Senior Citizens, Managing Guilt and Anxiety Productively

Apr 11th, 2010 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Lifestyle, Health & Fitness

Guilt is one of those proverbial double-edged sword emotions.  Feeling appropriate guilt is critical to developing empathy and wisdom.  But being easily guilted and not able to let it go can create dis-ease.

A recent study published in The Spanish Journal of Psychology suggests men are guilt-deficient, lacking interpersonal sensitivity; conversely, women suffer from destructive guilt largely imposed socially.  Dr Itziar Extebarria, University of the Basque Country (Spain), recently wrote, “This study highlights the need for educational practices and socializing agents to reduce the tendency towards anxious-aggressive guilt in women, and to promote interpersonal sensitivity in men.”

The population in the study included 360 men and women in three age groupings.  Participants were asked to rate their feelings on a rating scale describing how they would feel in a given scenario.  Guilt of all kinds (habitual, interpersonal, etc) was examined, and with one exception, women’s guilt was significantly more intense than men’s guilt in all three age categories.  The only category in which guilt was ranked similarly was in older men.

Many researchers have concluded that differences in the feelings of guilt between men and women are genetic, not cultural.  Women have evolved with neurochemicals that facilitate mothering, nurturing and bonding (all characteristics of empathy).  Toddlers teach us that little boys will go for trucks and cars (for the most part) and little girls go for stuffed animals and dolls.

Elizabeth Shirtcliff, a psychologist and behavioral endocrinologist at the University of New Orleans, says “Empathy is wonderful!  We can share emotions.  We can feel someone else’s pain.  But that comes at a cost, and that cost is the higher preponderance of anxiety and depressive disorders” in women.   

Men, on the other hand, generally feel less intense guilt which is aided and abetted by testosterone.  Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosopher at the American Enterprise Institute, says this is good.  “Men may be more stoical and that may be adaptive for society.  We need to have 25-30 year old men not ruminating” but building, sometimes even fighting.”

The trick, you see, is to feel appropriate guilt, and allow it to convert into empathy and wisdom, not grow into a malignant emotional sore that creates anxiety and depression.  More on ‘how to’ next!



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