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In psychology, what is "guilt," and what are the stages of guilt development?

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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...

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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.

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According to Fritz Perls in the book Ego, Hunger and Aggression: a Revision of Freud's Theory and Method (1951), one of the earliest descriptors that universally identifies "guilt" is that of a break up, or violation, of rules that we have adopted internally as our standards. In Perls's own words, the feeling is that of self-punishment or "a vindictive attitude toward oneself" (p. 127). This is the result us failing to meet our own goals thus minimizing our successes due to obvious limitations of character. Hence, the process of guilt, according to Perls's Gestalt framework, comes when an individual becomes aware of the indicators that negate any redeeming qualities.

That same publication by Perls explains the difference between the latter's perspective and that of Sigmund Freud. Freud uses a different angle in the process of explaining guilt. He adds the influence of parents, society, and consequences. In his viewpoint, the fear of being punished, and not the intrinsic break up of our system of values, is what determines guilt. It is similar to the paradigm of whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the forest but there is nobody around. Hence, would someone who is doing something bad that is pleasing him feel guilty if he or she never gets caught doing that bad thing? For example, if you can get away with using drugs your entire life, and you preach to others not to do drugs, would you feel guilty? Would you feel guilty if you get busted, though? According to Freud, that fear is equivalent to guilt.

According to another of the fathers of psycho-dynamics, Erik Erikson believed that guilt is the outcome of a stage of life that occurs from ages 3 to 5, which he named "initiative vs. guilt". According to this argument, children should be allowed to show leadership and be allowed to express their natural tendencies for initiative. If they are excessively limited, the opposite of initiative will occur: guilt, which is the opposite of playfulness. With similar patterns taking place throughout their lives, these children will become adults who do not dare to express themselves. When they attempt to, they immediately revert to guilt and shame.

The founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung offers in his book Psychology and Religion (1938) the famous quote:

Guilt is a cheap substitute for legitimate suffering

What Jung means is that human suffering is a multiple-step process that should end in psychological growth. This is if the suffering is genuine and comes with all the attributes of change: the willingness to sacrifice, the enforcement of new personal standards, the acceptance of the consequences, the courage to make a difference. Contrastingly, guilt can be just a surface emotion and a potential product of neurosis- a psychological malfunction. Hence, to feel guilty is one thing, but to understand guilt as one of many pivotal things that may move us into leading better lives is another thing. Moreover, Jung also offers that guilt is not only a sad emotion but also a call for punishment. In his view, all transgressors who have any sort of standard subconsciously hope to be held accountable for their actions and be made into better people. In all, guilt is fickle and, in many occasions, it could be used to manipulate.

Hoffman (1982) in his article "Development of Prosocial Motivation: Empathy and Guilt", delineates the stages of guilt in the following way: 

Infancy—No sense of separate identity; no guilt.

Early childhood—Separation of identity, guilt over superficial (physical) hurt to others, but emotions are not considered.

Middle childhood—Separation of identity and awareness of emotions. Intense emotion makes them overly-guilty of doing or not doing things.

Adolescence to adulthood—Sense of personal and universal awareness; guilt (if not neurosis) can  be felt for things that both pertain and do not pertain us.

What these stages entail is that guilt is directly linked to personal and universal awareness. The more you know about things and the more you can correlate causes and effects, the more potential for guilt there will be as you find your role within the world.
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