Guilt, as we know, is a mentally uncomfortable or painful feeling that arises when we do something that conflicts with our internal code of morality; obviously, its intensity can vary from mild to excruciating depending on what we’ve done and how sensitive our conscience is (the only people who may be exempt from such feelings are those suffering from anti-social personality disorder – also referred to as sociopathy or psychopathy- who are said to have no conscience ,or, at best, a severely blunted one).
Others, however, have very strong consciences and a very strict internal moral code. Such people have a particular propensity to feel guilty. How does this happen?
Many factors play a role, such as religion or the prevailing moral views of the particular society one is a part of at a particular place and time (obviously, prevailing moral views of any given society alter across space and time).
Also, of course, what we learn as children from how our parents treat us is of vital importance and it is this crucial influence that I am going to focus on here.
As children, we are dependent on our parents (or primary care-giver/s) and are thus instinctively driven to seek and maintain their approval. However, when we (inevitably, of course) do things that displease them and that they regard as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ they may withdraw approval from us or actively disapprove of us, possibly punishing us.
Because we are dependent on their approval, we are also, naturally, motivated to AVOID their disapproval.
Therefore, we have evolved (through means of natural selection) to feel bad when they disapprove of us as this will encourage us to avoid doing things which displease them.
In this way, as we grow up, we become CONDITIONED to please our parents (as we are rewarded with approval) and, also, to avoid upsetting them (as this results in punishment/loss of approval).
In evolutionary terms, quite simply, staying in our parents’ ‘good books’ has SURVIVAL VALUE.
It can be understood, then, why children are especially prone to feelings of guilt and strongly desire love, approval and acceptance from their parents/primary caregiver.
For the same reasons, we later become conditioned to seek the approval of society in general; humans are social animals, and, throughout our evolutionary history, being accepted by our immediate social group has been vital to the survival of our species.
POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF CONSTANTLY DISAPPROVING PARENTS:
If, when we were growing up, our parents constantly criticized us and perpetually disapproved of us, we may have come to internalize their negative view of us and to have grown up feeling the constant anxiety that we are ‘bad’. This, of course, results in low self-esteem – a painful emotion.
In order to try to escape such painful feelings, we may become desperate to avoid yet further disapproval from society (which would remind us of our childhood pain) and, as a consequence, feel constantly psychologically compelled to avoid such disapproval.
This can lead us to become what is known in everyday parlance as a ‘people-pleaser’, finding it hard to say ‘no’ and, very often, neglecting our own needs.
In essence, we may become desperate to receive the validation that we did not receive from our parents.
This can result in our self-worth becoming utterly dependent upon what others think of us; however, condemning ourselves to remain on the treadmill of constantly seeking the approval of others ( in order to keep our fragile sense of self-esteem ‘topped up’) tends to be futile as a genuine and sustainable sense of self worth needs to come from a sense of inner, personal conviction, irrespective of the perception of others.
Furthermore, dependency upon the approval of others can lead to us becoming vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation by others.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).