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‘Imaginary Crimes’ – Weapons of Self-Destruction


Why do some of us let others treat us badly, have unsatisfactory relationships, become overly self-critical, or simply sabotage our chances of happiness and success at work or in our personal life?

The answer lies in our beginnings and what we call an “Imaginary Crime”.   Lewis Engel, PhD and Tom Ferguson, M.D. authors of Imaginary Crimes – Why We Punish Ourselves and How To Stop” examine these types of issues in depth. Engel & Ferguson write:

“Even if a parent or sibling was chronically unhappy, endlessly critical, unable to love or given to inexplicable fits of rage, we were not responsible. If a parent or sibling was taken from us by death, divorce, separation or incarceration, nothing we could have done would have changed matters. If a parent or sibling was made unavailable, unpredictable, or unreliable by physical illness, alcoholism, drug addition or depression, we were not to blame. Yet we do unconsciously blame ourselves for all these painful events. And we punish ourselves for these imaginary crimes, crimes that we never committed, crimes that never really occurred.”  

Our lives are often shaped by our beginnings. Many people suffer from some form of hidden guilt or negative experience from the past. Some of us suffer with this throughout our lives, allowing it to hold us back from achieving our true dreams and capabilities. What we need to learn is how to break out of the self-defeating and self-destructive behavior patterns that have been keeping us from attaining our most cherished goals.

Studies by Engel and Ferguson show that many of our most serious psychological problems can be traced to a special form of guilt: the hidden guilt we feel toward our parents or other loved ones. Somewhere back in childhood we came to believe that by achieving independence, happiness, or success we would harm the ones we love. We judged ourselves guilty of imaginary crimes. And we have been punishing ourselves ever since. This self-punishment can take many forms. We may be plagued by feelings of anxiety or depression. We may sabotage our own efforts to form intimate, rewarding relationships. Or we may find ourselves destroying the relationships we already have.

The most obvious issue many of us face is some form of inferiority complex where we seek to overcompensate for perceived weaknesses, resulting in either tremendous success or extremely antisocial behavior. Over-compensating can result in a superiority complex that offends people around us. Those who do not address the complex at all can suffer from low self-esteem and weak confidence levels.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, in an 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, talked about how he was still a kid from Brooklyn, scarred by his youth living in the poor housing projects and his shame of being poor. This negative experience from his childhood however, drove him to dream big, and now he is a successful billionaire and CEO of a company that embeds a culture of comprehensive healthcare and powerful workplace principles that his family and father were never offered.

The need for self-awareness and self-improvement is a critical success factor in striving for happiness and success. This has to start with a willingness and desire. It requires pain and commitment. Self-awareness and self-improvement can help you deal with your own issues and the issues you face from others.

  1. Take care of the “little kid” in you. “The most potent muse of all is our own inner child” – Stephen Nachmanovitch.
  2. Get independent feedback, embrace your imperfections, and leverage your strengths. At all times be authentic—be your true self!
  3. Avoid Band-Aids and get a coach (shrink) now. Confront your brutal truths.

Consider Mark Twain’s quote from the beginning of this chapter: “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.”

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