Monday, September 27, 2010

The Four Tools of Manipulation, Part Four: Guilt

     And now it’s time for the fourth and last tool of manipulation. I’ve saved this one because it’s my favorite. Not, of course, that I use it myself (ahem): I mean that I view it as possibly the most effective and commonly used of all The Four. I am speaking, of course, of guilt.

     Guilt is fascinating. It can be either lifesaving or destroying. In its very basic sense, guilt is shame or remorse over having done something wrong. And when felt at the proper times (i.e., when you actually have done something wrong), guilt is enormously beneficial. It prevents you from doing the same wrong thing twice. It can be very, very dangerous to ignore guilt. But that is exactly why it is so easy to take advantage of. Even more so than primitive fearfulness, guilt makes us snap to attention. It’s extremely difficult to trespass on a feeling like guilt.

     And that is why it is the tool of choice for the cunning manipulators. Guilt is very excitable. It seems (if you’ll pardon the shamefully lame illustration) like one of those small, yappy, fluffy dogs that twitches madly as it sits there, waiting for the slightest provocation to start barking like a maniac. A single maple leaf falling to the ground is enough to invoke its irritating wrath. That is guilt. It never shuts up unless you kick it in the ribs or hurl it from you by the scruff of the neck. And you know the most insidious thing about it? You feel bad for doing either of those things! Now, of course, if guilt really were a small, yappy dog it would by quite right for you to feel bad about kicking it in the ribs, and shame on you for even thinking of such brutality. Not that small, yappy dogs have any bearing on the case at hand. The point is that the reason manipulation by guilt works so nicely is that in many, many, many cases it is a very apt reaction to the circumstances. Guilt is hard because muscling past it can be very bad for you. It’s not like fear. The more you ignore guilt, the less you will feel it, at which point you will become a nastier person altogether. People like this do exist, you know. And they do not look like you would expect. They even have a name. But I really do not have the time to go into all this, and I expect you do not have the time to listen to everything I would have to say on the subject. We shall now move on. In short, guilt is not an emotion you should strive to expunge from your psychological makeup. BUT this absolutely does not mean that it is right in every situation. In fact, sometimes guilt can be just as dangerous when you pay attention to it as when you ignore it. If you recall my earlier words about when guilt is a good thing, you will understand this. In case you are a) a person with a very poor memory or b) too lazy to scroll up, I said that the purpose of guilt is to prevent you doing the same wrong thing twice. That’s all. That’s what the mechanism of contrition contributes to your overall function as a decent human being. No more, no less. Now, due to the unfortunate circumstance of most of the human race being made up of nitwits (sorry, guys), often this feeling of guilt shows up in places it doesn’t belong: by which I mean that we sometimes feel guilty about doing a thing which was not wrong. This is called irrationality, and it is rampant.

     Enter the manipulator. As I have said before and will most likely say again, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the weaknesses of the human mind. The same way a manipulator will play on your pity, he will play on your guilt as well. He’s smart enough to recognize that if he is able to make you feel like a bad person, you will bend over backwards to do him favors. And he is also smart enough to realize that it doesn’t take much to make you feel like a bad person. It could be anything: a sad face, a brief, emotional comment about how sad he is about the state of his finances, a tragically expressed wish that someone, anyone would go bowling with him tonight. These things make you feel cruel for crushing his hopes, dreams, and any small chance of happiness he may have ever possessed (like I said… irrationality.). It is interesting, though not necessarily relevant, to note that guilt is the tool of choice for fictional crazy mothers-in-law. They steamroll over their hapless victims and the moment anyone acquires the guts to stand up, they collapse in a fit of grief. “Why,” they sob, “are you saying these things to me? All I ever did was try to help you… and now you’re hurting my feelings.” And immediately, even though the offender is fully conscious that it is all an act and that he is in the right, he recants his so-called heartlessness. Why did he do it? Because the guilt, even though he recognized that it was irrational, was unbearable. But crazy mothers-in-law are not the only ones who take advantage of guilt: this tactic is employed by everyday unscrupulous individuals. By making you feel guilty, which is surprisingly effortless, people can make you dance like a puppet on a string.

     So: In conclusion. Guilt is a good thing, unless it’s irrational. You know when it’s irrational because you are a human being and your intelligence level is therefore higher than that of an inebriated goldfish. All it takes from that point is courage. The courage to stand up and do what you know to be right. You’ll have to sacrifice your feelings of well-being for awhile, but you’ll get ‘em back pretty soon if you trust in God. That’s what pretty much everything boils down to, isn’t it? Faith. Convictions. I’m going to leave you with this and hope you’re the better for it: Trust in the Lord with all your heart….and lean not on your own understanding.

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