Projecting Angst

Projecting Angst

I have been wondering where guilt trips come from. Wondering until today, that is.

So much for my questions in a recent blog about the cultural sources of guilt!

All it took was a walk in a park. I watched an aggressive ten-year-old boy telling a shy seven-year-old boy how to play a game. They were tossing beach-balls around in a sandbox for goodness’ sake. They were quite alone. There was no competition, no need for judgment, nobody else was watching. The older boy was nasty about it, even brutal, he just knew. The younger boy was playful, he was inventive, but everything he did was wrong, wrong, wrong.

What’s more, the older boy clearly felt he possessed the “rule book.” He invented and reinvented rules as he went along, as if rolling beach-balls were a team sport with formal regulations. He dominated the younger boy, saying whatever was needed in whatever tone of voice to get the other to submit, even if that meant contradicting himself. The rules kept changing, the older boy kept setting new obligations and conditions, and there was no way for the younger boy to live up to such wildly changing expectations. I noticed the older boy never once smiled. Intimidation is such a deadly serious matter.

Guilt trips are an instrument, a form of punishment, like projecting one’s own angst onto another person, summoning a dark shadow from the outer limits that will loom over and even smother that other person. And when the guilt tripper changes the rule book compulsively, arbitrarily, this instills an element of fear – the fear of definitive judgment, humiliation, the fear of being found inadequate, of being exposed as not cool. Socially, it’s like getting thrown off a cliff.

Lurking in the background of guilt trips is an either/or scenario: on the one hand, there is a withering judgment here and now, but on the other hand that judgment might eventually be suspended…. Fault-finding and disapproval might ultimately give way to approval…. Might, because it all depends. Guilt trips are meant to keep people guessing, cringing, wincing. They are by nature unpredictable.

People projecting their angst onto others must have insecurities of their own. I suspect they rush to denounce others because they find themselves wanting. In my experience, guilt trips are a mind trap – they alienate people, shatter self-confidence and are best avoided.

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