ON GUILT- and getting down with our bad selves.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on July 13, 2015

maruccia/conzoGuilt is one of those emotions that has been shortchanged in psychology, except to be understood as a sign that an individual has internalized societal and cultural norms and developed a sense of empathy for others. Freud saw guilt as one of the hallmarks of civilized humanity, an important emotion which signaled an internal conflict between our ego (our observing self) and our superego (our conscience). Often such conflict came about due to a clash between our wishes and desires and societal norms and rules. When seen in these terms, guilt and our ability to feel it, reflects an internalization of cultural and societal attitudes and the awareness that we live in community and must moderate our personal gratification for the good of all. Melanie Klein, a British psychoanalyst and Freud’s contemporary, viewed guilt as central to emotional development and to the infants’ realization of feelings of love and hate for its parents, which when internalized, led to a desire for reparation and the ability to see the other (mom and dad) as  separate people. As such, guilt is  a sign of emotional maturity and a feeling that signals awareness that one’s actions have an impact on others. Guilt is also associated with moral development, and has long been the emotion that many religions capitalize on. Yet the experience of guilt has many potential dynamic meanings. This post is about our experience of guilt, and the many things that it is about.

Many of my patients talk about their guilt regarding one thing or another – a lie, an affair, a meanness, an aggressive or hostile act- and while they all report feeling badly, even terrible about it, many of them do not really want to discuss it or have me position their guilt response within the context of their particular situation or history. My patients seem to feel that in attempting to do so, I am trying to rationalize their guilt away, or somehow relieve them of responsibility for their actions. Not so say I.

Responsibility is often associated with guilt. In fact it is inherent in the experience of guilt. When one takes responsibility for one’s actions, particularly if those actions have impacted negatively on another, one experiences guilt: The kind of feeling that starts in the pit of your stomach and gnaws away at you. Then perhaps an internal voice begins to say “that was not right” or “that was wrong” or “why did I do that?” Guilt has an audible voice that reverberates and is heard only by the guilty party. That voice is very likely an internalized chorus of parental and other authority voices, along with ours and the particular way that  we manage and talk to ourselves. While this is not a pleasant sensation, most of us can deal with it, particularly if it leads us to do something that allows us to acknowledge our actions and do something to right them. In fact, guilt often involves a desire to make amends and undo the offense.

The situation is quite different when the possibility for reparation does not exist. Then guilt becomes persecutory, haunting the person at every turn. This is because without the possibility of doing something that allows us to amend or atone for  the situation that was caused by our behavior we have to manage our feeling about it on our own, and come to terms with parts of ourselves that are not necessarily likeable but are nonetheless ours. When reparation is not possible we must deal with the part of ourselves that acts out of its own need, the self that wants, as well as the part of ourselves that can destroy another. Where reparation is not possible we are faced with our own destructive potential and must deal with it on our  own. This can be very difficult and often, very painful, particularly if it activates early, internalized interactions that remain laden with shame (which is often the case). At such times guilt partners up with shame in a deadly combination.

While guilt mobilizes us toward a reparative action, when that possibility is closed to us we are face to face with those behaviors or parts of ourselves that we most loathe, self states that have been banished over and over precisely because they could not be acknowledged and processed in our early relationships with our parents, leaving a residue of shame which is activated in other relationships. Because shame is implicitly a relational experience, it brings about a self-in-the eyes-of-the-other awareness, which becomes the focus for scorn and self-hate. A powerful one-two punch erupts from the shame/guilt combo, which calls forth experiences of deep shame around feelings of being bad/terrible/unlovable/despicable, etc., and makes it impossible to connect to other parts of the self which could help negotiate those feelings. In those moments of self-in-the-eyes-of-the-other awareness there is only badness and self-loathing, nothing positive can come of these feelings. In fact, they shut us down and isolate us from others.

So how do we get down with our bad selves?

How indeed.

Those of you that are readers of my post already know the answer. We need an other. Or many others. We need the potential emotional regulation that relationships to others offer us to help mediate the “badness” and remind us that we are much more than that.

Much more.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack wiener September 15, 2015 at 9:26 AM

Beautifully elucidated. I found the bridge to shame a clear understanding as to what makes for suffering when one can not make amends.

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Jack Wiener July 15, 2015 at 8:42 AM

Your description of the ins and outs of guilt are wonderfully clear. It becomes even more helpful as you elucidate its relationship with shame and how painfully destructive it is internally and externally. I can only imagine how meaningful your exposition of this so human dynamic is for people who suffer shame and guilt. Great!

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