We are social animals. We thus live in a world with other creatures, including members of our fellow species, our human race. As members of a greater collective, our families, our community, our nation, we enjoy the benefits of the supports that being a social animal provides. There is a price to pay to belong to this club, however, our obligations to others. When we become aware of how we have fallen short, fail to meet our obligations, or worse, brought harm whether by intention or not, the emotion we feel is guilt. However not everyone feels guilt when perhaps they should. And for the majority of us who do, not everyone experiences guilt the same way. Why is this so? Perhaps we should start with the question, “How does guilt develop in the first place?”
Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis of Guilt
Freud believed that guilt arises in early childhood out of a fear of punishment for harboring forbidden feelings toward one’s parents, namely incest and patricide, and failure to negotiate this stage of psychological development may result in narcissistic personality traits. However, Melanie Klein, one of Freud’s most eminent early followers, believed that guilt is a natural outgrowth of the human psyche which is divided between love and hatred. The challenge of human development is to integrate these two opposing emotions within each relationship. Without integration, and its emotional by-product, ambivalence, our perceptions of others remain distorted and human relations thereby become chronically conflictual and problematic.
Guilt arises therefore from an awareness of the animosity we harbor toward those we love, the price we pay to have healthy relationships. Neither Freud or Klein described what kinds of conditions in a child’s life promote healthy psychological development but common sense tells us a healthy dose of guidance mixed with unconditional love and attention. Without guidance, children remain self-centered and fail to internalize the standards and morals necessary for healthy human relationships. Without love and attention self-esteem suffers, equally disastrous for building healthy relationships.
Psychological Effects of Guilt
Not everyone experiences guilt in the same way and these differences can be a product of our state of mental health. For example, some people who have witnessed a tragedy or human disaster suffer post-traumatic stress disorder complicated by survivor’s guilt which can prolong and render their symptoms more difficult to treat. Major depression and bereavement are other psychological conditions that can result in excessive guilt and self-blame.
How we experience guilt may also be a function of our emotional maturity. A child or self-centered adult might regret their actions for fear of punishment or reprisal or failure to follow a rule but a more mature individual, when they commit a transgression, is more likely to feel remorse. Remorse is a human emotion that relies on an internalization of how others feel, in other words, empathy, in addition to an understanding for the reasons why. This emotion reinforces the sense of responsibility toward others that in turn deepens the emotional bond, trust, and commitment upon which human relations are built. Certain personality disorders, especially those classified as “Cluster B,” such as narcissistic and antisocial, usually lack sufficient empathy to foster the guilt and remorse necessary to assume sufficient responsibility to the feelings and concerns of others.
Guilt, the internalization of responsibility toward others, is a complex emotion that arises from the human condition in which one must live in a world founded on relationships. Inasmuch as man is a social creature, he is dependent on relationships for survival and a sense of well being. Therefore, guilt is an emotion that anneals the bond upon which trust and commitment are fostered in human relationships. When it is missing or deficient these qualities inherent to healthy human relationships are compromised and when it is excessive it can be the cause of unnecessary suffering and personal anguish.
In my private practice I have helped many patients who suffer from excessive guilt and self-blame as well as those who are deficient in their awareness of or concern for how their actions affect others. If you or a loved one are seeking help for concerns such as these please contact my office at (860) 236-2131 or visit my website at roberthammphd.com.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
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Robert Hamm Ph.D