Living under the constant judgement of an overactive guilt complex can keep us from living a fulfilled life and even cause severe depression.
But, first, what is a guilt complex? A healthy guilt complex (and yes, there is a such thing*) is a part of your psychology that helps you to take responsibility for mistakes you’ve made, and keeps you out of trouble by noting what you might do wrong if you’re not careful enough. Think of it as a piece of software that runs quietly in the background most of the time.
An unhealthy guilt complex, on the other hand, is a critical, punishing part of your psychology that rarely lets up. It criticizes you for not meeting its perfectionistic standards in the past, and sets off alarms about things you might do wrong in the future. It’s like a program that’s been infected with a virus and no longer functions well. It takes over and makes it impossible for other programs to run.
Such a critical guilt complex not only makes it hard to enjoy life or function well, it can also make it hard for people around you to be happy because it can make you critical of them as well.
Parts Work: A Proven, Effective Technique for Change
Simply trying to be reasonable about an unhealthy guilt complex or just dismiss it seldom fixes the problem. They’re stubborn little devils.
But a technique increasingly used in psychotherapy called parts work can help tame the guilt complex and actually make it more adaptive. Parts work, or parts therapy, is the process of engaging with different aspects of personality in ways that help them to work together more effectively.
Parts work was first brought to clinical practice by Carl Jung in the form of Active Imagination, a technique for dialoguing with moods and characters from dreams. Family therapist Richard Schwarz later developed the technique of dialoguing with inner characters into an evidenced-based treatment known as Internal Family Systems.
Lest you think this is just Woo-Hoo stuff, the National Registry of Evidenced Based Programs and Practices has reported that Internal Family Systems, which is a method of parts work, is “effective for improving general functioning and well-being. The review of the program yielded strong evidence of a favorable effect.”
But at the same time, it’s not a good fit for everyone, and please don’t feel that this is the only way you can go about making your guilt complex less of a tyrant.
And, lest you think I’m saying you’re crazy for just having different personality parts, having them doesn’t imply that you have the clinical condition known as multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder. We all have these parts. And acknowledging them makes it far less likely you’d ever develop such a condition.
As Jung never tired of pointing out, there is far more to us than just the conscious ego. Neglect or ignore the other parts at your own peril.
How Can I Do Parts Work?
We do parts work by engaging in imaginary or spoken dialogue with different aspects of our personality. Drawing, painting, dance or music may also be used. The goal is to be able to readily recognize different parts of the personality in daily life, and to help them to be more adaptive by engaging emotionally with them.
One of the dangers in psychological work, on your own or in therapy, is that it becomes too cerebral: if you get all the insights, but don’t engage emotionally, actual change will be limited. Parts work can help engage us emotionally and thereby facilitate change. It’s experiential rather than theoretical.
Think of this type of emotional experience as softening the tissue of the brain so that it becomes more malleable.
Engaging in dialogue with your guilt complex as a separate part of you objectifies it and gives you distance from it while still taking it seriously. It helps you not to be identified with it. It’s part of you, but it should not define or control you.
Doing parts work helps you to take back the wheel from your guilt complex so that you are driving, not the complex. Parts work strengthens the executive ego and helps all of the different aspects of the psyche to function together.
But it’s not easy. It takes intention, persistence and emotional receptivity to shift parts to healthier functioning. I have found taking these 4 steps to be an effective approach to parts work:
- Inquire and Listen
- Talk Back
Personify Your Guilt Complex
To personify the overactive guilt complex, identify its patterns, including when and how it reacts. How does it sound? Notice what you feel in your body when it’s most active. Tense? Relaxed? And what emotions do you experience along with it? Anxiety? Safety? Power? Anger?
Allow an image of it to come to mind. Then give it a name: The Tyrant. The Inner Critic. The Beast. The Judge. The Police. Draw it if you can.
Inquire and Listen
Find a time and place that you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably and allow yourself a few deep breaths. Find your most calm, centered frame of mind. This is a good time to use mindfulness skills. This is not a casual conversation, but one in which you allow yourself to descend into a deep state of receptivity.
(Don’t attempt this on your own if you are feeling fragile or vulnerable. A therapist can guide you through the process if it’s appropriate for you.)
Invite your guilt complex to speak, to explain to you why it’s giving you so much trouble. What is its story? What role has this character played for you? Why does it feel that it needs to do what it does? What does it fear would happen if it didn’t?
Many people find it helpful to focus by writing down the dialogue as they go through it.
Be permeable and receptive to what it has to say. And it may take some time to speak. Be patient, but if it’s going to be cagey and isn’t ready to show itself or speak, move on to the next step.
Now it’s your turn to tell it what it’s been like for you, and what impact it’s having on you. Remember, metaphorically speaking, emotional engagement makes the brain more malleable.
Appreciate the help this part has given you (if any), but stand up to it. Let it know that you’re stronger now than you were when you were a vulnerable child. You can handle things that you couldn’t back then. The danger is passed.
This listening and talking back may go on for a number of rounds. As much as you can, allow yourself to listen and speak with all of your feeling. You will need to lay down new neural connections that override the old ones, neural connections that express to yourself that you’re not in danger, and to the guilt complex that it doesn’t need to be so reactive.
Eventually suggest how the two of you might work together. What does it do that is helpful? What does it do that isn’t helpful? Where do you draw the line? What does it want from you?
You might need to tell it that it doesn’t need to react so critically to any mistakes you have made or could make in the future. It no longer needs to micro-manage your every move.
Insofar as you can, move toward we, living in collaboration, rather than conflict.
Once you’ve accomplished this, as you go through your day recognize whenever it wants to take back the wheel and control you. Notice when it starts to make your body tense. Tell the complex you see it, and gently but firmly take back the wheel. Don’t be discouraged when your guilt complex returns. It needs to be trained.
Example: Self-Protection Gone Awry: The Rogue Bodyguard
Let’s look at an example.
Soren was a manager at a large real estate agency. He was the backbone of the company. Everyone knew him to be reliable, hardworking, and friendly in his own way, even if a little high-strung. No-one knew what he went through inside, though.
When he was a child, his parents’ utter, bewildered disappointment at his bed-wetting and other “life failures” was far more painful than any corporal punishment could have been. Actual punishments included extra chores and grounding. But worse, they withheld attention, approval and affection. Their church amplified the shame with its rigid standards.
Unconsciously, Soren strategized about how to deal with his situation. It was as if Soren said to himself: “This really hurts when they punish me, so I’ll work really hard not to do anything that would disappoint them. But if I do make a mistake, I’ll punish myself before they do. They’ll see how bad I feel and so they won’t shame me.”
This became a habit at first, then a mode he’d enter into, and finally a separate and autonomous personality part.
As he grew older, this meant that Soren worked constantly and urgently to be perfect and productive. And if he wasn’t producing or fixing he felt anxious.
This usually worked to keep him out of trouble. It became his Bodyguard.
But because neither his parents nor their church were very reasonable, it was almost impossible to prevent chastisement. But still, the Bodyguard tried.
It became very severe, pre-empting any punishment anyone else would inflict on him. It didn’t matter how much it hurt when he punished himself. At least he felt he was in control. But really the Bodyguard was in control.
It went rogue.
Reforming the Rogue Bodyguard
It wasn’t easy to rein in Soren’s Bodyguard. He felt like he needed it because it had protected him. Even as an adult it helped him to be very reliable and effective.
And it was persistent.
He described it as an anxious, overprotective dog that barks and bites too easily because it thought its job was to protect him. But Soren was the only one getting bit.
So he decided to try parts work. He personified the Bodyguard as a tall, slim, stern man that managed him with fierce control. Soren let him speak, and it spoke with disdain at first. “You’d fall apart if I didn’t keep you in line. You’d just lay on the couch, watch tv and eat bon-bons.” It didn’t trust Soren to continue living in a productive way if it wasn’t tough on him.
Soren let him know what it was like to be on the other end of that relentless pressure.
They went back and forth.
Eventually Soren had to convince his Bodyguard that it wasn’t like it was when he was a child. If someone was unhappy with him, he could survive it. The Bodyguard eventually stopped arguing with him. It shrugged. It couldn’t admit how it had hurt him. But it did back off, for the most part.
Soren came to recognize the Bodyguard when it did get anxious and tried to take over. He would tell himself and the Bodyguard, “Oh that’s just you talking, Bodyguard. We’re safe. You can chill out. I’ve got this.” This took lots of repetition, but eventually it stuck.
* * *
This technique is more powerful than most of us would imagine. It is, as Jung says, a form of imagination, and imagination can be very powerful. My own experience of using it is to feel more whole and less divided afterward. It’s not a quick fix, but is can help to make the tyrant into a less oppressive ally.
But we should acknowledge that some people just can’t get into it, and that parts work is not required to make a guilt complex more adaptive.
For a more complete and systematic description of taking back the wheel, see my book: The Healthy Compulsive: Healing Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and Taking Back the Wheel of the Driven Personality.
You can also subscribe to this blog, The Healthy Compulsive Project, by typing in your email at the bottom of this page. Be sure to confirm your subscription when you get the email, and you’ll receive an email whenever I post, about twice each month.
*Carl Jung researched and developed the concept of the complex in the early 20th century. While he occasionally mentioned complexes in a way that assumed they were negative, he generally understood them to be the building blocks of the psyche, and not necessarily pathological.