Recently one of my friends posted about guilt. She said she felt guilty any time she bought something for herself, any time she said “no” to working over-time. She had a long list of things that made her feel guilty, none of which should make her feel that way. She wanted to know how to overcome guilt.

I cannot directly answer the question of how to overcome guilt. But I can give some insight into where it is coming from.

Abusers usually call you selfish. The reason why is because they are angry that you have set boundaries. In other words, when an abuser says, “selfish”, that merely means that you have a self. A self always has boundaries–that’s what makes it a self. And for an abuser that isn’t good, because if you have a self, if you set boundaries, then you can’t be controlled.

This is why I repeat over and over again that if you want to say no, that’s a good enough reason to say no. No is the first boundary.

An abuser will become enraged hearing any version of “no”, and their refusal to hear “no” takes many forms.

Self-righteous anger if you do not pick up the phone when they call. Accusing you of not caring about the group or the “family” if you decline to participate in something you don’t want to do. Blaming you for what goes wrong in the “family” because you didn’t do something the abuser wanted you to do. Taking credit for what goes right, and acting as if what went right happened only because everybody else did what you refused to do.

And it just doesn’t stop.

You will be told by an abuser that you are selfish if you buy something for yourself, if you take time for yourself, if you don’t text back fast enough, if you live up to an agreement you made instead of doing whatever the abuser added on to the agreement after the fact, if you stand up for yourself in any way. This will all be called selfish.

But here’s where it gets weird.

A lot of people reading this may say, “But I have all this guilt any time I say no to anybody. And no one has ever abused me!”

That may very well be true.

The problem is that this stuff gets passed on through the generations. So if your parents were abused, they may have internalized the idea that it is selfish to say no, to set boundaries, to take care of yourself. They will then pass that misconception on to you, because to them, it’s just “right”.

I mean it seems like the most obvious thing in the world–people shouldn’t be selfish. Except that, in my own life, I have literally never heard anyone who wasn’t being abusive (or repeating internalized abuse) make the accusation that someone else is selfish. Never. Not once.

Every selfish person I’ve ever known was just sort of tolerated. They quickly got surrounded by “yes men” and others who were just using them. And the people merely using them are obviously not going to make accusations of selfishness! Truly selfish people get used, and as far as I can tell, they seem fine with it because they’re using everyone else too. I mean, if you really are selfish, why would you care that you don’t have genuine friendships?

No, accusations of selfishness materialize when someone gets angry that they heard the word “no.”

And the problem is that emotions just happen. Non-abusive people often get angry or disappointed when they hear “no”–but then they get over it. If you have internalized abuse, though, you won’t see that. You’ll just see the anger, and your mind jumps straight to guilt.

When you feel guilt every time you set boundaries or engage in basic self-care, the guilt is coming from internalized abuse. And remember, it doesn’t matter if you were never abused. The internalized abuse can be passed down from generation to generation, and it can be passed down in families that are not your blood family.