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What Makes Us Feel Guilty?

Guilt might even be good for us! (Don't tell your Mom!)

Sarah* was pregnant with her second child. She was also in mourning. Her beloved Granny had died after a long and painful illness. “I know it’s better for her to be out of her pain and not suffering anymore,” Sarah told me, “but I just don’t want her to be gone.” She was silent for a moment and then she added, “I wish I could have told her just once more how much I love her. I wish I had been there for her more.”

I could hear the guilt in Sarah’s words. From my perspective, she had no reason to feel it. From everything she had described, she and her grandmother had a clear and openly expressed mutual love. They had spoken several times a week during the illness, and although Sarah had wanted to visit her in the last weeks of her life, she was eight months pregnant and her physician had told her it was not safe for her to travel the distance. Her Granny had said, “You need to take care of yourself and of my great grandchildren. And besides, I’m so tired these days that we get more visiting done in our phone calls than we would in person.”

But now that she had passed on, Sarah was feeling not only sad and bereft, but also guilty about not having made the effort despite her doctor’s recommendation.

What was this guilt about? Was it as simple and straightforward as Sarah simply needing someone to remind her that her Granny had not expected – or wanted – her to make the trip? In the years that I have been working as a therapist, I have found that guilt, one of the primary emotions Freud wrote about, is almost never simple.

For instance, what does it mean when working moms feel guilty that they’re not spending enough time with their children and stay at home moms worry that they’re not being good role models for their daughters? What about husbands who feel badly that they’re not making enough money so that their wives can stay home with their children; and partners who feel guilty that they have fallen out of love with their mates?

Or a man who feels guilty about having mistreated a younger sibling, or who feels terrible about not having protected another child from bullies when they were in elementary school, or who worries because he has money and a comfortable life while so many in the world are suffering?

And what about those famous guilt-provoking parents and grandparents who, unlike Sarah’s Granny, want their children and grandchildren to feel guilty about not visiting, calling or bringing the grandchildren often enough; for not coming to holiday or family celebrations; or just for not being the child they wanted or expected them to be. What is this really about?

Guilt is not a nice feeling. We try to avoid it, and when we can’t get away from it we try to get rid of it, sometimes by trying to put blame on others – it’s her fault, not mine, we say. I’m really an innocent victim here. Or we look for absolution, forgiveness. We want to know that we’re not bad, or at least not completely. But like so many painful emotions, guilt is actually important to our well-being, part of healthy psychological development. Freud saw it as a signal that an individual had begun to take responsibility for himself, for his feelings and conflicts and for difficult decisions he had to make. Carl Jung said that development and growth only occur when we are able to recognize and attempt to rectify our transgressions. And Melanie Klein saw guilt as part of the healthy acceptance of the “depressive position,” which she believed was a sign that a person could manage a realistic mix of emotional experiences, accepting that she is neither pure and always good nor evil and always bad.

Guilt is a way we have of recognizing that we have not lived up to our own values and standards. At its best, it is an opportunity to acknowledge and rectify mistakes. But often guilt bleeds into shame, and then it becomes another story.

Many psychoanalysts, psychologists and social workers have written about the differences between these two feelings. Brené Brown puts it succinctly, describing guilt as “adaptive and helpful - it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” Shame, on the other hand, she says is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging - something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

Silvano Tomkins also writes about the sense of shame we have when something suddenly stops and we feel not only a loss but also a sense that we are no longer connected and somehow, unworthy of connection.

As I listened to Sarah, I found myself wondering if some of what she was feeling was actually related more to the sense of not being connected than to a feeling that she had not lived up to her own values and standards. Her grandmother’s death had left her without an important connection; and sometimes, even though we know better, some childlike part of us thinks, “If only I had behaved better, that person would not have died and left me behind.” Sarah’s guilt, then, was a way of holding onto her grandmother, of maintaining a secret belief that if only she could make up for her failures, she could bring her grandmother back.

I began to think that some of my other clients might also be trying to hold onto or repair relationships through feelings of guilt. The thoughts might not always make logical sense, but I suspect that they are ways of trying to stay connected. If shame is a feeling of not being worthy of connection, then guilt is a feeling that we can make ourselves worthy. Perhaps one more good thing about guilt, then, is that it brings along with it a sense that we can change something that is making us feel bad.

*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy

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