This week I finished reading I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan. I also watched the pilot episode of Ozark on Netflix. Both stories had scenes which illustrate the psychological impact of guilt.
In Duncan’s novel, Julie receives a piece of mail. In the envelope is a letter which contains the title sentence: “I know what you did last summer.” In Ozark, Marty confronts his murderous drug boss’ accusations. Marty accuses him of “fishing” for information, which he later admits. Marty’s partner, Bruce, and his co-conspirators, however, start babbling, admitting to information only a guilty party would know. Big mistake. But that’s guilt.
That one sentence – “I know what you did last summer – causes Julie and her friends to engage in behavior that confirms their guilt. In Ozark, the guilty parties confess their sins before their accuser even knows for certain there is anything to confess. In both situations, it was the “spotlight” that caused the discomfort and led to the mistakes in behavior.
What I am calling “the spotlight” is a metaphor for guilt. In normal, non-narcissistic, non-sociopathic people, something changes inside of us when we do something wrong. Because we have violated our own ethical standards, or done something that we know will hurt someone else, or engaged in activity that is illegal or immoral, an inner spotlight flips on and shines down on the activity. It continues to shine, even while we’re doing and thinking about other things. That continuous spotlight reminds us that our behavior is incompatible with what we know is right. That’s why, when someone questions us about the bad behavior, our bodies and minds betray us. Lie detectors are designed to pick up on this. The mismatch between our beliefs and our actions causes a physical reaction that can be detected electronically.
But the lie detector is not necessary. The spotlight tricks us into believing that everyone can see what we’ve done. When someone comes too close to discovering the truth, we think the spotlight is growing bigger and brighter. That’s why people confess. The hot brightness of the spotlight is too uncomfortable, too relentless. The weight of the guilty conscience becomes so heavy that confessing the misdeed, and accepting the consequences, seems less painful.
And getting rid of the guilt is a good thing. We should never wallow in guilt. Guilt, by itself, is not helpful. Nevertheless, the ability to feel guilt separates normal human beings from narcissists and sociopaths. The fact that narcissists and sociopaths exist is one of the reasons why lie detectors cannot be totally trusted. Some people don’t have spotlights. Either they are born without one, or they’ve ignored them for so long that the light eventually goes out. In either case, if you can’t feel remorse, you also can’t bond with other humans.
Guilt is part of the survival package that allows us to live together peacefully in community. Guilt is not an end to itself. It’s just a normal human emotion. It is a signal that something is wrong. It is the pathway to remorse. It is an invitation to apologize, make restitution to the abused party, and eventually be forgiven and restored to the community. People who lack the ability to feel remorse can never be restored to the people they’ve harmed. They go from person to person wreaking havoc and leaving hurt, victimized people in their wake. Society needs to be protected from such people.
But if you have done something you know is wrong, remember that the spotlight is there to help you. It’s a signal that something is broken. It should inspire further action to rectify the situation.
However…if someone says “I already know what you did, you might as well confess,” they might be bluffing! Confess at your own risk!
Peace and love,