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Hercules and Atlas myth

Focus for a moment on the word ‘guilt,’ and think back to the last time you felt it. Who, or what prompted it? What does it feel like? Where do you ‘hold’ it in your body?

Chances are you’d describe the sensation of guilt as a kind of heaviness, a weighty feeling, as if you’re carrying around a burden. If this description resonates, then you wouldn’t be the only one. Two recent studies have explored just this thing, examining the phenomenon of guilt from the standpoint of ‘embodied cognition,’ which looks at how our thoughts and emotions interact with our bodies to guide behaviour. Put simply, embodied cognition is the mind body link. What we think has implications for our body, and what we feel happening within our bodies influences our emotions. Mind and body are in constant relationship, and science is now exploring this link from a position of acceptance that there is, in fact, a relationship between the two in the first place (yay!).

But back to guilt. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the first study explored how the physical experience of weight is associated with the emotional experience of guilt. In all experiments, participants wore either heavy or light backpacks while recalling episodes when they felt guilty. Those wearing the heavy backpacks experienced higher levels of guilt compared to those who wore the light backpacks. In another experiment, participants wearing heavy backpacks were found to be able to recall episodes of guilt more fluently, and faster, than their ability to recall a neutral episode. The heaviness of the packs – the embodied simulation of guilt – worked to intensify the emotional experience of guilt, and increased the ability to recall it.

The second study, coming out of Princeton, looked for evidence in the other direction; it explored how the emotional experience of guilt affects the subjective feeling of weight within the body. In one experiment, it was found that when participants recalled memories of doing something unethical, they reported an increased sense of weight within their bodies. The heavy sensations didn’t correlate with other emotions, such as sadness or disgust, just guilt. In another experiment, researchers explored how recalling past unethical acts affects the perceived effort of completing a variety of helping tasks, such as carrying groceries upstairs for someone, or giving out spare change. It was found that those who recalled unethical memories perceived the physical behaviours (like carrying groceries) to involve far more effort to complete than those who were involved in a control group. In other words, the heaviness of guilt makes doing physical acts more difficult. You could even go so far as to say that guilt saps and drains the body of energy to complete physical tasks.

For me, these studies mark the beginning of understanding the embodied nature of guilt, and how destructive and unproductive it can be. That’s because guilt – as with all emotion – carries a unique signature feeling and sensation that we’ve all experienced before, and that we can all relate to. Guilt’s calling card is typically one of great solidity and mass – not unlike a tumour in some respects. It doesn’t do the body, or the individual, any good to be carrying it around.

Let go, let go, let go. This is the work that needs to be done with guilt. I’ve written elsewhere about how devastating the cycle of guilt can be, and how we all need a healthy dose of self-acceptance to purge ourselves of guilt. As a complex emotion, guilt occurs when we take on board someone else’s emotional baggage. We hold their anger, or disappointment, or frustration for them. Let’s say that I’m supposed to attend a family reunion, but that for some reason I’m unable to go. And then my sister phones and yells at me for missing it, calling me names like irresponsible and selfish. We end the call and I’m feeling terrible. I now have a decision to make. I can either heap her frustration and disappointment on myself and take what she said to heart, or I can let it go and know I did my best at the time. Guilt happens when I pick up her emotional baggage and take it within myself. Because really, her feelings belong with her, not me. I’m not responsible for holding onto them.

This dynamic is best expressed through the myth of Hercules and Atlas. For his eleventh labour, Hercules was tasked to bring back some golden apples which belonged to Zeus. These apples were guarded in part by the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas, the titan who held the sky and earth upon his shoulders. Now, Atlas hated holding up the earth and sky more than anything and made a deal: Hercules would take on the world and sky while he would fetch the golden apples. So Hercules held the weight of the world on his shoulders, groaning and straining, while Atlas went and got the apples from the garden. But now Atlas wanted his freedom, and realised he could be free of his burden forever by allowing Hercules to take it over for him. However, Hercules tricked Atlas by asking if he could get a pad for his shoulders to give him more comfort for the task. So Atlas took the world and sky back for a moment, and Hercules ran away with the apples.

One of the main readings of the myth is this: giving back what’s not ours to bear. The myth also reminds us that this may involve a little psychological acuity on our parts to become free. Ultimately, we are all responsible for holding up our own emotional worlds, just as Atlas is tasked to do. Sometimes it’s tempting to want to give this burden over to another, and it often happens that others will take it, just as Hercules did for the golden apples. For example, we often say that someone makes us feel guilty. Certainly from a therapist’s point of view, no one can make us feel anything. However, that doesn’t mean that people won’t give it a try.

Let’s say that in the myth the golden apples represent love and acceptance. When we rely on someone else to get us these things, we might be following the example of Hercules, and may carry another’s emotional world in exchange for the apples. It’s a dangerous game to play – our bodies, hearts, and minds may be crushed by the weight for some time before escaping. However, what the myth shows is that it is possible to hand back the burden and let go of the guilt.


Image: Hercules Assisting Atlas, by Claude Mellan


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