Guilt as a motivational tool

As a child, I believed that I was responsible for my mother’s happiness. The way I ensured her happiness was to behave in exactly the way that she wanted me to. I believed that my mother would love me only if I stayed within the “target zone” of her expectations, and losing a parent’s love is a risk that a young child cannot safely take.

I became a master at reading the subtle changes in her facial expressions and moods and adjusted my behavior accordingly. In my constant attentiveness to her needs, I never became acquainted with my own. In fact, it never occurred to me to want anything that she didn’t.

What I learned from my mother served me well when I went to school, because meeting my teachers’ expectations led to good grades. And it made me a good employee, because I could anticpiate my employers’ expectations and quickly respond to their needs. But I still didn’t know who I was, what my own expectations were, or how to think for myself. That didn’t happen until I was in my late 20’s, when I quit my job, cashed in my 401k, and spent a year in Europe.

The farther I get from childhood, the more I doubt some of my memories–especially those having to do with my mother’s parenting techniques. Fortunately, I have an 8-year-old son, and watching the two of them interact confirms that my memories are accurate. If Adrian doesn’t do what my mom wants, she says something like, “Well that makes me really sad, Adrian.” I watch to see if he will be as consumed by guilt as I would have been, capitulate, and do what my mom wants. But he doesn’t. For him, guilt doesn’t work as a motivational tool, and I am so relieved to know that he has not inherited what I call my “overactive guilt gland.”

When I read Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, I realized that my mother had used guilt to get her needs met. It takes a special combination of people for that parenting technique to work–a match made in Hell, if you will. Guilt doesn’t motivate Adrian to do her bidding, for example, and it didn’t work on my sister either. But me? Oh, God. On me, it worked in spades.

It has taken a lifetime to overcome the effect that guilt has on me, and I’m still working on it. Even as I write this, I worry that my mother might see this post. What if it hurts her feelings? What if . . .

But the silver lining is that, in the process of working through all this, I created Mixed Emotions.

Guilty

Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Guilty” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

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