How to Get Rid of Guilt

Looking to the future can help.

Posted Sep 26, 2014

I certainly know about guilt, how it corrodes, corrupts, and how it tortures us in the night. All my life I have been plagued by feelings of guilt which may make me a conscientious person, someone who, as one of my early teachers wrote on my report card, “tries hard," but finds life hard.

Whenever anything unfortunate happens in my life, I tend to find reasons why I have brought this on myself: my husband goes off with another woman; a friend avoids me; a student drops out of a class, I have a back-ache, it must be my fault. I have been a bad wife; I must have said something wrong to my friend; I am a rotten teacher; I have over- exercised.

Freud explains this type of reasoning wonderfully clearly in “Mourning and Melancholia.” He says, “There is no difficulty reconstructing this process. An object choice, an attachment of the libido to a particular person had at one time existed; then owning to a real slight or disappointment coming from this loved person, the object relationship was shattered. The result was not the normal one of a withdrawal of the libido from this object and a displacement of it onto a new one, but something different for whose coming about various conditions seem to be necessary. The object cathexis proved to have little power of resistance and was brought to an end. But the free libido was not displaced onto another object it was withdrawn into the ego…served to establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object. In this way object loss was transformed into ego loss. ”

I tell myself I am a failure as a wife, a friend, a teacher; I was showing off doing the bridge at yoga and wrecked my back. Freud says something else which I find helpful: “ the object choice has been effected on a narcissistic identification.” There is a regression here, and the “ego wants to incorporate this object into itself.” Instead of letting go of the lost object or turning justified anger onto it, one identifies with the lost object. Thus in the case of a lost husband I was so clearly able to see his point of view: he was so young; I was so dumb; of course he would fall in love with someone else.

It does seem to me that some earlier narcissistic phase is involved here. One continues to believe one is in control of the universe the way a small child does. Obviously no one is omnipotent and none of us control our destinies so completely. “Grow up!” I tell myself. “You are not a child who believes she can make the sun shine.”

Guilt is only useful to us, surely, if we can look back at our past errors which certainly exist and discover how to avoid the same mistake again. Let us rather try to look to the future: to the next husband, the next friend, the next student, a new form of exercise.

With a drawing by Jean Marcellino

Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.

Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel (Penguin Original) by Sheila Kohler Penguin Books click here

Dreaming for Freud: A Novel by Sheila Kohler Penguin Books click here