Guilt is a ubiquitous and inescapable aspect of being human. There is evidence that infants and toddlers experience guilt and the expectation of punishment or ill befalling them on a regular basis. The basic idea is that as humans, we are born with various passions that drive our behavior and form our personality. The most basic of these passions or emotions is love and hate. Guilt comes about by our belief, real or imagined, that we have done damage or harm to someone we love or an ideal we may hold.
Guilt is, by itself, not a bad thing. As you might imagine, those who have a limited capacity for guilt wreck serious havoc on themselves, their family, friends and society, as can be seen in individuals who have sociopathic tendencies. Guilt, then, is a necessary and useful quality of the human condition. Without it, we would operate without conscience, essentially functioning as ruthless, self-centered animals. Like any good thing, however, guilt can be quite destructive if its role takes on excessive prominence. When this happens, our ability to cope and realistically assess reality is compromised. Those of us who have a good conscience but a colorful past, or present for that matter, that may not be understood by the casual observer, are particularly prone to feelings of guilt.
A major source of guilt is of the unconscious variety. Voluminous, empirical research attests to the existence of unconscious processes and their powerful effect on every day behavior. In the case of unconscious guilt, we essentially have stored up an abundance of feelings of guilt associated with damage we may or may not have exacted on our loved ones, (mother, father, friends, etc). Because these feelings are not consciously understood or processed, they remain below our level of consciousness, seeking ways to be addressed. Such feelings are especially likely to be evoked during times of stress or conflict when a current life situation resembles past life experiences where feelings of guilt were prominent. When this happens, individuals experience a sense of guilt that is not consistent with current events and often makes no logical sense. One of the qualities of unconscious guilt is its association with catastrophic expectations for the future or the expectation of some form of bad befalling one.
For example, as children, when we are frustrated or angry with a caretaker, our natural inclination is to hate. This not because we are intrinsically bad, but instead, this is a natural inborn reaction to frustration or pain. The problem here is that children have an underdeveloped sense of reality and are prone to thinking magically. The result of this is the belief that feeling hateful toward ones parents will actually harm them.
This phenomenon can often be seen when after a family conflict, a child might begin worrying about his parents’ health. The idea being that, “My hate will make my parents sick”. As adults we are not immune from this kind of thinking. Hence, if we have a store of unresolved, unconscious guilt, we will be prone to expect bad things to befall us.
This is the case because of another inborn tendency; the idea that if we think or do something we perceive as bad, that somehow that bad will return to us. Eastern religious conceptions refer to this as karma, westerners call it everlasting hell or an eye for an eye, etc. The main point here is that in most cases, our expectation of bad things befalling us or our deserving bad things are based on this unconscious, irrational thinking associated with misplaced guilt from other sources. As irrational as it may be, guilt, nonetheless, springs from basic emotions that physiologically induce real distress.
What can be done? While there are no simple or universal answers to such phenomena, some general considerations may be helpful. Recognition of how these processes work is an important first step. Consideration should also be given to appreciating that all of us fail, hate and are inadequate, sometimes miserably. Bad qualities notwithstanding, we also possess love, generosity, kindness, and all manner of good things as well. In most people, the good balances out the bad, and typically overshadows it, thereby absolving us of the necessity to entertain burdensome, conscious guilt. In the case of the situation where true harm has been perpetrated on another, if possible, reparation and self forgiveness should be invoked. In the event one consciously understands the basic issues and dynamics of ones guilt, but continues to be overwhelmed by its force, a concerted effort should be made to deny the current legitimacy of such feelings. Expectation of negative consequences that are not relevant to current circumstances are generated by the person feeling them, and as such can be mitigated or even eliminated by that same person. With regards to negative or catastrophic thoughts, these may be addressed by consciously stopping the thought(s) and replacing them with a more realistic and pleasant one each time it occurs. Finally, talking about these issues with an appropriate person to pinpoint the origins of specific and persistent concerns can be quite relieving.
Craig M. Hands, Ph.D.