, done that.
4. You behave like your parents did, without realizing it.
Even though you promised yourself that when you grew up you’d never behave the way your parents did with you, you notice that you’re mimicking their worst qualities. Others are telling you, you remind them of your parent(s), and not in a positive way.
It can be hard to free ourselves of the behaviors we hate no matter how hard we try, no matter how much willpower we exert, no matter how much advice we receive from others. To understand why it is so hard, we will need to delve into why our childhood patterns continue on into our adult lives even though they are clearly negative patterns and we no longer are living with our parents. The negative effects of our family experiences remain hidden from our conscious mind, even though this information is critical to changing what we most dislike about ourselves. These negative thought patterns can become toxic not only to ourselves, but they ultimately damage our adult relationships. This is why it is important we dig deep and do the hard work of exploring our pain.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if any of the examples above rang a bell:
Imagine that you could be reborn into your family today. Now imagine that you were born into your family with all the knowledge that you possess right now. Consider the following:
What would be different for you in your relationship with your mother?
What would be different for you in your relationship with your father?
What would be different for you in your relationship with your sibling(s)?
Beginning the process of change means beginning a hunt for the causes behind your problems. Coming from an abusive childhood, I carried so many burdens God never intended for me into adulthood. It has taken years to discover the true cause of my issues, but as I unveil them, life gets easier and easier. It’s heart work, but so worth it in the end.
How is your history holding you back? What can you do to move past the hurt and shame? Comment below and share this post with a friend.