“I have never smuggled anything in my life,” the great novelist John Steinbeck wrote in Travels With Charley. “Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?” Steinbeck’s guilt was irrational because, as he said, he had nothing to hide. So where did his guilt come from?
On approaching a customs barrier, he was aware, of course, that he was going to be dealing with an official vested with government authority. Steinbeck was likely being triggered by emotional impressions that the custom agent was going to view him as a potential smuggler or criminal. The agent had the power to hold him accountable. It appears that Steinbeck was entertaining the prospect of being confronted by a gruff agent who was prepared to intimidate him.
Of course, Steinbeck had a great imagination, and it was easy for him to imagine being a smuggler. To write so convincingly, he had to be able to bring to life the emotional experiences of his fictional characters. Yet most people have a talent for imagining doing bad things and also for imagining bad things happening to them. Feelings of being wrong, bad, and helpless are common to human nature. That stems, in part, from a lingering emotional resonance in our psyche with feelings of being naughty and being helpless. We can remember times as children when we faced the prospect of a scolding or punishment, whether we’d done wrong or not.
As Steinbeck approached a border crossing, he would have started resonating emotionally with the prospect of being exposed as a lawbreaker. At this point, guilt would be aroused in him because he was identifying emotionally with the plight of someone being caught, exposed, and taken into custody. He was experiencing guilt because he was starting to replay familiar passive feelings that are negative in nature. In his mind, the custom agent would soon be looming over him with dark, suspicious eyes. Steinbeck’s guilt was directly associated with his unconscious willingness in that moment to experience himself as a passive creature at the mercy of an authority figure.
Even the healthiest among us can at times slip into these negative considerations. Of course, we want on a conscious level to feel strong, self-assured, and virtuous. Unconsciously, though, we are inclined, through inner passivity, to experience ourselves through weakness, fear, and intimidation. This discrepancy between consciously wanting strength yet flirting emotionally with weakness is an example of inner conflict.
Guilt arises when we make a choice, usually unconsciously, to feed, entertain, or recycle negative considerations. Guilt is produced when we engage with and become entangled in our emotional attachments to unresolved inner conflict. We get triggered by unresolved negative emotions, now operating within us as emotional attachments, having to do with refusal, deprivation, loss, helplessness, criticism, rejection, and abandonment. The guilt arises when we unwittingly engage in self-defeating bittersweet indulgence in these familiar emotional attachments from our past.
As mentioned, it’s likely that Steinbeck felt guilty because he was entertaining the feeling of being at the mercy of an authority figure who would determine whether he was fit to cross the border. A person in this emotional predicament is feeding his unresolved emotional attachment to the feeling of being helpless. In this situation, guilt arises under the cover of a psychological defense that goes like this: “I’m not looking to feel passive and helpless. I’m not looking forward to experiencing myself in this way. Look at how worried and anxious I am about my coming encounter with a customs agent.” However, this defense is unlikely to be convincing to our inner critic. Our inner critic scolds or mocks us for our passivity, and we then feel guilty for harboring, protecting, and indulging this inner weakness.
Our inner critic holds us accountable—through mockery, scorn, and condemnation—for our tendency to indulge in our unresolved negative attachments (again, these attachments involve feeling refused, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, or abandoned). Guilt arises into our conscious awareness because it’s true, most of us at times do indulge in this way. But this is still all happening unconsciously. On a conscious level, we’re failing to understand or even recognize the fact that we are indulging in unresolved negative emotions. Usually we don’t understand why we’re feeling the guilt, other than to pin it on all the wrong things.
A person says, as one example, that his guilt is due to his laziness, when laziness itself is a byproduct or symptom of his emotional indulgence in feeling helpless. The guilt in this case is really due to the underlying emotional affinity for the helpless, passive sense of self. In another example, a person feels guilty for his inappropriate anger, yet his guilt has actually arisen because he has been indulging in feeling rejected, and his inner critic has “called him out” for his emotional attachment to rejection. The defense reads: “No, I’m not looking to feel rejected! Look at how angry I get at those people who reject me!”
We can feel strong guilt through just tiny infractions or small misbehaviors. We can also feel this guilt even when presumed misconduct is happening only in our imagination. We don’t actually have to do the “evil” deed to suffer the penalty. It’s like a great cosmic laugh at our expense. We can feel guilt for our slightest slip-ups, misdemeanors, or idle thoughts. For instance, we know that religious fundamentalists can express intense guilt or feel shameful mortification for their “bad” thoughts. As another example, blushing indicates that the blusher resonates emotionally with the impression that he or she has been “caught red-handed” having forbidden thoughts, shameful intent, or for being a flawed character. As blushers see more clearly the irrationality involved, they break free of the underlying inner conflict, and their blushing is no longer a problem.
We sense that we deserve our guilt because we have allegedly done something wrong. The guilt arises because of our inward defensiveness. On an inner level, we’re fending off our inner critic for its claims, often unfounded or wildly exaggerated, that we’re guilty of some wrongdoing. Our guilt is produced when, deep in our psyche, we absorb negative accusations from our inner critic that are unjust, untrue, or simply make-believe. As mentioned, our inner critic is readily prepared, through inner accusations, to “expose us” for our thoughts as well as for our deeds. Such accusations are based on primitive self-aggression that emanates randomly from our inner critic. We absorb the aggression because, in that moment, we fail on an inner level (ultimately due to a lack of knowledge concerning depth psychology) to protect ourselves from that aggressive irrationality.
Sometimes the misdemeanors we feel guilty about occurred ages ago. One client could still feel guilty because she had gotten angry for a few hours in her mother’s presence during her mother’s long, fatal illness over 30 years ago. The mother was sick for more than three years, and my client had been a conscientious daughter who tried her best to be helpful and ease her mother’s pain. But she still regretted that one-time outburst of anger and frustration. She said she had forgiven herself many times for the outburst, but the painful memory of it, and her guilt for allegedly having been a “bad daughter,” kept coming back.
I told my client, “The only reason you’re still feeling guilty and suffering in this way is because your inner critic is still able to hit you up with negative accusations about that long-ago incident. Those inner accusations of having been a “bad daughter” are unfair and quite irrational. Typically, our inner critic is unforgiving and cruel. It ignores the fact that we can’t be perfect. Even though, as you said, you forgave yourself for your angry outburst a long time ago, that forgiveness means nothing to your inner critic. Your inner critic is still able to weasel its way into your thoughts and to pass judgment on you. Through your inner passivity, you absorb that negative accusation of being a bad daughter, and you become inwardly defensive to it, which means you feel that the accusation has some validity and might even speak to some intrinsic unworthiness within you. Through your inner passivity, however, you’re soaking up that aggression. You choose unconsciously to experience yourself from the position of being intimidated by, and subordinate to, your inner aggression. You now feel guilty for your passivity, meaning for the degree to which you buy into the denunciations contained in that aggression.”
So we absorb aggression and negativity from our inner critic because of our inner passivity. This passivity is an inner weakness, a place inside our psyche that we have not yet claimed (or infused) with sufficient consciousness. The dimensions of this inner passivity, which affects men and women equally and cause all sorts of problems including clinical depression, come clearer to us as we study our psyche and acquire self-knowledge.
People can put themselves in a no-win situation with respect to guilt. Consider a man who, on one particular day, is asked by his wife to leave work early in order to pick up his son at school. He feels guilty about leaving the office early, yet he knows he will also feel guilty if he tells his wife that he can’t do it. The guilt is felt because the man is allowing himself, through inner passivity, to feel trapped in a quandary. Through his passivity, he’s enabling his inner critic to get him coming or going. Absent this passivity, he would make his choice more easily, and then, free of all guilt, he would act accordingly.
In summary, we feel guilt as a form of punishment. (Punishment is also absorbed in the form of shame, worry, and depression.) We accept this punishment because we have already absorbed emotionally, from our inner critic, allegations of wrongdoing. Picture the child who, even when innocent, so easily feels reprimanded or scolded. Our inner critic is now the scold, and, through inner passivity, we’re the child. When we understand this, we can objectively observe this inner dynamic from the standpoint of enhanced awareness. This enables us to occupy, with self-knowledge and consciousness, the area in our psyche that has been harboring inner passivity.
In doing so, we claim that inner territory in the name of our new consciousness and a new sense of self. Now, instead of absorbing aggression from the inner critic, we’re able to deflect or neutralize it. We can now laugh in the face of this inner aggression, if it even now arises, because we see it as irrational and ridiculous. As a result, we experience neither guilt nor depression.
As we get stronger and eliminate our unconscious passivity, we successfully shut down our inner critic and live guilt-free and in greater harmony.
This article is a revision of an earlier post, “Get Rid of Guilt with Deeper Insight,” as it appeared in my book, Psyched Up: The Deep Knowledge that Liberates the Self.