Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
The concept of guilt has played an important role in the development of human behavior and culture since the early days of civilization. More recently, there has been a focus on the psychological understanding of guilt. One of the first people to write extensively about the psychological meaning of guilt was the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. His writings from the 1890’s to the 1930’s provide the basic foundation of the contemporary understanding of guilt. Guilt is the feeling of tension when one feels that one has violated a moral code by thought, action, or nonaction. Guilt is considered to be a type of anxiety. The unpleasant feeling of guilt usually prompts the guilty person to take some type of action to relieve the tension.
Freud believed that guilt starts in early childhood as a result of the child’s fear of being punished or of losing the love of the parent through misbehavior. Freud stressed that the most significant event in establishing guilt is the Oedipus complex. At the age of four or five, Freud hypothesized, the male child wants to kill his father and have sex with his mother. In a similar vein, sometimes called the Electra complex, the female child wants to kill her mother and have sex with her father. The child becomes anxious with these thoughts and attempts to put them out of consciousness. As a result of the Oedipus complex, the child develops a conscience. The conscience represents...
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Origin (Psychology and Mental Health)
The origin of guilt can be traced back to childhood. In human development there is a long period in which the baby is dependent on the parent. The young baby cannot survive without someone providing for its care. As the baby begins to individuate and separate from the parent, ambivalent feelings are generated. These are opposing feelings, typically love and hate, felt for the same person. The child begins to worry that these hateful feelings can cause the parents to punish it or remove their love. With this fear of parental retaliation, the child becomes guilty when thinking about or acting in a way that might displease the parent.
The Oedipus complex dramatically changes this situation. The dynamics of this complex are based on the play by the Greek playwright Sophocles. Without knowing that they are his parents, Oedipus murders his father and takes his mother as his wife. When Oedipus finds out the truth, he blinds himself and goes into exile. Freud believed the Oedipal situation to be a common theme in literature. He also discussed the play Hamlet (1603) by the English playwright William Shakespeare. Hamlet’s uncle had killed Hamlet’s father and married Hamlet’s mother. There is the question as to why Hamlet hesitates in killing his uncle, and Freud attributed this indecision to Hamlet’s Oedipus complex. Freud considered that Hamlet had thoughts of killing his father and having sex with his mother, and Hamlet’s...
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History (Psychology and Mental Health)
Writing in the 1930’s, child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein believed that the Oedipus complex started much earlier in the child’s development than Freud had suggested. She considered that it started toward the end of the first year of life and centered primarily on the mother. The baby hates the mother for withdrawing the breast during feeding. The baby then feels guilty and worries that the mother will no longer breast-feed. Klein felt that the baby will want to relieve its guilt by making amends to the mother. The baby will show concern and care for the mother. Klein felt that this was the most crucial step in human development, the capacity to show concern for someone else. Guilt is thus seen as a critical ingredient in the ability to love.
The psychoanalyst Franz Alexander further advanced understanding of guilt. He wrote that feeling guilty can interfere with healthy assertiveness. The guilty person may need excessive reassurance from other people. When the guilty person is assertive, he or she fears retaliation from others. Alexander also wrote about the concept of guilt projection. This term refers to situations in which people who tend to be overly critical induce guilt in other people.
The psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson also wrote on the theme of guilt interfering with assertiveness. He formulated a theory of eight stages of human development, focusing primarily on early development. The fourth stage of development,...
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Current Status (Psychology and Mental Health)
Since 1960, there has been a significant change in the views of psychoanalytic theory on guilt. The psychoanalyst Hans Loewald wrote extensively about guilt. He considered that guilt does not necessarily lead to punishment; sometimes punishment is sought to evade guilt. Bearing the burden of guilt makes it possible to master guilt by achieving a reconciliation of conflicting feelings. Guilt is thus seen not as a troublesome feeling but one of the driving forces in the organization of the self. Guilt plays a critical part in developing self-responsibility and integrity.
The American psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell, writing in 2000, expanded on Loewald’s ideas. Mitchell concerned himself with the concept of genuine guilt. He believes it is important to tolerate, accept, and use this feeling. People need to take responsibility for the suffering they have caused others and themselves. People particularly hurt those they love, but by taking personal responsibility for their behavior, they can repair and deepen their love.
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Guilt and Shame (Psychology and Mental Health)
Throughout the 1990’s, there were a number of writings about the concept of shame and its comparison to guilt. Shame is experienced as a feeling of inadequacy in the self. There can be physical, psychological, or emotional shame.
The American psychoanalyst Helen Lewis wrote extensively about this topic. She believed that shame includes dishonor, ridicule, humiliation, and embarrassment, while guilt includes duty, obligation, responsibility, and culpability. A person can feel both guilt and shame.
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Freeman, Lucy, and Herbert S. Strean. Understanding and Letting Go of Guilt. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1995. This book provides a good overall understanding of guilt written for the layperson. It highlights the differences in guilt between men and women and the sexual and aggressive roots of guilt. The book focuses primarily on contemporary American culture. There are useful ideas on overcoming excessive guilt.
Joseph, Fernando. “The Borrowed Sense of Guilt.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 81, no. 3 (2000): 499-512. The author gives three case examples of the borrowed sense of guilt. In this concept, a parent (due to his or her own needs) will unconsciously induce his or her child to feel guilty. The author demonstrates how he helped his guilt-ridden patients by making the source of their guilt conscious.
Piers, Gerhart, and Milton B. Singer. Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971. This book compares and contrasts the psychological concepts of guilt and shame. The first half of the book, regarding the psychoanalytic views, is particularly rewarding. The author provides the definition, origin, and meaning of these two terms.
Reilly, Patrick. The Literature of Guilt: From Gulliver to Golding. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988. This book examines several short stories and novels emphasizing the...
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Guilt (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
An emotional state produced by thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise.
Guilt is both a cognitive and an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes that he or she has violated a moral standard and is responsible for that violation. A guilty conscience results from thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self. Guilt feelings may also inhibit us from falling short of our ideal again in the future. Individual guilt is an inner reflection on personal wrongdoing, while collective guilt is a shared state resulting from groupuch as corporate, national, or communityrongdoing.
STAGES OF GUILT DEVELOPMENT
The researcher M. L. Hoffman has proposed the following stages of guilt development:
Infancyecause infants have no clear sense of separate identity or the effect of their behavior on others, it would be impossible for them to feel true guilt over hurting another.
Early childhoodoung children understand themselves as physically separate from others, but do not yet have a deep understanding of others' inner states; therefore, they feel guilt over hurting another person physically, but not over doing emotional damage.
Middle childhoodith the...
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