Experience in Mental Health

The Admission of Guilt

We all have our regrets. I have suggested time and again our darkest hours can be re-framed as learning moments. This is impossible unless we admit we are wrong or have contributed to the problem. People make all kinds of mistakes. Some small, some big, and sometimes catastrophic or life altering. I find it particularly difficult to admit I have made a mistake if I believe I am taking a moral or ethically-laden stand.

What keeps people from admitting they have done wrongdoing? Is it pride? Ego? Narcissism? Admission of guilt and the likelihood of people owning their mistakes hinges most of the time on what is at stake. This is because people believe owning their mistakes or wrongdoing might potentially contribute to a loss. This maybe true some of the time, but it certainly isn’t true across the board.

I have seen first hand people attack others and ridicule them out of anger and fear. Anger that the result of a conflict in mere difference in opinion may potentially be damaging. No one wants to experience these feelings, let alone what symbolically and literally hangs in the balance. Therefore, our reactions or capacity to process guilt or wrongdoing is generally more complex than just processing one emotion. There is no question that the processing of one’s guilt is both sequenced given the timing of the “ah ha!” moment, and where it fits into the larger landscape of interpersonal awareness and the emergence of feelings of uncertainty.

So, what stops us from admitting we have erred in our ways? For me, its fear of having to acknowledge my own ignorance on a subject and doubt that I might not have taken the most righteous path in life. For some, money is a motivator. People, corporations, and other entities will go to just about any length to cover up mistakes that will result in loss of money or funding. These entities will even go as far as harming others sometimes beyond retribution to cover up their wrong doing.

Just look at the psychology of murders and people that commit homicide or other violent acts and lie when confronted by the police or their victims. The evolution of the court system speaks to the complexity of the psychology of guilt and its admission. In fact, the entire legal system and its vast web of parts is rooted in the bend or psychology of the perpetrator. Once the intent and motivation of the criminal is established, the so called rehabilitation is decided upon by the jury or judge charged with the interpretation of the facts of a given case.

Even in non-adversarial examples of people owning their guilt, research suggests self-harming behaviors will persist until a person admits to another person, either a counselor or therapist that they need to stop harming themselves. Conversely, if a person can benefit from the admission of wrongdoing without a third party intervening like a therapist or law officer, the odds of the self-defeating behaviors persisting will be much less. This is why without internal struggles behaviors are more difficult to own and break from negative patterns because there is no interpersonal revenue or dividend from learning healthier habits.

So, how do we reduce instances of holding on to behaviors that are maladaptive? Psychotherapy doesn’t always help. But, sometimes, it does. This largely depends on how long these behaviors have been persisting. Humans are creatures of habit. It is easier to change new behaviors than long standing mal adaptive tendencies. With this said, change your wayward behaviors before you grow attached to them and ultimately, they grow too unmanageable.

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