Holiday Blues

The holiday blues is a well-known, even clichéd, phenomenon, but it’s true that this season can be especially challenging for CADIs. Some CADIs tell me that they are unable to muster the celebratory spirit that others expect of them. Some feel stricken with guilt and grief, knowing that another family is mourning a loss. Some feel that they do not deserve to be happy or receive gifts.

If you are in this situation, it is helpful to simply acknowledge your feelings, doing your best to withhold judgement. This might mean finding some private time every day to write in a journal, meditate, pray, rest, or cry. You don’t have to put the full scope of your distress on display, but neither do you have to fake happiness.

If you can, consider providing some form of community service during the holiday season. I believe that we honor the memory of our victims when we do this. You can serve Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter or VA hospital, visit children in the hospital, or deliver a meal to a homebound senior. There are dozens of choices – if you are not up to interacting with people, you can pick up litter on the beach, bring a few bags of old clothes to Goodwill, or offer to help out at your local animal shelter. You can also draft a guest blog and submit it to me for consideration for the website.

As most readers know by now, I believe in the healing powers of art and nature. This season, let’s take some time to listen to music that moves us, wander through a museum, or bundle up and take a walk in the woods. Let’s play an instrument, paint, draw, or write – and if you don’t have artistic talents, consider writing a poem anyway. These activities get us out of our heads and connect us to soul and spirit.

As I write this, I am popping chocolate candies into my mouth at an alarming rate! Sugar is my way of dulling unpleasant feelings like the holiday blues, but it leaves me feeling even worse, physically and mentally. So I hereby resolve to be more mindful of my eating this season. You might want to do the same, not to deny yourself the pleasure of delicious food but to help you feel better. The same goes for drinking, of course – remember that alcohol is a depressant.

Many therapists take some time off around the holidays, and the temporary absence of this support can be difficult. Your therapist should have someone “on call” to talk with you if needed. You can also call the suicide prevention line at any time of the day or night; and you can go to the ER if you need immediate attention.

Finally, remember that your accident does not define you. You could not control what happened, but you do have choices about how to respond. Even if you feel utterly stuck, the truth is that you are on a journey. It may be a challenging trip, full of unexpected obstacles, but you are moving toward solace, personal growth, and acceptance. Wherever you are in this journey, I hope you will take a few minutes over the next few weeks to look up at the night sky, or a snow-covered tree, or a simple wooden cross, or the flickering Chanukah candles, or a child’s face — and remember there is beauty in this world.

I wish us all a year of peace.



This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Family and Friends — Stress and Anxiety

If you are a relative or friend of a CADI, one of the major challenges you may face is managing your own anxiety. This person that you love and perhaps rely on is suddenly in deep distress. It is extremely upsetting to see him or her suffer and to feel helpless in the face of it.

On top of this, you may have a whole set of worries – will he be arrested or sued? Will she be able to take care of the children or go back to work? Will he get over this distress, or will he have some kind of breakdown? What will this trauma do to the family, to your own relationship, and to your broader social and community networks?

For a while, the CADI may not be fully available as a partner, friend, or co-worker. All of a sudden you find yourself attempting to manage your own responsibilities and those of the CADI as well (e.g., covering for him at work or taking care of the kids), while also helping him deal with psychological distress along with possible physical injuries, legal issues, car insurance, and the like. On top of that, other people may be texting and emailing to find out what happened, share their own concerns and compassion, and all too often offer advice you really don’t want or need, at least at the time.

As if this isn’t stressful enough, we often have unrealistic ideas of how we are supposed to respond to such tragedies. For instance, you might feel like you have to be available 24/7 to deal with any needs the CADI may express. You might fear that you’ve said something wrong and made everything worse. You might believe you have no rights to anger, fear, or grief. You might be confused or uncertain about how to help. You might also disagree with the CADI about certain issues, such as whether to retain a lawyer or whether to tell friends or family members what happened.

The CADI’s accident may create trauma not just for him, but also for family and friends. Just as you strive to support the CADI, you must also strive to support yourself. Reach out to your friends and relatives, consider psychological counseling, and allow yourself to take some time out to rest and recharge. You may even find that you are experiencing some trauma symptoms yourself, such as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks to the moment you learned of the accident (or witnessed it), difficulty sleeping, and so forth. If such symptoms are very distressing to you or last for more than a few weeks, I encourage psychotherapy.

You will have to decide how much of your own thoughts, feelings and experiences to share with the CADI. It will not be helpful to “unload” your feelings and fears in his or her presence. Save that for others. This does not mean you should avoid intimacy or communication; it does mean that you should recognize and respect the stress and trauma that the CADI is experiencing.

Thank you for caring about the CADI in your life. I cannot express how important – and how beautiful — your love and support are for all of us who have caused accidental deaths or injuries.


This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

No Such Thing as an Accident?


Have you ever heard anyone say, “There’s no such thing as an accident?”  There is plenty of support for this view in books and popular culture. It’s more or less a staple of new age thinking that we call all experience to us, including accidents. Even Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, did not believe in accidents and considered them manifestations of unconscious desires or impulses.

These ideas upset me after my accident – did my accident mean I put out into the world some terrible, fierce energy? Did my unconscious hostility lead to someone’s violent death? Did the accident emerge from some inexplicable spiritual deficit or need?

Today, I do not believe that “there’s no such thing as an accident.” I know too many lovely, caring people who are CADI’s. I do not think their accidents reveal anything about their psychological make-up or their soul. I think the accidents demonstrate that we, like everyone else, have imperfect control over ourselves and over the world around us.

To me, calling a car crash or some other incident an “accident” does not mean one is blameless. It means that no harm was intended. It’s still incumbent on us to ask ourselves if we made a mistake and, if necessary, to take action such as seeking treatment for alcohol or drug abuse. We can also identify other steps we can take to improve safety, such as advocating for a stop light at a busy intersection.

Having completed this appraisal process, perhaps we should try to accept that certain things are simply unknowable, including some of the whys and what-ifs of serious accidents. We can say with some assurance, “the accident occurred because a little boy ran across the road without looking for cars,” or “the accident occurred because I was texting and didn’t notice that the car ahead of me was stopped.” It’s another thing entirely to wonder if the accident occurred as a result of Karma or some spiritual deficiency or need. We probably won’t have the answer to that, at least in our lifetimes.

What we can do, however, is let the experience of being a CADI motivate us to put our best selves into the world. We cannot change what happened, but we can resolve to live and love with greater mindfulness. It’s easier said than done, especially when PTSD gets in the way, but it’s the only way I can make any sense at all out of these tragic accidents.


This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

How to Find a Therapist

I often recommend psychotherapy for people who have been involved in serious accidents, but how does one find a good therapist?

Psychotherapists can have medical degrees (psychiatrists), doctoral degrees (psychologists), or masters degrees (social workers or marriage and family therapists). In my opinion, the therapist’s degree or title is not as important as other factors. It is important to choose a licensed therapist or a therapist in training who is working under the direct supervision of a licensed therapist.

There are various ways to find referrals – from your insurance company, from friends or family, or from professional associations such as the American Psychological Association or the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy . The Psychology Today website also has a good therapist finder.

Give some thought as to whether the therapist’s age or gender matters to you. In addition, if you work and/or have childcare responsibilities, you might need a therapist who can see you on particular days or times.

By far the most important factor is how comfortable you feel with this therapist. Is she or he a compassionate listener? Do you feel that this person understands your feelings? Are the responses you receive kind and helpful? Pay attention to your intuition. It is natural to be nervous or upset when consulting a therapist, and you may not instantly feel relief, but you should feel that the therapist is an attentive listener, is kind, and has knowledge and skills that will be helpful to you. If you do not think that the therapist is a person you can trust, move on and try someone else. A short list of problems — therapists who are distracted (checking their email during a session, for instance), who interrupt the session to take phone calls, who make the session about them instead of about you, who are seductive, or who offer advice that seems off base to you.

It is a good idea to ask questions of a therapist before beginning your work together. For instance, you might ask what training and experience they’ve had related to treating posttraumatic stress and whether they are up to date on recent research about PTSD. You can also ask about their therapeutic orientation — for instance, do they focus on behavioral or cognitive coping skills or are they more insight-oriented?

Therapy can be expensive, although fees vary widely. If cost is a concern, talk with the therapist about whether he or she will reduce their hourly fee for you. Also, most cities and towns have mental health agencies that offer low fee counseling.

There is lots more helpful information on the web – for example, see this article in Psychology Today  or Web-MD.


This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Coping Strategies: Going Out After an Accident

A few days, weeks or months after our accidents, we must go out into the world again. We return to work, perhaps, or attend a social event or a family reunion. Maybe we just go out to the grocery store or the gym. Whatever the destination, that first post-accident foray into the world can be daunting, and some coping strategies might be useful.

You might be wondering who knows about the accident. Will people judge you or gossip behind your back? Might someone even attack you? Are they afraid to approach you? Or will they be intrusive, offering sympathy you don’t really want and asking questions you’d rather not answer?

That was my experience, anyway. I wanted to hide at home, but after a week or so I had to go out, and I was frightened.

If you feel the same way, there are simple steps you can take to prepare. First, ask a friend to accompany you and offer calm support while you run errands, attend appointments, etc. If you’re returning to work, contact a sympathetic co-worker ahead of time and ask him or her to check on you a few times during that first day back. Considering talking with your supervisor to discuss what would be most helpful to you. Second, plan modest expeditions before attempting to resume your usual schedule. For example, instead of to visit the grocery store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, and gym, perhaps try a simple trip to the grocery store first. Third, know that you don’t have to engage with people if you’re not ready or don’t feel comfortable. If someone asks you about your accident, you can respond with a simple statement such as, “Thank you for your concern. It’s very difficult, and I’m not ready to talk about it yet.” Fourth, remember to breathe — if you start to feel panicky or distressed, stop and take a few deep breaths.

What other coping strategies have worked for you? Write and let us know.

A special challenge for many is getting back in the car and driving again. That was especially difficult for me after a child darted in front of my car – When I tried to drive, I started to hallucinate people in the road and would slam on my brakes in traffic! If a pebble hit my windshield, I panicked. After a few months I gave up my car and relied on public transportation for almost two years. Many people need to drive, however, and giving up a car is not an option.

If you are having difficult driving, ask a friend or family member to keep you company in the car, remind you that you are a capable driver, and help you manage anxiety. When I started driving again, I signed up for a driving lesson and was reassured when the instructor reported that I was doing fine. Many people prefer to avoid driving by the scene of the accident – if that is not possible for you, I recommend bringing a supportive friend or relative along with you. You can also ask a counselor or psychotherapist for help – there are effective coping strategies for reducing this kind of situational fear and anxiety.

How have other people managed anxiety and distress about driving? Let’s compile a list of useful coping tips. Thank you!


This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Parent-child relationships after an accident

I have been pulled away from my day-to-day responsibilities in recent weeks in order to spend time with my mother, who died earlier this month. She was 89, frail, and very ready to “transition,” but I miss her.

In my family, my mother was the brightly shining sun at the center of our universe, and the rest of us were dull planets circling her for warmth and light, and trying not to get burned in the process. For years, my mother’s approval meant more to me than anything else. If she was pleased with me, any disappointments faded into insignificance. If she was angry with me, I felt sick with dread.

My car accident happened when I was 22 years old and just beginning to strive for independence from my parents. In the midst of trauma, grief and fear, I pulled away from my mother – avoiding her telephone calls, discouraging visits, and choosing not to respond to cards and notes. She was puzzled, hurt and, eventually, angry.

I have given a lot of thought to why I distanced myself from the person who loved me most. I wanted the accident to make me a stronger, better person, and I felt I could not achieve that goal if I allowed myself to rely on my mother. I wanted to rely on myself instead.

There were other reasons, less clear to me at the time. Although the accident was not my fault, I felt horribly ashamed that I had exposed my family to legal and financial risk as well as community censure. And despite sincere assurances of love and support, my mother kept the accident a secret from even her closest friends and advised me not to talk about it. Before the accident, we presented ourselves to the world as a charmed family – happy, attractive and successful. The accident represented a big crack in this façade.

My parents were full of helpful advice, most of which was absolutely correct. For instance, they recommended that I sell my car and generously offered to buy me another one, so I wouldn’t be reminded of the accident every time I drove. But I refused to accept their advice, and the upshot was that I stopped driving altogether for almost two years. What they didn’t realize was that making my own decisions was more important to me at that time in my life than making the “right” decisions. Their advice, however well-meaning, suggested to me that they didn’t trust me to make good decisions. And I desperately needed someone to say, “I trust you,” because I definitely did not trust myself.

Finally, I was aware that the accident upset my parents, especially my mother, tremendously. They felt devastated by the death of a young child and his family’s anguish. They were also very worried about my wellbeing. They tried to shield me from their sorrows and anxiety, and I tried to shield them from my own distress, but of course we knew better. It was easier, somehow, to promise them that I was fine and moving on with life. If I confessed to the hallucinations, flashbacks, grief, guilt, and terror I felt, I feared I would break down. And the weight of my parents’ feelings was simply more than I could bear.

I often hear from parents who write something along the lines of, “My son/daughter doesn’t talk about the accident. Is that a problem?”

The answer is “it depends.” If the son/daughter has a strong support system or a good therapist, perhaps they are receiving the help they need. If they are keeping their thoughts and feelings bottled up, I expect that there may come a time when they will want to receive some counseling. Pushing them, however, probably won’t help. The most important thing parents can do is convey their love and their readiness to listen and help, without judgment and while managing their own feelings.



This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Buried in Fear

I am honored to share with you some insights and beautiful words from Cheryl. This is a beautiful and touching account of forgiveness and love. I know readers will join me in thanking her for this post, which I have already re-read many times.

Buried in Fear
By Cheryl Higgins

The other day in the news was a story about a woman involved in a hit and run of a five year old boy. After she hit him she ran to a field, dug a hole, and buried herself.

My accident twelve years ago was not a hit and run but I knew exactly what it felt like to bury myself in a dark hole of fear and shame. I had made a mistake so immense that a life was wiped from this planet. Even though I was fully present for all that I had done and was responsible for I wanted to hide away from the light of the world. After the accident I wanted to run. Run from what I had done and the lives that I had changed forever. I could feel all of that energy pushing down on me and it was paralyzing. I started to feel as if the girl that died in the accident was around me and I was terrified that she would show up in my mirror. I was so afraid and ashamed for what I had done I could barely get through the day. I finally told my close friend that I wanted to see a psychic and find out what the girl in the accident thought of me. Going to a psyhic was not something that was normal for me but in desperation I opened my heart to answers anywhere I could.

In the back room of a metaphysical bookstore I sat at a table across from a man I didn’t know and looked down at a stack of cards spread before me and asked, “What does the girl in the accident think of me?” I pulled a card and looked at in disbelief. It was a picture of Mother Mary and the words Unconditional Love. I felt this great weight lifted off of me and cried tears of regret and sorrow and for feeling love that I did not think was possible.  Whether you believe I pulled that card from divine inspiration or it was by some random chance it changed me from that moment on.   I saw that no matter how big our mistakes we are never separate from Love.

After that I finally started to let the cracks from that deep hole of fear and shame break open. When the light of love shined through my heart I burst wide open in awe. I have learned that this world is full of more love then we could ever know. If you have done something so horrible that you feel undeserving of love please let yourself  crack open even a little.  If we talk to each other about what we have done we can feel the compassion of each others hearts. We are here. We will listen and show you the love that is all around. Crack open. Let your light shine into this world. And let the light of love shine into your own heart and break you open even more.

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Bonnie’s Story

Many readers of this site have encountered Bonnie Bishop’s kindness and wisdom. At my request, she has shared her story with us. I deeply appreciate her openness and her caring. I know you will find this story important and moving.

Bonnie’s Story

By Bonnie Bishop

 My name is Bonnie Bishop. About 18 years ago, I had an alcohol- related car crash, and my best friend died. Before the accident, my husband and I both worked. He was an over the road truck driver and I did home health care. My oldest son by a previous marriage had just graduated high school and our youngest son was only 6 years old.

Mona was my best friend. We grew up together and I loved her. She was like a sister. We shared everything. Our hopes, dreams, secrets, child bearing years, our love for music, cookouts, swimming and sometimes drinking beer.

July 27 1996, Mona, myself and two other friends went to visit friends and took some beer. It was way out in the country. When it was time to leave I felt fine to drive. I had a buzz on but I didn’t think I’d have any problem driving home. On an unexpected gravel filled curve, I lost control of the car. I threw myself across the seat when I saw the tree’s coming. Next thing I remember was one of the guys in the back seat yelling, “I smell gas. Better get out before it blows up or something.” I opened my door and stumbled around to Mona’s side and yanked the door open. She looked like she was sleeping, lying back in her seat but her face was a mask of blood. I thought she hit her face on the dash or something. The car didn’t appear to be in too bad a shape. We weren’t in the tree’s but instead had slid into a small embankment and hit on her side. A nearby neighbor called over and asked, “Do you need an ambulance?”

“Yes, she’s hurt real bad.” I hollered.

The ambulance was there within minutes. Two women, placed a board behind Mona’s neck and lifted her onto the ground and began CPR. I sat on the ground beside Mona and rubbed her hands and tried to wake her up. “Wake up Mona, please wake up. You’ve got to be okay.” I cried.

The State Trooper’s showed up and asked who was driving.  “I was.” I replied grimly.

“I need you to step over here so I can ask you some questions,” he said and waved me over to the front of the State Trooper’s car. He placed me under arrest because he smelled alcohol on my breath and told me to get into the car. I’ll never forget as I sat watching from the back seat, as they covered my dear friend, Mona, with that white sheet. I didn’t even know how to wrap my brain around what had just happened. All that I could think is she’s going to heaven and I’m going to hell.

Down at the police station after a serious of sobriety tests, I blew a .16 on the Breathalyzer test. The officer gave me tickets for failure to stay right, speed unsafe for road conditions and a DWI then asked where I wanted to go. I stood there dumbly as the officer told my mother in law what had happened. I’ll never forget the lost and saddened look in her eyes as she hugged me and asked if I was okay. Once she regained her composure, she called my sister-in-law to come stay the night. I guess she was afraid I might try to kill myself or something. It was a long night for all of us.

The next day dawned sunny and beautiful. That was the only good thing about it. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. My mother-in-law took me to the hospital to get my neck checked because it hurt so bad it felt like it was broke. After a series of x-rays, they said I had a very severe whiplash. A nurse handed me prescriptions for pain medicine and said she thought I should get some good counseling because they were worried about my frame of mind.

Next, my mother-in-law drove me to Mona’s family so I could apologize. I barely noticed all the cars that filled her mother’s driveway. It was all like a blur. Her whole family was there. Her Mom and Dad, her two kids a 17 year old girl and a 21 year old boy, a brother and a sister. I apologized to each and every one of them and was so very thankful for their forgiveness. If it weren’t for that, I don’t know that I could have gone on.

A couple days later, two good friends took me to Mona’s funeral. It was the hardest thing I ever did. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I had to go. People seemed genuinely sympathetic. They knew what good friends we had been all our lives. The place was packed. I’ll never forget her family’s gut wrenching cries for their loved one. Or when the Pastor’s voice rang out telling how Mona’s young life was so suddenly and abruptly taken from us.

Two weeks later charged with vehicular manslaughter:

Now I was horrified of going to prison along with my great sorrow.
Afraid people would hate me.
Afraid people would send me hate mail.
Afraid people would throw things at my house

Mona’s husband thought it would be a good idea for me to go to drug and alcohol counseling:
I was afraid but the people were kind and most admitted they had drank and drove.
They thanked me for telling my story.

Went to court 6 months later:
By the grace of God, and Mona’s family for not pushing it, my sentence was probation, community service, and a fine.

Since the accident:
I have been focusing on raising my family and trying to be happy.
I think about Mona every day–holidays, the anniversary date and her birthday are hard.
I worry about Mona’s children and her mother.
I learned the hard way not to drink and drive.

I searched desperately for someone who may be able to really know what I was going through because they don’t really have any counseling groups for people like me. AA helped in a lot of ways but if they haven’t gone through it, they really can’t know. I felt so alone. Then one day while I was searching on line for anything that could help me, I found Jeff Perrotte’s web-site and began to read and to my surprise, he’d had a tragic accident too and I knew he’d understand how I felt. I wrote to him in prison and he understood how I feel and early on encouraged me to tell my story to school students and a victims panel, or anywhere I could here in Tioga County, where I live. The County had been asking me to but I was too afraid because there are a lot of mean spirited people out there. Jeff told me that, we owe it to everyone to tell our stories because if it could help even one person it is worth it.

I was terrified to give my presentation, but with Jeff’s encouragement, I finally did and I’m so glad because it turned out to be the best thing I could have done. All the feedback I get is very good. I’ve been doing it for 6 years now. I hear the same thing from the leaders and teachers every time. “It was so quiet, you could have heard a pen drop.” They really believe the students are listening. I see students and adults crying all through the presentation. The students say, “You can hear it on TV or read it, but it doesn’t have the same effect as when you hear someone’s firsthand experience live.” I’ve had students tell me, I just changed their lives forever. They thank me and hug me and some tell me stories of their own.

Giving presentations has truly helped me to heal so much more than before I did them. People would say, ”I know you say you are okay and you look okay but there’s something in your eyes, can’t quite put my finger on it.” They don’t say that anymore.

Then I found this web-site, ‘Accidental Impacts” and a lot of amazing people and things to read. I especially like the story “Cities of Refuge.” I am so thankful for this site and for all the people who tell their story and give encouragement.  Now I don’t feel so all alone.

I cannot tell you how ungodly hard it is to shoulder the responsibility for all the lives I shattered that day.
I miss my friend terribly and want so much to go visit her, but I can’t and it’s all my fault.
It was not worth losing Mona in one stupid day.

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


Many CADIs tell me that they want to hide from the world after their accident. Some actively dread leaving their home. Of course there is the real fear that others will be hateful toward them. But the urge to hide is also one of the key signs of shame. We want to crawl into a cave, humiliated by the defects we have inadvertently displayed.

The author and psychologist Michael Lewis suggests that self-consciousness is fundamental element of shame. He believes that shame results from comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards[1]. Guilt is about what we do; shame is about who we are. We feel ashamed when some part of ourselves that we consider unlovable is suddenly exposed to the world.

Accidents are great triggers for shame, because they are unexpected. We take ourselves by surprise, and our sudden exposure reveals our inadequacies.

As a young boy, the poet Gregory Orr accidentally shot and killed his brother in a hunting accident. In his beautiful memoir, The Blessing, he offers a touching description of his shame though identification with the Biblical character, Cain, who also killed his brother.

“If I were Cain, I knew who I was and where I was situated in the universe. I was the one who had slain his brother. I was the one God was angry at. But he would not kill me. The story didn’t go in that direction. Instead, he would drive me alone into the wilderness. And wasn’t that how I felt? Isolated, alone. Shunned by people… And Cain said unto the Lord, ‘My punishment is grater than I can bear.’ But God would not let Cain die and he would not let anyone punish me. He knew that my own self-hatred was a far more terrible punishment.” [2]

Under ordinary circumstances, shame can be useful and help us be more moral and humane. We deal with shame in a variety of constructive ways, including humor, seeking support, and self-improvement.

For CADIs, however, the burden of shame can become very heavy, leading to depression, self-hatred, fear, or even rage. When I tell people that their accident does not define them, I am trying to combat shame – the idea that our accident means there is something fundamentally wrong with us.

Because the experience of shame is often linked to earlier life experiences, it can be difficult to manage by ourselves, and psychotherapy can be very helpful. A therapist can help us distinguish between unhelpful, shame-based global attributions or conclusions (such as, I am a terrible person) and more realistic self-appraisals (such as, I made a mistake or I was in the wrong place at the wrong time). A therapist can also offer some support and relief by allowing us to express our feelings and by treating the depression, anger, or fear that may result from shame.

I believe that traumas such as serious accidents can ultimately lead to personal growth, and my goal with this website is to help people on that journey. Shame, however, slow down the growth process because we react with the desire to hide from the world. If you are carrying a heavy load of shame, I recommend talking with a counselor or psychotherapist, preferably one who understands trauma.

I would appreciate hearing about how readers have coped with or overcome their shame or guilt. Please share your insights — Thank you!!


[1] Lewis, Michael (1995). Shame: The Exposed Self. New York: The Free Press.

[2] p. 28-29

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Feelings of Guilt

When we hurt someone, we ask ourselves how much responsibility we bear for the damage done. If we release ourselves from all responsibility, we do not have to feel guilty. If we accept full or partial responsibility, the groundwork for guilt is laid.

Guilt is failing to live up to the standards we set up for ourselves. We feel the “pangs” or the “sting” of conscience. I especially relate to philosopher Herbert Morris’ description of guilt. He wrote,

“We may think of the ‘bite of conscience’ and the picture before us then is that of a man turned against himself, a man making himself suffer, a man resembling a scorpion. More than this, the man who feels guilty often seeks pain and somehow sees it as appropriate because of his guilt… When we think of what it is to feel guilty then, we think not only of painful feelings but of something that is owed; and pain is somehow connected with paying what one owes.”[1]

I had dropped out of school a few weeks before I had my accident. I was already feeling guilty about my inadequacies as a therapist and the disappointment I caused my parents by dropping out of school. The accident sent my guilt level into the stratosphere. Without thinking about it, I kept putting myself in punishing situations. I dated one man who cheated on me and one who borrowed money I knew he would never return. I signed up for a weekend encounter group. For three days, the group members took turns telling me that I was too intense, too uptight, and put out bad vibes. I never told them what had happened only a few months earlier, which might have elicited more kindness or at least muted their attack.

As bad as guilt feels, it can be useful in motivating corrective actions. When we feel guilty, we want to set things right. We apologize, try to fix things or make amends, and resolve to do better in the future. When the damage we cause is not reparable, guilt can motivate us to take other corrective actions. One CADI I know spoke to high school students and made a video about reckless driving. I sent an anonymous donation to cover college tuition for the older brother of the child I ran over. These steps don’t add up to compensation for the damage caused, but they make us feel better and do some good in the world.

Some of us continue to feel guilty no matter how hard we try to make amends. Nothing we do is enough. Guilt dominates our lives, a punitive parent living in our head who constantly reprimands us and forbids us from enjoying life. For years, in the middle of enjoying myself with friends, I’d flash on images of my accident. “How can you laugh after what you did?” I’d ask myself. Then I could add guilt about having fun to guilt about the accident itself. But guilt is not something we can measure out in precise proportion to our actual responsibility for damage. When is guilt excessive? When is it inadequate? We all need to ask ourselves these questions.

Guilt is about what we do; shame is about who we are. In another blog post, I’ll write about how accidents can trigger shame as well as guilt.



[1] (Morris, On Guilt and Innocence, 1976, p. 89-90).

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.