ON GUILT- and getting down with our bad selves.

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

imagesGuilt 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.

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ON RECOGNITION – And the feeling of being known.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on July 5, 2015

images-1What does it mean to be known by another? To be recognized for who one is, warts and all?  The good with the bad and everything in between? I think we might be talking about the precondition for love, and about what it means to love another person, about the way we negotiate and make meaning with another, possibly forging a connection that can be deeply stabilizing to our sense of self.

Recognition is one of those ideas that captures something simple about what all of us need, yet much more difficult to find and experience. I am referring to a feeling that is universally sought by all, that feeling that another has seen you, really seen you, and understood the most basic parts of who you are. That person gets you, and you are left with a feeling of being known, a feeling so powerful that it translates into a sense that all is right with the world, and further, that all will be all right. Yes –recognition is what its all about, and we are all in search of it, sometimes, without knowing that we are. It may even trump love or be the actual definition and/or pre-condition for true love.


Uh huh. I think so.

In psychoanalysis, the notion of recognition came about during the feminist movement of the 1960’s and was coined as a term and elaborated by the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin. Recognition involves a particular kind of identification with the other; I say a particular kind, because it is an identification that is based on one’s ability to identify with another while retaining our individuality and subjectivity and allowing them theirs. And this is not an easy thing to do when one is in a relationship of any kind. Most of us relate to others based on our particular needs and desires- the other(s) appeals to us because we think alike, like the same things, agree on important issues, look the way we like to look, etc. We identify with others narcissistically and this then becomes the basis for our relationship to them. But with recognition, something quite different is going on, something that many are unable to arrive at or sustain because it involves using their aggression to destroy the very thing that is wanted.  This is an idea that the great British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott articulated as a necessary process in our psychological development. He spoke about our ability to destroy the other in fantasy, ruthlessly and based on our own needs, wants and aggression, as a necessary developmental skill that led us to the ability to form intimate relationships in mature life.   If the other actually survives our destruction of them- meaning that they continue to be who they have always been with us- it leads us to understand and recognize that the other is not subject to our (mental) control, but rather, a person in their own right. Benjamin takes up this idea and articulates it further: our destruction of the other establishes their subjectivity and helps to manifest ours. In this way destruction leads to a deeper connection because the other now becomes known as a subject with his or her own desires and autonomy, rather than our object. Thus recognition of the other brings us closer to knowing them for who they truly are, allowing us the possibility of being who we are on the way to intimacy.

Benjamin –who studied philosophy prior to training as a psychoanalyst- offers a solution to Hegel’s paradox by reformulating the relationship between destruction and survival,wherein destruction is a necessary part of becoming an autonomous being and leads to being seen and recognized as such. In the struggle for recognition all of us must take the risk of obliterating the other, of  being alone with our destructiveness, and of denying that the other is a subject with all our might, so that we can experience the realness of the others’ subjectivity and difference as well as our own. There is no hope for recognition without such destruction and survival. This dyadic tension between destruction and survival is at the heart of being known by another, and I would say, is at the heart of “true” love.

There is something about the feeling of being known that changes everything experientially. This is because recognition has a regulating effect: the fact that we feel understood and seen by another helps us to feel secure, safe, and emotionally balanced. All is well with us and all is well with the world. Recognition goes beyond verbal speech and actions and begins with early (think mother infant), non-verbal experiences in which something is shared with another person – some understanding of a feeling, a sense, a movement. Such implicit knowing that the mind of another is in sync with ours while remaining other constitutes the very magic of the connection that intersubectivity relies on. It is also the reason that we continue to search for it in our lives, and immediately respond and connect with it when we experience it with another.

So is it the basis for true love?

To the degree that recognition involves our ability to deal with our aggression and destructiveness in a way that allows the other, outside and  different to come into being as a subject instead of a preconceived other that we might require, perhaps it is the foundation for true love, in that it demands that we ongoingly negotiate differences and meaning in what Benjamin calls a space of “thirdness”, which necessarily involves mutual recognition. Where this ability is lacking, the space for negotiation  of  otherness collapses, along with the ability to see the other for who she or he is, destroying the possibility for intimate contact. Thus, many relationships are based on an idea of the other and of love, rather than the grounding that can come from the mutual recognition of difference and otherness.

All of us have a need to be recognized and have the capacity to recognize others, uneven as it may be. Such inconsistencies in our ability to recognize others, and the exploration of what keeps us from being able to do so, can be said to be one of the areas that psychoanalytic psychotherapy considers.



ON RESOLUTIONS – and the will to change.

December 31, 2014

This is that time of year when everyone thinks about change and about the things in one’s life that need changing. The end of the year provides a time to take inventory of our lives, take stock of what we have done and what we have not. Resolutions abound, ranging from – losing weight, starting […]

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About a Woman: Marilyn Monroe

October 27, 2014

Lately I have been thinking about women, and the many incarnations we can embody and be in the articulation of our femininity and our way of being the woman we want to be. Such thoughts led me to consider Marilyn Monroe- yes, the Marilyn Monroe, the woman that illuminated that “dark continent called woman” in […]

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On Building a Life – Alongside.

September 10, 2014

It is thirteen years after. Almost to the day. I do not know when you will be reading this post, but I am writing it on the eve of. The eve of the event that changed everything for many of us. Strange to look out my window and see the beams of light knowing what […]

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ON PASSION: and the feeling of intensity.

August 12, 2014

Most people think that passion is something that we feel when we fall in love or lust – and while that is true, there is much more to passion. Passion runs the gamut of emotions. Passion adds intensity and a particular kind of alchemy to any feeling that we experience, highlighting its emotional reverberation in […]

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ON IMAGINATION – and the power to make things right.

June 9, 2014

“Logic will get you from A to Z; but imagination will get you everywhere.” ― Albert Einstein   I have always been partial to fairytales and science fiction because they helped me explore lands that I could only dream of, until, as a young child, I realized that I often dreamed of them while awake, […]

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ON MINDFULNESS – and minding your p’s and q’s.

March 31, 2014

Mindfulness is a term that gets used a lot these days, despite the fact that it has been around for centuries. Eastern thought, primarily Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, and meditative disciplines have always had the concept of mindfulness at their core. The idea of mindfulness has entered western ideas through the world of spirituality and […]

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February 10, 2014

Recently I posted a blog on the power of laughter and humor. I was writing about the  kind that makes your belly tremble and your chest heave. The kind that moves the neurobiology of your insides and translates into mood shifts on your outside. The REAL kind. Today’s post is about its opposite, what I […]

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ON LAUGHTER : And the power of humor.

January 20, 2014

A good belly laugh can change the mood, tone and connection to an other in an instant. Teasing or joking with someone can invite them into a space to play with something in a different way. I have noticed that in my clinical practice, the ability to tease or joke with my patients about a […]

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