Let’s begin with a working definition of guilt. Guilt is “an emotional state produced by thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise.” Guilt operates on two levels. First, guilt is cognitive. That is, we are consciously aware of our perceived failures or wrong-doings. Secondly, guilt is emotional. Guilt can make a person feel sad, angry, anxious or discombobulated. Guilt can cause physical reactions as well, ranging from upset stomachs to anxiety attacks.
We feel feelings of guilt because on some level we understand that we have violated our own moral codes; this set of personal values resides in what is called the “conscience.” A guilty conscience occurs when violate our personal codes of conduct. Unless feelings of guilt can be eliminated or assuaged, guilt can cause continued failure to meet with our expected ideals.
Another kind of guilt is “collective guilt.” Collective guilt occurs when a group of people feels that they, as a group, have failed to live up a community, national, or corporate ideal.
Martin L. Hoffman, American psychologist and professor emeritus of clinical developmental psychology at New York University has argued that there are four stages of grief development.
1) Infancy: There is no guilt present in babies. Infants do not have a sense of a separate identity and they are unaware of how their actions affect others. Guilt, therefore, is impossible.
2) Early Childhood: As toddlers, children know they have a separate identity but still are almost completely unable to understand someone else’s sense of identity. Toddlers know when they physically hurt someone, but typically not when they emotionally cause harm.
3) Middle Childhood: The sense of being a separate person is complete. The child is now frequently aware of how his actions affect others both physically and emotionally. He or she now can experience feelings of guilt for causing pain.
4) Adolescent to adulthood: The teenager or young adult has now developed a more acute and nuanced sense of self. He or she is aware not only of how his personal actions affect immediate people in his life, but also how his actions may cause harm in a broader way: to the community, to his company, etc. Guilt now operates on both the personal and general levels.
While no one enjoys feeling guilty, guilt is an important and useful human emotion. It allows us to know when we have harmed some person or group, and it also may inhibit us from committing things that violate our moral code because we know uncomfortable feelings of guilt will result. This is a healthy sense of guilt. This type of guilt can be extinguished by making apologies, making amends, and/or accepting punishment. It is important to let others know when we have personally felt injured by their actions, whether intentional or unintentional. They can’t “fix” what they don’t understand. This concept is called “fair guilt.”
Unfortunately, not all guilt is healthy guilt. There is also unhealthy guilt, often called “neuroses.” This type of guilt can be debilitating. The guilty feelings do not go away by any of the healthy means of resolution (apologies, amends, punishment), and often results in suppression of feelings, as well as creating intimacy problems.
Unhealthy feelings of guilt can begin in early childhood, particularly when a child’s sense of self is criticized, rather than the behavior. “You’re so stupid!” instead of “That decision was a poor choice,” for example, attacks the child, not the action. If a child hears negative messages about him or herself often enough, they feel like there is something fundamentally, and permanently, wrong with them. This sense of being flawed can pervade the perception of self throughout a person’s life.
A certain percentage of people appear to operate without a working sense of guilt. It is as if they do not have a conscience at all. They seem to have failed to develop a sense of empathy. One of two factors appear (sometimes both) in people without a sense of guilt: a person believes that his actions were not wrong in the first place, and/or the person believes that events were out of his or her control; therefore no sense of responsibility exists. Either one of these justifications can lead people to act without remorse.
Source:Encyclopedia of Psychology, ©2005 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.