By Gary Reece, Ph.D.
Guilt is one of those very perplexing human experiences which has both a positive, growth-enhancing and life- affirming quality as well as a very destructive and life-destroying aspect to it. It is something which is very necessary for society to function at all and yet it can totally inhibit and destroy an individual when it is distorted. Clearly, guilt and self-esteem are related because people who suffer from low self-esteem often have a great deal of guilt which makes it difficult for them to feel good about themselves. How might self-esteem and guilt be related in a positive, life-enhancing way? Perhaps the following will illustrate the function of guilt in both its positive and negative aspects.
He is a 40 year old minister. He, of all people, ought to know how guilt works and what to do with it. I have been seeing him for several months now and he came in and told me the most interesting thing. He had gone on vacation to visit his family. One of the issues he struggles with is being able to like himself and feel free from a terrible feeling of guilt he has carried around since he was a teenager. There are two factors to which he attributes his guilt. The first incident occurred one day when he came home from school and discovered that his father had moved out. His mother, he felt, implied that it was because of him. Whatever the reality of that event, his psychological reality was that he had done something which caused his father to abandon him and the rest of the family. Several months later another event occurred which deepened his sense of guilt. He was pushing his sister in a swing and she lost her balance and fell out. She struck her head and was in a coma for several weeks. She recovered but has had lasting neurological problems.
Twenty five years later he is still torturing himself about these events. His father has since died, taking with him whatever were the real reasons for leaving his family. His sister, however, is still living. He went to see on his vacation. His goal was to talk with her, deal with his feelings of guilt and ask for forgiveness. He did all that. She sat and looked at him with compassion. "You've been carrying that around with you all of these years?" she asked. "How terrible, I never blamed you, I was the one who lost my balance and didn't hold on tight enough to the swing." At that moment he felt an enormous sense of relief. He described it as the dam breaking. "I have felt like a stagnant pond, dead and unattractive," he revealed. "Now, I feel like a running river, full of energy and life." I think this is a very good metaphor for the problem of guilt and its effect on how we feel about ourselves and the toll it takes on all or our relationships. He had never been able to feel close to his sister because of the guilt he felt. He just knew she hated him and blamed him for what happened. He also knew his mother blamed him for his fathers leaving. So all of these years he walked around like a man condemned. Perhaps it was this feeling which caused him to choose the vocation he did. A vocation devoted to the pursuit of forgiveness from sin and guilt.
Guilt has many effects. It changes how we feel about ourselves, and it certainly has an effect on how we feel about others and how we behave around them. It distorts perceptions and leads to faulty attributions about how others feel about us. It leads to deadness of feelings, saps our energy and leads to self-punishing behaviors. Often we spend our entire lives trying to atone for some nameless feeling of dread and guilt. One observation that can easily be made about guilt is that it is often out of proportion to whatever event may have caused it. This is the neurotic component of guilt. I often see people who feel guilty just for being alive; they are extremely self-critical, self-punitive, and lacking in joy. They have difficulty in forgiving themselves and are often perfectionists in their expectations of self and others. This is the unhealthy component of guilt. Is their a healthy aspect to guilt? How do we go about dealing with neurotic guilt? And, how do we tell the difference?
Guilt has both a feeling as well as a cognitive dimension. In other words, guilt is composed of ideas as well as feelings. These ideas are learned originally from others; parents, teachers, friends, and cultural institutions. Most often our sense of right and wrong is learned from our parents as they interact with us on a daily basis. We learn in a thousand different ways what they want us to do. How we treat ourselves when we misbehave is usually an internalization of how they treated us. Freud called this internalized parent our Superego. Our superego does not have to be necessarily accurate, fair, or compassionate. In fact, it usually isn't. Our first task as adults is to develop our own set of values. In other words, come to grips with all of the rules and injunctions we have received all our lives and sort them out. Then it is up to us to adopt our own rules. Conscience is necessary. It is imperative to know what is right and wrong. It is also imperative to know what to do when we have violated our own conscience. Yes, in fact we are our own judge, jury and executioner. The question is what kind of judge are we going to be, and what kind of jury is going to hear our pleas for mercy, compassion and understanding.
A neurotic sense of guilt is characterized by its unreasonableness, its unfairness, cruelty and unrelenting demand for penance. We can never do enough to appease a cruel superego. This is the first step: recognize the difference between our conscience and our superego. I do not think we can really have a conscience until we allow it to develop from within. It is necessary to learn, to listen to that very quiet voice from within that tells us how to be ourselves. In this sense, when guilt comes from within it is a very healthy function. It is telling us when we are not actualizing our very own spirit . When I violate my very own and very best sense of my true self then guilt is an appropriate feeling. In this case it is very important for me to pay attention to this voice.
When I am living authentically, I will be like a stream of living water. i will feel alive, I will have energy and I will nourish not only myself but also the lives of those around me. Have you ever noticed how dead everything is around a stagnant pond? There is no life within, or around it.
And so my client has learned a valuable lesson. He has deepened his relationship with himself as well as renewed his relationship with his sister. His neurotic sense of guilt which was literally killing him is gone. He has learned how important it is to listen to the small voice within which told him he needed to do something about his guilt. He too appropriate, realistic action and took the risk of feeling embarrassed or criticized. He was rewarded by being renewed himself. I often think of this as a powerful lesson for me as I try to be more realistic in judging, criticizing, and forgiving myself. Compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness are the marks of a healthy conscience. A healthy conscience leads to life.
Dr. Gary Reece is the Director of the Stepcare Institute and has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for over 20 years. He is a recognized teacher, lecturer and consultant. Dr. Reece is the author of a nationally acclaimed book on recovery, "THE STEPCARE RECOVERY GUIDE." It may be purchased by contacting him at: Stepcare Recovery Guide 112 W. Bennett Ave. # 4, Glendora, CA. 91741 or call (626) 963-2513.