This is the first in a three-part series on the psychology of guilt. It is written by a clinical psychologist who has been in private practice 27 years.
The Psychology of GUILT
(Ambivalence Turned Inwards)
From etymology (the study of historical linguistic change, especially as manifested in individual words)…
“Guilt stems from gylt ‘crime, sin, fault, fine,’ of unknown origin, though some suspect a connection to O.E. gieldan ‘to pay for, debt,’ but O.E.D. editors find this ‘inadmissible phonologically.’ The mistaken use for ‘sense of guilt’ is first recorded 1690. ‘Guilt by association’ is first recorded in 1941. ‘Guilty’ is from O.E. gyltig, from gylt.”
“Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that he or she has violated a moral standard, and bears significant responsibility for that violation. It is closely related to the concept of remorse (which adds the dimension of sadness, shame or responsibility).”
In psychology, as well as in ordinary language, guilt is an affective state in which one experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done, or conversely, having not done something one believes one should have done. It gives rise to a feeling which does not go away easily, usually driven by conscience. Freud described guilt as a state, resulting from the struggle between the ego and the superego. Specifically, guilt was thought to occur because of overbearing “parental imprinting.” Freud rejected the role of God as punisher in times of illness or rewarder in time of wellness. Thus, while removing one source of guilt from patients, he described another. This was the unconscious force within the individual, and Freud thought this contributed to illness. In a more general but still Freudian sense, the victim of someone else's accident or bad luck may be offered criticism; the theory being that the victim may be at fault for having attracted the other person's hostility. Guilt was the factor that created the calamity, albeit the process was out of awareness. The punishment of suffering confirmed the fault of the sufferer. Guilt and its causes, merits, and demerits are common themes in psychology. The use of guilt here is not referring to the mere fact of being guilty of something, but refers to seeing or projecting one's mistakes, while not knowing what to do about them or refusing to correct them.