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)