Why do you promote forgiveness and nonviolence? Doesn’t such a weak attitude cause people to try to make hopelessly toxic relationships work when they should simply walk away from them instead?

Jeroen: First of all, walking away from a toxic relationship is never an easy thing to do. Even when you’re sure you should, it can still be dangerous to break up with someone who cannot accept it. The more toxic the relationship, the more difficult it is to break up safely. Being able to leave someone without defending, arguing and blaming can be a life saver for both.

Secondly, I’m not promoting forgiveness in the weak sense where you still believe that someone is guilty but you choose not to act according to that belief. That’s not respectful to yourself nor to the other. I think that true forgiveness, the realisation that there is no guilt, only comes after you first forgive yourself for not being able to forgive.

Thirdly, to not limit your freedom by fear of guilt makes it a lot easier to take good care of yourself and walk away from a situation that doesn’t feel right. Letting go of guilt and separateness works in both directions. Oneness includes yourself. In a way, you can say it’s the ultimate form of self-centeredness.

Feeling guilty yourself and seeing guilt in others are completely different experiences. Why do you lump them together in The Guilt Delusion?

Jeroen: Guilt is a double-edged sword. You cannot put blame on others without judging yourself at some deep emotional level, and you cannot be hard on yourself without being equally critical of others. The two edges of guilt are opposite in perspective, different in how they feel, yet identical in origin.

To become more aware of their origin is part of becoming more aware of ourselves. Both come from the same idea that someone can be guilty and deserving of suffering, which sets a precedent for how we see, judge and relate to ourselves and others.

From the observer’s perspective, guilt is guilt, whether we perceive it in ourselves or in someone else. Guilt is in the eye of the beholder. At least for as far as I write about it.

You are treating guilt as if it’s a misconception, but isn’t guilt sometimes necessary to prevent harmful behaviour and protect people’s boundaries?

Jeroen: Yes, guilt is necessary under all circumstances in which we feel separated.

Doesn’t that contradict your book, in which you claim that guilt is a misconception, per definition?

Jeroen: Guilt is a necessary misconception.

If you see guilt as necessary while being a misconception, are you saying that it’s good for people to take on guilt even when they didn’t do anything wrong?

Jeroen: As I said before: guilt is a double-edged sword. It is not only self-directed but also has the outward-projecting form of blaming others. Although you can’t consciously choose love over guilt in the moment, you’re still free to choose whether to direct your conscious experience of guilt at yourself or at blaming someone else. Furthermore, I’m not saying that guilt is good and I’m not saying that it is bad either.

Now I’m confused again. Just a minute ago you said that guilt is necessary and now you say you are indifferent about guilt. Can you make up your mind, please?

Jeroen: Needing something doesn’t make it good. You need a life jacket to survive when your boat sinks in the middle of the ocean. But would you really choose a life jacket over a boat that stays afloat in rough weather? When you’re addicted to a drug and you might die without it, does that mean that the drug is good? In the moment, yes. But would you choose to end up in such a dire moment if you could prevent it?

If guilt is necessary in some cases, how can someone determine when it is appropriate to perceive guilt and when it is not?

Jeroen: When you feel guilt, or perceive guilt in someone else, it means that it is appropriate for you to do so. The only requirement for perceiving guilt is your own mental-emotional condition. Outside conditions may trigger a perception of guilt, but only when your own mental-emotional condition of separateness leaves you susceptible to it.

The Guilt Delusion describes the condition of separateness under which guilt is necessary and inevitable, as well as the condition of oneness under which guilt is unnecessary and we feel love instead.

There is no point in trying to determine when you should or should not perceive guilt, since guilt is not a conscious choice. It is futile to make a mental judgement to one side or the other on something that you have no conscious power over anyway.

If you think it is futile to think about guilt, then why did you write a book about it?

Jeroen: An essential part of self-awareness, or ‘mindfulness’ if you will, is to recognise your mental-emotional state in the moment. To know where you are at, emotionally, allows you to perceive and coordinate as a whole being, rather than to lose energy fighting against another part of yourself. I have found that a perception of guilt is a highly reliable indicator for being in a mental-emotional state of separateness. 

How can you be so sure that guilt is a reliable indicator of separateness? How accurate is it really? Do you have any scientific evidence to back up your claim?

Jeroen: It’s been proven 100% accurate in my own experiences thus far. Whenever I found myself perceiving wrongness in myself or someone else, I also perceived conflict between my interests and the interests of the other.

I cannot scientifically generalise this to anyone else. It’s not possible to collect an objective measurement of someone else’s inner experience. And without objective measurement, a hypothesis cannot comply to the criterion of falsifiability that is necessary for making a scientific claim.

This doesn’t mean that we cannot apply science to our inner experience, but that I cannot apply my personal science to your inner experience. In other words: each of us has to search their own inner experience as honestly as they can and produce their own conclusions and understanding of themselves, no matter what anyone else says about them. The Guilt Delusion invites the reader to a never-ending expedition of honest self-discovery. To be your own pioneer.

Your idea that we are either in a state of separateness or a state of oneness sounds very black and white. Don’t you think real life is much more nuanced and colourful than that?

Jeroen: Perhaps that’s true most of the time. But I don’t believe that the course of one’s life is determined by a statistical average of every second of it. There are certain key moments in our lives in which we are pushed to extremes. In such  rare moments you could make life-changing decisions that nevertheless affect you most of the time, or let an opportunity go by forever.

It is my experience that, in our extreme moments, the difference between separateness and oneness is really a matter of night and day, and can literally shift in a matter of seconds. To me, the contrast between black and white pales in comparison to the miracle of life that is the perceptual shift from separateness to oneness, also known as at-one-ment, or atonement.

Did you choose the title of The Guilt Delusion to latch on to the success of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion?

Jeroen: Yes I did intend to refer to Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the hope that this would help bring my book under the attention of the same audience. On the one hand, I think that I address the exact  same issue, yet on the other hand, my approach of treating the topic is an antithesis to the approach taken by Dawkins. 

So you are saying that, in some sense, The Guilt Delusion is similar to The God Delusion, yet the two books are also each others’ opposites?

Jeroen: Dawkins wrote The God Delusion to help humanity to move beyond a specific harmful way of thinking, and I want that too. In that sense, my book has exactly the same purpose as Dawkins has with his. Furthermore, the aspects of religious thinking that Dawkins’ book argues against are all related to perceptions of guilt. 

The twist that I wanted to add to the argument, is to make it clear how such ways of thinking, and the damaging consequences thereof, are not limited to religions. They emanate from our own inner conflicts, caused by our lack of self-awareness. I do not share Dawkins’ trust that science and rationality will protect us against it. No factual knowledge can guide us on how to deal with feelings that do not exactly follow a perfect morality. No matter what rationality we choose to adhere to, there will always be feelings coming up in us that will challenge our ideas of morality. 

While Dawkins chose to argue about the wrongness and danger of the limited perceptions that he wants to protect us from, I instead chose the path of empathic understanding, acceptance and integration. Rather than trying to prove what’s wrong about an incorrect perception, I tried my best to accept our perception of guilt for what it is. To understand why we necessarily fall back to a guilt-based perception sometimes. To build up a respect for our mental-emotional dynamics.

Don’t you think we need rational thinking to prevent harmful behaviour? Isn’t most violence caused by people haphazardly following their feelings and harmful beliefs rather than adopting a skeptic, rational way of thinking and a moral way of acting?

Jeroen: While my 20 year younger self would have totally agreed with that, I have since come to realise that the belief that we can stay rational and moral by keeping our feelings under our conscious control serves no other purpose than to indicate a lack of self-awareness.

We can suppress our feelings up to a certain degree. We can temporarily distract ourselves with more pleasant feelings. We can numb our unpleasant feelings with tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. However, an avoidance-based approach can only go so far. Our feelings will inevitably cause observation bias, catch us by surprise, or become so overwhelming that we lose all mental control.

As long as we do not acknowledge, understand and respect our feelings, they will continue to skew our perception to a certain degree and make us seek blame, rather than pursuing sustainable progress that works for all. Repressed feelings make us vulnerable to divide-and-conquer attacks. It does not matter whether such an attack is wrapped in a religious, ideological, political or scientific narrative. The less we allow ourselves to feel our feelings as they are, the less rational, and the more gullible, we become. 

Isn’t it naive to think that people would always behave well if they would just follow their feelings?

Jeroen: I’m not saying people should act on all their feelings. To respect our feelings doesn’t mean that we always immediately act on them. Trying to ‘solve’ our feelings as quickly as possible by removing the triggers to our feelings is just another form of not accepting our feelings as they are.  

Then what is the right way to respect our feelings, according to you?

Jeroen: I can’t tell you what is the best way for you to respect your feelings. And what is the best for you in one moment may be second best in the next. In the book I share some ideas for how to respectfully approach our own and other people’s feelings. Which you may try out yourself, improve upon or discard altogether. But ultimately, the focus of this book is not on the “how” but the “when”. To learn to read the signs, our perceptions of guilt, that tell us how urgently we need to bring more respectful attention to our own feelings.

Okay, that sounds all very interesting, but how will that make sure that people don’t harm or hurt others?

Jeroen: I don’t have the illusion that it is possible for anyone to always act without triggering hurt in others. And I’m also not arguing for anyone to do anything else than what they are already doing to protect themselves and others from harm. The Guilt Delusion doesn’t tell anyone what to do and what not to do. The book is meant as the antithesis of such a contrived approach to change. 

Yet, the book does refer to tried and proven ways of dealing with regretful behaviour that make it more likely for people to choose to be more respectful to each other in the future. Such as Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered Approach, Marshall Rosenberg‘s Nonviolent Communication, Dominique Barter‘s Restorative Circles and the life-saving Nonviolent Peaceforce organisation.

It seems to me that the most effective strategies do not rely on a perception of guilt. It requires a certain mindset in which we feel related to others on a deep level. We cannot force others to have this mindset, just like we cannot force ourselves to have it either. We may find it one moment and lose it in the next. But in the moment that we do hold that space, it is very likely that people around us pick up on it and start to act more from a shared interest as well. And if we don’t, others might do it in spite of us, and help to lift us up, too. 

We are not fully responsible for the experience and behaviour of others, but I believe we are much more powerful and influential than we often think we could be.

If your book doesn’t provide any advice on how someone can make a change for the better, then why should anyone read it?

Jeroen: Lasting change cannot be made directly. Changes are embodiments of different ideas. I don’t think there is any idea that’s more powerful than the idea that we are all in this together. And I don’t have to teach this idea to anyone, because you already know this.

The only way I hope that my book helps readers is to let them become more aware and respectful of the reasons they may have to ignore this powerful idea. Not to see their inner forces against Oneness as a threat to peace, but to work through them, integrate them in an expanding and loving self-awareness, and then encourage and support others to move in this direction of self-acceptance as well.

I truly believe that this self-awareness has the potential to end wars. The wars within our families as well as the wars between nation states and countries. It can only start by first ending the wars within ourselves.

Your book contains a lot of complicated concepts. It could have been a lot clearer if you would have included more real-life examples.

Jeroen: Thanks for that advice, I will definitely take that into account in future writings. The Guilt Delusion focuses on a few core ideas that can be expanded and elaborated in many different directions. To give an example in one direction might distract from the possibility to apply it in very different aspects of life. This is why I wanted to maintain a certain level of abstraction in this book, and work out specific applications of the ideas in future writings. Like a poem, a text doesn’t have to be clear to be valuable. Its value may come from leaving room for personal interpretation and contemplation.

Although I am inevitably biased in my perception of my own writings, it seems to me that I have distilled a couple of very simple concepts. What makes it difficult to understand may have less to do with how it is explained than with the fact that guilt plays such a foundational role in our common narratives around care for and protection of ourselves and others. This cultural heritage cannot be easily broken down and rebuilt on a new foundation while staying true to the value that is held by those narratives. I don’t think this should be done too quickly, to not be throwing out all the babies with the bathwater. So maybe it’s only a blessing that the book is not completely clear to anyone unless they already know what it is trying to say.

Others writers who are touching this subject, such as Brené Brown and James Gilligan, focus more on the harm of shame. Why did you choose to focus on guilt instead? Is it because you have done some things that you feel guilty about, so that guilt seems more important to you than it really is to others?

Jeroen: I agree with Brené Brown and James Gilligan on the significant debilitating grip that shame can have on our lives and our psychological well being. Admittedly, if I’d choose between guilt and shame on the basis of its relevance to my own conscious experience, I’d be writing about shame nearly any day. I am definitely plagued more by shame than guilt in my daily life. Both in frequency as well as intensity of feeling.

Yet, what I think people experience as Divinity consists of two counterparts:  Beauty and the Love of beauty. What I came to realise while writing the book is that shame is the shadow of beauty within us, while guilt is the shadow of love within us. Because when I feel ashamed, I am doubting the beauty within me, and when I feel guilty I am doubting the love within me.

The harm in shame is that it threatens our self-esteem, while the harm in guilt is that it’s so easy to deflect it by projecting blame onto others, and thus erode our esteem of each other. But projecting our deepest fears doesn’t dissolve the fear. The fear just disappears from our conscious thought, and thus starts influencing our emotions and perception beyond our conscious awareness. How would it affect you when, deep down, you don’t believe that you are capable of feeling Divine Love? Would you suffer impostor syndrome when it comes to loving others? Would you  perhaps give up on love altogether?

The fact that guilt seems to be normalised much more than shame is one of the reasons I think I should write about it. The concept of guilt is much more pervasive precisely because it seems to be more useful than shame. There are too many reasons not to question guilt. And yet, whether we do something out of love or to avoid guilt are still very different experiences belonging to similar behaviour. 

Guilt can make the difference between self-deprecating altruism or a self-respecting giving from the heart. Self-deprecation is something most people would rather avoid, while giving from the heart may be the most wonderful feeling one can ever experience. So to anyone who prefers a world in which people are happily giving to each other, I think that questioning the concept of guilt should be a top priority.

The Guilt Delusion uses words and concepts from A Course In Miracles. Why haven’t you cited A Course in Miracles anywhere in your book?

Jeroen: I indeed borrowed several wordings and concepts from A Course In Miracles (ACIM). Yet, most of all, ACIM gave me the idea to see the mental concept of guilt as the original source of violence, social issues and dysfunctional relationships. Fragments of ideas I was already trying to put into words suddenly fell into place when I started to think about guilt as the one mental block that prevents us from being able to feel love and harness the power of nonviolence. 

However, I haven’t cited ACIM since I can’t recommend anyone to read it. The way ACIM is written makes it difficult to understand it in a way that leaves room for contemplation. People either seem to regard ACIM as an undeniable truth or as new-age-nonsense that should be ignored. People either love it or hate it, but neither responses lead to a kind of learning that I’d find helpful. 

My personal understanding of ACIM is that the idea of guilt is the key misunderstanding that prevents us from realising that we have never betrayed our Oneness with God (or our oneness with other human beings, if you prefer to leave out the concept of God). As soon as we perceive this guilt in ourselves, we become susceptible to perceive any kind of guilt in ourselves, as well as in others. The separateness-based perception that follows from this seems to confirm our belief that we are indeed guilty of cutting ourselves off from Oneness. This gets us stuck in a vicious circle of self-blame and confirming the truth of our guilt in how we respond to this from our perspective of separateness.

Other people who have studied ACIM focus more on other aspects that I see as secondary, such as the concepts of ego and forgiveness, while paying less attention to the concept of guilt itself and its relation to love. I believe that recognising and understanding our own concept of guilt, and forgiving our own perception of guilt, are essential to return to the sense of Oneness in which we can finally let go of guilt. I don’t know of any book on ACIM in which this is brought to the forefront. If someone can recommend me one, I’d be happy to read it and would consider adding its citation to The Guilt Delusion.

Almost three years have passed since publishing The Guilt Delusion. What would you change if you would write the book today?

Jeroen: I wrote The Guilt Delusion under the time constraint of growing political sentiments that I was concerned about during the run up to the US presidential election in 2016. I think those sentiments have not reduced since then. 

I still enjoy opening the book and reading parts of it. Sometimes I’m re-inspired by thoughts that I had forgotten about. I have to admit that even I have a hard time understanding some of what I wrote back then. But conceptually there isn’t anything in particular that I have come to disagree with, and I still find it at least as relevant to the world of today. 

I wouldn’t want to change too much about The Guilt Delusion apart from the form. If I could, I would add more humour and lightness to it, so that it is still possible to enjoy reading it while the contents don’t seem to make much sense yet. Then again, inflating it with fluffiness might not have served its main purpose and would have made the book more expensive to buy. 

In 2016 I did not have the time, energy nor financial means to give the book the attention and promotion it needed in order to be introduced to its intended audience. For this reason, my next book will probably be written in Dutch, so that it’s easier to connect to readers locally, in my home country.