Friday, April 2, 2010

Guilt is a Four Letter Word

Guilt is a Four Letter Word

OK, I know I can't count, but this title gets people's
attention about this very debilitating feeling and the underlying
dynamics that set it up.

In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I run into
lots of conditions, many of which rest upon the deeper dynamic of
anxiety. Relationships usually bring this experience up, as it is
hard to feel guilty without having some relationship with some one,
some time or in some meaningful way.

Guilt is a special form of anxiety, unlike the classic
experiences of panic, phobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It probably is closer to
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), but even that is not accurate.
Guilt is what happens when we are judged to have failed in some way.
We violated a standard by doing something we "should" not have or by
"not" doing something we should have. I call these sins of
commission and sins of omission, respectively.

On the surface, guilt is experienced as a form of anxiety.
But that is not the entire story. There is another feeling that is
embedded in guilt that is often not entirely in awareness. That
feeling is resentment.

Resentment comes from being judged by having failed some standard.
The resentment comes because that standard is someone else's, not our
own. When we endorse something and fail to behave according to some
standard, the experience of anxiety is associated with having to deal
with the difference between our behavior and that dictated by the
standard. The magnitude of the guilt is related to the pressure of
the standard or the consequence of failure. The bigger either is, the
greater the anxiety.

Resentment follows the same logrhythm, but is largely out of
awareness. Because the standard against which we are being compared
is originally, and perhaps still is not ours, we, at some level resent
the psychological intrusion. The standard and our gut level reactions
us. We may not have been aware of when we were exposed to the
offending standards or even if we were conscious of accepting them, but
if they exist in our minds, then there is the potential for conflict
when there are behavioral "violations." Guilt is the special anxiety
that is accompanied by resentment.

The basis of this is our ideas of what is right or wrong. These
are given to us as children, either directly through teachings or
exposure to the behaviors of many who act according to their own
teachings. Thus, we get values of what is correct or proper or moral
from the usual sources--parents, relatives, schools and churches. At
some point our individuality emerges and, being the naturally assertive,
even selfish core that it is, challenges the standards. Our core selves
generally want what they want, and then have to adjust as external reality "
happens." The clash is classically Freudian (Id vs. Superego) and plays
out in us all. The resolve is a little Freud but more Perlsian (as in
Fritz Perls of Gestalt Therapy fame). Here's how.

To resolve the guilt, one has to express the resentment, to indulge
the split between what is shoved into our faces vs. what we would like to
shove back out. To resolve the guilt, one has to feel that resentment,
express it and then create a third standard. This means challenging
what "should" have occurred (wrongly committed or wrongly omitted) by
consciously extolling what is wanted. Freud would say this is how the
Ego resolves the tensions, and it appears he was correct. (I am not a
practicing Freudian). The third standard is what is appropriate to
reality and if I am functioning in a psychologically healthy manner,
I will express it assertively. I will challenge the implied standards
that others use against me to control me (Perl's definition of guilt)
and substitute my own, as I judge reality and the appropriateness of my

To conclude, guilt "should" not be what people use to manipulate
each other and "should" be treated like a four-letter word--avoided, if


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