If we have been mistreated as children, we may well grow up with a pervasive feeling that we are irredeemably ‘bad’ people (click here to read my article on why this happens). This can lead to what has been termed ‘neurotic guilt’ ; this occurs when we feel a sense of shame about ourselves and we have a generalized feeling of guilt which is not attached to specific acts (or is attached to acts for which we should not, objectively speaking, feel guilt),
Another type of guilt can be termed ‘real guilt’ ; this is guilt attached to a specific act which IT IS objectively reasonable to feel guilt about. The main type of guilt that those who have been mistreated as children tend to feel is of the first type – neurotic guilt (although this can cover some real guilt that has not yet been acknowledged).
A certain level of psychological development needs to have been attained to experience guilt (although some people never develop the capacity to experience it – these are called psychopaths and sociopaths).
Of course, feeling a certain amount of guilt is a good thing as it stops us doing things (usually) that are in conflict with our values, or encourages us not to repeat our behaviour if we have transgressed our particular moral boundaries. Paradoxically, guilt can, on one level, make us feel better about ourselves. Our reasoning might be that. because our conscience is bothering us about something we feel we have done wrong, we must be a good person to have such high standards which cause us psychological pain if we fall short of them. We conclude we have a strong conscience which is a moral virtue.
However, excessive guilt is unhelpful to both us and others – at its worst, it can lead to a state of deep depression and almost paralyzed inactivity, suicidal feelings, or, even, actual suicide. It is, therefore, important to be able to process guilt and then move on with our lives.
A MORE DETAILED LOOK AT ‘NEUROTIC’ AND ‘REAL’ GUILT :
1) Neurotic Guilt – because this is a generalized sense of guilt that is unattached to a particular action/actions, it follows that it cannot be resolved by any particular action (or abatement of action/s).
It is a deep sense of guilt which seems to penetrate to the very core of our being – it is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves as a person : we feel we are thoroughly bad, intrinsically evil, even.
It is a feeling closely linked to a sense of profound shame. However, it is an irrational guilt and one that is not based on objective reality. Psychoanalysis frequently reveals that this irrational, or neurotic guilt, is actually a defense mechanism against feelings of anxiety, fear and anger. The example below illustrates how this might work :
Say a child grows up in a household in which his/her parents have frequent, violent arguments (involving physical blows, smashing objects, making threats etc). This will clearly disturb the child and cause him/her to feel acute anxiety and fear. The child then develops a psychological coping strategy as follows :
a) the violence of my parents towards one another fills me with fear
b) I need to control the situation so that I am no longer frightened
c) But I have no control over my parents, only over myself
d) I must be the cause of their violent arguing (this thinking occurs because it is psychologically less painful for the child to think of him/herself as the cause of the arguing – and therefore to have some control over it – than to acknowledge s/he has no control over it, which would be psychologically overwhelming)
e) Because I am the cause, I must be a very bad person
f) Because I am a very bad person, I feel extremely guilty.
This all occurs on an unconscious level, according to psychoanalytic theory
So it is this coping mechanism, developed in childhood, that can lead to neurotic guilt.
People who suffer from neurotic guilt also tend to have extremely low self-esteem and are prone to blame themselves for all manner of things that go wrong even if they had nothing to do with them. They are also likely to be prone to severe depression.
2) ‘Real Guilt’ – As we have seen, this type of guilt has a definite and valid cause. It is not irrational and it relates to our moral code. If we do something that contravenes our moral code, we will feel guilty about it (unless we happen to be a psychopath). Therefore, the only way of avoiding a recurrence of this painful feeling in the future is to either adjust our moral code, or ensure we do not repeat our original error.
One way of helping ourselves to resolve feelings of ‘real guilt’ is to openly and frankly admit to somebody what we have done (eg a counsellor or close friend) and acknowledge what we did was wrong. We also need to articulate the fact that we take the moral responsibility for our transgression. Ideally, this will then lead to forgiveness – from both the person we wronged and, importantly, from ourselves (self-forgiveness).
DETERMINING WHETHER GUILT IS ‘REAL’ OR ‘NEUROTIC :
In order to make this determination, it is necessary for us to pose certain questions to ourselves; these are :
– is what happened really my responsibility?
– if so, what factors actually make me responsible?
– which of my moral rules have I broken?
– are such moral rules appropriate/reasonable?
– can I ensure what I did does not recur?
– can I make amends ; if so, how?
To rid ourselves of ‘neurotic guilt’ we need to concentrate on resolving our ‘real guilt’. We can only do this, of course, once we have identified which of our guilty feelings have a basis in neurosis and which are genuine.
Once we identify our’ real guilt’ (which we may not have so far acknowledged) we can address and resolve it in the ways mentioned above (eg taking responsibility, making amends, verbally acknowledging we were wrong).
In relation to our ‘neurotic guilt’, we need to accept it is not rational and has materialized due to psychological processes we underwent as a child. Often, too, when we see ourselves as’ bad’, it is because we have internalized the view of someone who treated us as ‘bad’ when we were also a child (eg a parent, primary carer, or someone else who was important to us). Becoming aware of this will also help us to rid ourselves of our neurotic guilt.
Once ‘real guilt’ has been uncovered and resolved, and we have formed a clearer understanding of what has caused our ‘neurotic guilt’, both should start to fade away.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).