Illustration of an anxious snail by Jennifer Martinez

Guilty Displeasure by Jamie L. Rotante

One Punk’s Look at Social Anxiety, Neuroticism and Other Fun Stuff

I have a confession to make: I’m guilty.

Guilty of what? Well, that I’m not so sure. But I do know that I’m guilty of feeling guilty. I carry around so much guilt for things I cannot name—not out of fear or shame, but because I literally do not know what they are. I bear so much guilt, it becomes hard to hide; I wear it on my face, in my demeanor, you can see it piling high upon my shoulders.

That being said, I’m a pretty innocent person, all things considered. I try my damndest to live a life not in disrespect to others. I make it my personal mission to do no harm. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing something wrong, I’m creating problems for others, I’m guilty of crimes I haven’t committed. And if something goes wrong tangentially connected to me, I immediately absorb the brunt of the guilt associated with it, even if I’m really in no way involved.

I can say this is an extension of my empathetic nature, but it feels extreme even for that. There are the normal circumstances that awaken certain amounts of fear in people: seeing a cop car behind you, even if you’re certain you’ve done nothing wrong (I’m privileged enough that this is often just a fear that subsides once the car flashes its lights and swerves around me and nothing more severe than that), getting caught in an untruth, even if it’s the tiniest white lie that’s not meant to hurt anyone—these are the sorts of normal guilt that we often carry day-to-day. But these are just a few examples, and even despite the normalcy, they paralyze me with fear.

I’ve lived a good portion of my life in fear: of authoritative figures, bosses, landlords, police, security guards, teachers—anyone with any sort of lordship over me, real or imagined. Not a very punk attitude to hold, I realize, but one that’s haunted me throughout my life. I had strict adult figures in my life in my formative years, but ones who also always told me to take no shit from anyone and to question everything. So where does this apprehension come from?

I’ve already done a deep dive into my fear of karmic retribution dictating my actions, especially those towards others. Part of this is the guilt that comes along with saying no to people or letting people down, but the overbearing feelings I have of culpability of actions I have not done remains unexplored. It’s far beyond just wanting to be liked or accepted. I could overhear something going wrong at work and start immediately scrambling to make sure I had nothing to do with it, even if it’s not even connected to my department. If I hear anything being fixed outside my apartment, I start to sweat, fearing that I broke something, screwed up the plumbing, anything to make this external problem my fault.

I haven’t yet counted out murderous doppelgangers.

It’s not something that just takes place in my mind, either—it shows on my face. I’ve been asked in the past if I’ve done something because I look “guilty.” You know what happens next? You guessed it: I begin wracking my brain for any crime I could have unwittingly committed. I’ve backtracked my whereabouts to absolve myself of an infraction, to work up an alibi I’ll never be asked to provide, because it would never be needed of me. I’ve heard of misdeeds and considered the possibility of me committing them in my sleep; or maybe some sort of strange out-of-body experience where I’ve blacked out and went on a crime spree in a lucid state. I haven’t yet counted out murderous doppelgangers.

And trust me, it’s not some sort of sick subconscious need to want things to be my fault, maybe in some desperate need to have the focus fall on me; that’s far from what I’d ever desire. I generally hope to be as distanced from any sort of problem ever. I’m not one to run away from the issues I have in life, despite my tendency to go to great lengths to avoid confrontation, but I sure as hell don’t want to be caught red-handed for something I didn’t do. That’s also a part of it: a concern about somehow being involved without my consent. Dragged into the muck without having a say in the matter.

One would think there’d be a way to challenge this constant sense of dread—like, if I always feel like police are on my back, why bother even being a good citizen? Fuck shit up, be the rebel I already am in my mind. Why not give a proverbial middle finger to every authority figure I encounter? Challenge superiors head-on, take the bull by the horns, not give a single damn about what happens—if I’m going to feel guilty, I might as well be guilty, right?

Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.

I can control what I know to be true about myself and not allow the lovechild of my overactive imagination and my anxiety to take the reins, before I go confessing to sins I’ve never committed.

Here’s what I can do, though: I can try to channel this strange sense of overwhelming guilt for every problem in the world into something constructive—an act of good. Focus on doing what I can, where I can to actively help others. A tangible good to combat the imperceptible evil. I can control what I know to be true about myself and not allow the lovechild of my overactive imagination and my anxiety to take the reins, before I go confessing to sins I’ve never committed.

And I can avoid authority figures. Not because of fear. But because fuck ’em!