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At an end of summer barbecue this weekend, one of the guests apparently had too much to drink. He was showing signs of drunkenness within the first few minutes of his arrival, and it soon became obvious that this was his pattern of behavior.

To make a painfully long story shorter, this all ends with the man facing his demons in the middle of a cul-de-sac neighborhood street. Waving his arms, tears streaming down his flushed cheeks, and slurring hatred at his mother, the man screamed for his keys. The keys, as it turned out, were still in the ignition where he had left them.

The inner demons that devoured this man’s sanity were many, and they were ferocious. They ate at his psyche constantly, and no amount of booze would quiet the incessant nagging in his mind.

But where did they come from? Why was this man so overcome with anguish? As it turns out, the seeds are planted in guilt. And here’s a big Gestalt secret: Guilt is anger turned inward.

This man had learned to be “guilty” from an early age. He was only four when his parents divorced, and even in this youthful state he learned to feel guilty because he failed at being “the man of the house” as his father had instructed him to be. As the years passed and he had hormonal impulses, he felt guilty. When he thought about his impulses, his guilt grew. He perfected the art of being guilty. Decades later, he took on the guilt of his father’s death, basked in the sorrow and guilt of his brother’s death, fertilized the guilt of unacceptable thoughts he had never acted upon, of the thoughts and behaviors he had acted on, and for pretty much anything he could think of that would reinforce his guilt. The emotion of guilt had become such a deeply seeded personality trait that he could only feel guilt. As a result, he continued to do and think things that would feed that internalized idea of who he is. The longer he lived, the more guilty he became. The more guilty he became, the louder the demons screamed. The louder the demons screamed, the more the man tried to quiet the noise by self-medicating. The more he failed at stuffing the emotion of guilt, the more it took over his life.

Self-medicating, of course, does not work. Alcohol and drugs only exacerbate the problem, especially the day after, when one is left to humbly atone for the guilt-feeding transgressions of the night before. And hang overs, are no one’s friend, even without the guilt.

Guilt, anger turned inward, is a cancer of dysfunction. It spreads rampantly, eating away at all that is good and unique, and turning healthy self-esteem into blackened rot. When all that is left is the rotted psyche, one is literally the walking dead, the zombie shell of what was once beautiful and priceless.

The man, as a boy, saw his father’s guilt as he drove off, leaving the family for another. The boy learned guilt when he could not own up to the responsibilities of “being the man of the house” as his father instructed. When his mother dated other men, the boy was shamed by his anger, and stuffed his hidden resentment into the pit of guilt. Stuffing emotion as a child gives it ample time to sprout and grow. And as I write that last line it occurs to me in irony that this boy grew up to be a man who cuts down trees, removes trees that have taken over patrons’ spaces. Perhaps he is psychologically hacking at his own inner roots.

Scientist now say that we are a result of our genetics versus our choices at a rate of 20/80. That means that 20% of our life experience is owed to our familial history and the remaining 80% is a matter of choice. If we realize that one fifth of our life is controlled by genes, we can consciously make choices to create the life we really want to experience, as opposed to feeling victimized by nature.

The “nature versus nurture” argument has been around for a long time, and has been used as the excuse for behaviors of everything from why great athletes are born to why serial killers kill. We have choices. Life is a choice. How we choose to experience life is the ultimate choice. Maybe that should be a primary lesson taught in schools.

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