The Light and Dark Sides of the Force

Posted on November 10, 2012


Guilt is a very powerful force.  I don’t recommend utilizing it (with the possible exception being if your adult daughter starts eating the guacamole you just made yourself for lunch, hypothetically speaking), but I acknowledge its power.  When my daughters were growing up if the subject of someone making someone else feel guilty came up, I would put on my best Darth Vader voice (which really wasn’t very good in that I am a tenor) and say, “You must know the power of the dark side of the force.”  If, as the Star Wars films assert, there is a light and dark side of the force, I would submit that the light side is love and the dark side is guilt.

Let me offer some clarification.  The guilt we are talking about here is not the legitimate remorse, sorrow, and empathy that we feel when we have said or done something that hurt someone else.  That conviction that we have committed an offense against another leads to real repentance and is healthy and beneficial to relationships.  Without that ability to feel bad for our offenses against another, we would all be sociopaths.  The dark side of the force is that feeling that you must do something out of a sense of obligation, knowing that if you don’t you will feel guilty about it.  When avoiding the guilt feeling is the motivating force in the relationship, we are feeling the power of the dark side of the force.  The dark side of the force can show up in most any relationship: with spouses, between parent and child, among friends, even with your boss or with your church (when it is the church, this can be particularly powerful as many feel that to say “no” to the church is being unfaithful to God).  Many people find it very difficult to have good boundaries because it feels like they are being ungrateful or a disappointment.[1]

A further problem with the guilt of the dark side is the presence of its constant companion, shame.  In therapy, I have observed that there is a part of each of us that believes, “I am bad.”  For my Christian readers, allow me to contrast that to our understanding that each of us is a sinner.  Understanding that “I am a sinner,” when it leads to repentance, allows us to be open to God’s grace.  It further allows us to extend that grace to others when we recognize that this is a universal condition (affliction) among human beings.  Shame causes us to hide.  Shame leaves continuing rifts in relationships; it prohibits true intimacy.

The light side is love.  When we are motivated by love, we do things because we want to express that love.  We want someone else to feel honored, valued, loved, and appreciated.  Where guilt focuses on avoiding my own bad feelings, love is not really about me.  It is about the other person.

Here’s the good news.  And this is a secret so lean in close so I can tell you.  You don’t have to allow yourself to be controlled by the dark side.  No one can make you feel guilty unless you allow them to do it.  It is okay to have boundaries.  Allowing time to care for yourself is not selfish, it’s healthy.  There is a time at which you should (as Nancy Reagan said), “Just say ‘no.’”

Still not sure if you are under the influence of the dark side, take this informative quiz.

When a friend calls and asks me for a favor,

  1. 1.       I do the favor so the person won’t be disappointed in me.
  2. 2.       I do the favor because I really want to help my friend.
  3. 3.       I do the favor out of a sense of obligation.
  4. 4.       I do the favor because if I don’t he/she will make me feel guilty.
  5. 5.       I do the favor because I don’t want my friend to think I am unreliable.
  6. 6.       I do the favor.  It is not a burden, because I love my friend.
  7. 7.       I decline because the favor goes beyond what I feel are healthy boundaries in our relationship.
  8. 8.       I decline because I am sick of being asked.
  9. 9.       I decline because it is inconvenient. 
  10. 10.   I do the favor if I am able and decline if I need to.

The point is not so much whether or not you do the favor.  The “quiz” gives you no context at all, and there is no way of knowing the correct answer apart from the context.  Some of the motivations listed are clearly problematic and do not bode well for the long-term health of the relationship.  As with so many things in life, we need to be able to hold two competing thoughts in balance.  Love requires us to allow ourselves to be inconvenienced on behalf of another.  Love is about the other person.  Simultaneously, it is okay to say “no.”  It is healthy to have boundaries.  Having boundaries is not unloving or un-Christian.  When it starts to feel that you are under the influence of the dark side of the force, it may be time to check on those boundaries.

Live as children of the light. (Eph. 5:8)

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).

[1] Cloud & Townsend wrote a wonderful book on boundaries (creatively titled, Boundaries).  If this resonates with you, I would recommend their book.