Guilt can be a particularly tortuous feeling and, for some, a chronic state of mind. Below, I will think about different aspects of this complicated emotion.
Origins of Guilt
For Melanie Klein (1), guilt is part of a small child’s normal development, when they realise that they can hate and feel aggressive towards those they also love. The guilt arises out of fear that the infant is responsible for the potential or actual damage and loss of their mother/caregiver – on whom they absolutely depend.
These early experiences will be made better or worse by several factors, including the love and stability given to the child as it grows. Future events, particularly those early on in life, may help to relieve or compound the individual’s more complex or unresolved relationship to guilt.
Function and Dysfunction of Guilt
While painful, particularly when we are consumed by it, it’s important to realise that guilt is a normal part of our emotional lives. When it functions, it is helpful for us as individuals and societies. It is strongly connected, for example, with morality and conscience.
Being able to feel guilt is a healthy capacity and is connected to remorse. Guilt can lead us to accept our responsibility and take action, if necessary, to make reparation. This can take often place in ordinary ways, for example, saying sorry to someone we feel we’ve hurt.
However, when the awful and terrifying feelings of guilt in childhood have not been resolved enough, they can persist into adulthood in chronic and acute ways, and for some people becomes a regular place in their minds to go to. Feeling perpetually guilty can lead to, and be bound up with, intense feelings of anxiety and persecution.
Guilt can get located into all kinds of irrational parts of oneself and can become a way of avoiding other difficult feelings. For example, guilt can be bound up with unresolved feelings around regret and loss or can be a response to uncomfortable feelings of anger. Or it can be used as a way of cushioning against feelings of a loss of control – for e.g. following an external trauma.
Defences against Guilt
For some people, feelings of guilt are so hard to bear they find different ways to get rid of them.
For example, they may become extreme in their efforts to ‘make reparation’, like compulsively putting others first. This is problematic for several reasons, not least of all because underlying this dynamic is often – and understandably – growing resentment which cannot be acknowledged. Inevitably this can simply perpetuate further cyclical feelings of guilt.
Fearfulness around feeling guilt can also lead to a difficulty in taking ownership and another way of avoiding guilt can involve being critical and blaming of others. This is often unconscious and a defensive way of managing guilt by projecting it out – so that others will hold all the guilty feelings.
How to get help with Guilt
If we think back to Klein’s ideas of development, it is the acceptance of responsibility that can lead to repair and resolution. In adult life it is similarly important to be able to bear our guilt without fear and attack (on ourselves or others). Taking responsibility for our actions is so important to our psychological health, and allows us, at times, to repair and this will also feed back into our sense of self and confidence.
Chronic and more compulsive feelings of guilt however are problematic and likely to be bound up with complex childhood (and, also, sometimes adult) losses and traumas. These can be worked through in therapy or counselling.
Group therapy can be particularly useful in tackling pervasive feelings of guilt as the individual can gain a great deal from the reassurances of other members. Also, seeing others grapple with familiar emotions around guilt can be powerfully therapeutic in thinking about one’s own relationship to it.
Therapy can encourage and support people in coming to terms with responsibility, regret, and remorse where this is helpful and appropriate, while still questioning and exploring more chronic and corrosive feelings of guilt.
Further reading by Claire Barnes
(1) Melanie Klein (Psychoanalyst) b1882 – d1960. Love, Guilt and Reparation (1937)