UNDERSTANDING AND REDUCING EXCESSIVE GUILT
Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.
“Guilt is the source of sorrow, 'tis the fiend, th' avenging fiend, that follows us behind, With whips and stings”
Nicholas Rowe (an English dramatist selected Poet Laureate in 1715)
“Guilt” is a very simple word that easily comes to many people’s minds. “I always feel guilty” is an expression that clients often ironically say with a smile when describing themselves. It is also one of the most destructive problems I see in my practice. Please be clear that this article is about excessive or misplaced guilt. Usually it stems from parents and religious leaders trying to instill values in children to guide their lives. Used incorrectly, it can prevent a sense of wellbeing and self love and leave its destructive effects though out the individual’s life. Guilt, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, does not resolve itself with the simple passage of time and is often not reduced by one’s later good deeds. I have seen very fine people consumed by guilt stemming from parental statements originating 40 or more years earlier.
Guilt can result from a specific set of actions—e.g. “When I was a child, I told my mother I hated her and she has never forgiven me”, “I had sex before marriage”, or guilt can be more generalized--“I was never a good enough child”, “I have taken too much pride in myself and not been humble enough.”
How Does a Sense of Guilt Begin?
Many books from differing perspectives have been written about the origins of guilt. I will briefly share what I have found from my years of training and practice. There are two major components: the behavior and personality characteristic of the individuals who instill the guilt and characteristics of the child who develops this sense of guilt.
From the Authority Figure
It may come from parents or other significant authority figures (religious personnel, teachers, coaches, or even one’s peer group). The intention may be from a heartfelt desire to guide a young child to develop a sense of morality or purpose. “You were bad to tease your sister—look how she is crying.” “If you continue this behavior, you will not enter Heaven.” “Because you weren’t focusing on the ball, we lost this game.” These statements occurring a few times will not lead the young child to develop a long standing sense of guilt. But if they are a continual pattern or come from multiple sources then a sense of guilt can become an ingrained condemnation of oneself. This does not mean that parents should never criticize their children; this can lead to other significant problems. However, these criticisms need to be accompanied by clarifications, that the child can understand, e.g., s(he) is usually a very good girl or boy, we all make mistakes, and the purpose is to learn to do better in the future.
Guilt inducing statements can also come from someone who has never learned better methods of raising a child; an adult who thinks in absolutes rather than realizing there are degrees of mistakes or that the child may very well have acted unintentionally. Also it may come from adults who were raised with such edicts themselves and are repeating what was learned.
“The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”
Victor Hugo (French Poet and Novelist, who wrote Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
In addition, guilt inducing statements may come from someone who wants to control the child and learns that this is the quickest and most effective way to accomplish that aim. It may come from the authority person who wants to divert responsibility from him(her)self and put that responsibility onto the child. “Look what you made me do!” or “I drink and slap you because you make me so angry!” In actuality, a child cannot make an adult do anything. The adult may get upset temporarily by a child’s actions, but deeper emotional reactions or actions by an adult come from the adult’s own choice or emotional makeup.
A very powerful means of inducing guilt, intentionally or unintentionally, can be from looks or extended silences. The parent may give an angry or disappointed stare, or even a hurt look. Sometimes parents or other individuals in authority may not talk to the child for days. This can be so crushing for the child and continue to linger because it is not stated and resolved.
From the Child’s Self Judgment
Children do not have the ability to understand why authority figures make guilt inducing comments. Thus children typically accept the statements as appropriate responses to their behavior. Lawrence Kohlberg, Ph.D. at Harvard developed a highly regarded model of moral development in children and adolescents. Part of his theory discusses how young children think in absolute terms. Consequently, the children themselves take their criticized actions as being very bad. Additionally, children cannot step back and objectively assess either the motives or the appropriateness in their parents’ statements, so they accept them as being accurate.
Furthermore, children realize from a very early age that they are totally dependent upon their authority figures. Thus they recognize, often at a nonverbal level, that unless they completely rely on the adults around them, they will be totally helpless. Children know that ignoring the directives of a parent or teacher is done at their own peril. Therefore, children quickly learn that it is far more adaptive to blame themselves rather than the authority figures in their lives This is not something, obviously, that children consciously evaluate, but it is lesson most of them learn—often too well.
How and Why Does it Continue for So Many Years?
When an individual experiences a sense of being bad as a child, this sense often continues into later years for several reasons.Generally people’s closest influences continue throughout much of their lives. Guilt inducing parents often continue to use guilt statements even when their children are adults. “You rarely visit; I guess mom and dad are no longer important to you.” If their religious beliefs as children stressed guilt, they will probably continue with very similar religious beliefs.
Additionally individuals are attracted to consistency, often unknowingly. If they focused on the bad they did as children, they later will pay much more attention and give more credence to the mistakes they make and to the criticism they receive, rather than recognize their achievements and the praise they receive. Also they will seek out spouses and friends who are like the figures that influenced them in childhood. Freud referred to this as a repetition compulsion and this has been more recently discussed in books such as Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood. Typically this involves two components that the person is often unaware of. First, feeling guilty for hurts caused to a parent or significant others, the person unknowingly will be attracted to someone with similar traits, hoping symbolically to do a better job this time and end this lifelong sense of having failed. The person will often say “I don’t know what attracted me to my husband (wife), but I felt a spark inside and knew this was the right person for me.” Unfortunately, since often this person has the same faults as the earlier figure, the individual is doomed to failure. This leaves a further sense of guilt in the present, with the individual not seeing that (s)he has unconsciously chosen a person who would be more critical than praising.
The same dynamic that leads one to marry a guilt inducing spouse can also lead one to be surrounded by bosses and friends who are guilt inducing. Unfortunately, my colleagues and I see this repeatedly. If you are a person prone to feelings of guilt, carefully look around you and see if this is not indeed true in the majority of your close relationships.
Lastly is the fact that at a deep level the person does not really believe (s)he deserves better and may actually act in ways to have good reason to feel guilty. The individual will enter situations where there is no possibility of a good outcome and will eventually feel guilty because s(he) failed. Examples are really trying to please someone who cannot be pleased or overextending one self so things cannot work out as wanted. The person will use statements like “I should be able to do this.” or “How can I say no?” Any of this sound familiar? The person may even feel compelled to do something s(he) sees as bad. Although the person may say “I couldn’t help myself”, the individual will continue to feel guilty for having done it.
This description is clearly not exhaustive, but I have seen these patterns occur time and time again in my practice, and I hope this discussion is helpful to you.
Next month will be a continuation of this article, focusing on the long term damaging effects of excessive guilt and how to begin to reduce such oppressive guilt feelings.
Please take the Guilt Questionnaire in the Psychbytes section of this website.
Dr. Miller is a psychotherapist in practice in West Los Angeles and Torrance. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapist Network.
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