Friday, 20 September 2013

Guilt and Self-deceptive Narratives

Zoë Boden
I am Zoë Boden, a post-doctoral scholar working in the field of mental health. Much of my work focuses on emotional and intersubjective experiences, and how we make sense of these, especially when they’re complex or distressing. In thinking about distortions in beliefs and memories, in my research, I have focused on the stories we tell to help make sense of our experiences. My PhD research looked at experiences of feeling guilty and explored the relationship between our lived, bodily experiences and our narrative accounts.
 
A large part of feeling guilty is an experience of unfamiliarity – a feeling that your behaviour is out of character, and that you are unfamiliar to yourself. Who is this person who did this thing? How can it be the same me that is here now, knowing that thing to be wrong? This unfamiliarity can be understood as a distorted belief. It feels incongruous to acknowledge and accept that whatever was done, was done by you.
So how did my research participants make sense of their experiences? They told themselves, and others, stories about their behaviour in order to make sense of it. 


These narratives attempted to weave the familiar and believed aspects of their lives (their meta-narratives) together with the unfamiliar and (perhaps) disbelieved aspects relating to their guilt experience. In some cases these narratives sought to acknowledge their past misdemeanours whilst putting some narrative distance between them and their wrongs: they said, ‘yes, I did that, but I’m a very different person now’. However, in some other cases the narratives involved layers of self-deception. The guilty behaviour was not fully acknowledged but instead was buried in convoluted narratives that sought to minimise ownership, or excuse what was done. They lied about what had happened to others and they told themselves that the event wasn’t significant. In other words they denied the epistemic importance of their bodily experience – the guilt feelings.

So, what makes one narrative more successful than another? What is the role of ‘truth’ in these stories? Goldie (2003) argues that self-deceptive narratives can be successful in as much as they can provide the narrator with the emotional closure they require. In my research though, it was only when the felt experiences (the guilt feelings which haunted the participants) were adequately synthesised into the narrative accounts that any real narrative success (i.e. psychological progression) was achieved. In other words, ignoring the guilt feelings, which are the evidence of the guilty event, through self-deceptive narratives, meant those feelings continued. Acknowledging and accounting for the guilt feelings through less self-deceptive narratives resulted in the guilt feelings lessening and eventually disappearing. Having a narrative that successfully incorporates the guilt event and the resulting guilt feelings into the overarching life narrative increases well-being – participants described feeling more “at peace” with themselves. The successful narrative then becomes the memory of what happened, and it is the truth, at least as far as that person is concerned.

Boden, Z. V. R. & Eatough, V. Parallel Returns: Bodily feelings, temporality and narrative in the guilt experience (under review)

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