Is guilt our favorite way to suffer? I think it is. Shame, fear, and anxiety might be more intense as torments go, but guilt (life’s “fitful fever”—Shakespeare) is the emotional hotspot that flares up most frequently in the backwoods of human nature.
And it doesn’t take much to feel the heat. “When I get asked a favor,” one client told me, “any reluctance on my part is laden with guilt.” Guilt ignites so easily it ought to be bundled with smoke alarms.
Here’s how a writer in The Guardian newspaper expressed her familiarity with guilt:
Already today I feel guilty about having said the wrong thing to a friend. Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I’d said. Plus, I haven’t called my mother yet today: guilty. And I really should have organized something special for my husband’s birthday: guilty. I have the wrong kind of food to my child: guilty. I’ve been cutting corners at work lately: guilty. I skipped breakfast: guilty. I snacked instead: double guilty… Nor am I feeling good about feeling bad.
Guilt of this mundane, everyday variety arises due to unconscious conflict in our psyche between the inner critic and inner passivity. The inner critic’s “job” is to criticize (no surprise), and inner passivity’s “job” is to defend. The inner dynamic here is unequivocal: The more our inner critic’s criticism penetrates into our emotional life, the more guilt we feel. The more insightful we are, the more we’re able to block the inner critic from spewing its irrational nonsense and the freer we are of guilt.
Let’s analyze the first few sentences from the indented paragraph above. To illustrate here the nature of inner conflict, I’ll give a voice to the inner critic (IC) and to inner passivity (IP). These voices are unlikely to be heard by us in our head. Instead, they’re usually unbidden thoughts that swarm our mind. Sometimes they’re experienced more as feelings or impressions than as thoughts. People usually aren’t aware that these inner voices or thoughts represent inner conflict. We’re more likely to experience them as aspects of normal reflection. (People with serious mental illness can sometimes hear inner conflict as distinct voices.) Though these voices or thoughts are fictionalized in the following paragraph as an explicatory device, they represent accurately how inner conflict plays out in our psyche. Here we go:
Guilt is expressed: Already today I feel guilty about having said the wrong thing to a friend. Giving rise to this guilt is, first, the accusing voice of the IC: That wasn’t nice what you said to your friend. You obviously hurt his feelings. Now the passive, defensive voice of IP replies: I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings. I do wish I hadn’t said that. The voice of IC responds: How could you have been so thoughtless and foolish. He must be very upset. The voice of IP replies: Oh yes, it’s true. It was foolish. But I didn’t mean to be hurtful. What’s the matter with me? I’ve got to be more thoughtful.
And on and on this conflicted dialogue goes, back and forth in twists and turns of accusation and defensiveness, sometimes for hours, sometimes (depending on one’s state of mental health) for days. As readers can see, guilt-tripping oneself is sport for the psychologically naïve. Guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong and deserve to be punished. Rationally, though, we don’t usually deserve to be punished hour after hour for an honest mistake, innocent oversight, or thoughtless moment. It ought to be enough that, on recognizing our mistake (which sometimes is not even real but just imagined), we can resolve to do better next time. Throwing guilt into the mix makes everything messier.
The solution is to stifle our bullying inner critic. It instinctively lays bad trips on us, using as a pretext some real or alleged transgression or failure of ours. Yet the deeper problem is not so much the inner critic. Rather, it’s the fact we let the inner critic get away with its bullying aggression. The inner critic is a psychological drive or instinct of pure self-aggression. We ought to be insightful and smart enough to keep this primitive energy from flooding our mental and emotional life. Its relationship to us is primordial and authoritarian. Its assessment of us can be stripped to seven words: We’re bad and need to be punished.
We can be helpless to stop the inner voices when inner conflict between our aggressive and passive sides operates unconsciously. Meditation can block the voices, but often only temporarily. Often the voices subside only after we have accepted or endured enough punishment in the form of guilt or shame, thereby finally putting the voices and underlying conflict to rest. But the voices and conflict soon arise again, perhaps in a new context.
From the indented paragraph above, let’s look at the next sentence. Guilt is again acknowledged: Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I’d said. Accusing voice of IC: Now you’re making it worse. What’s the matter with you! Can you even imagine what he’s thinking of you! Defensive voice of IP: What could I say to him at this point? I’m so embarrassed. Maybe tomorrow I’ll give him a call. Voice of IC responds: Tomorrow is a long time away. You ought to be ashamed of letting him go so long without an apology from you. Voice of IP replies: I wonder what he’s thinking right now. Is he disgusted with me? Does he think I’m no real friend at all? I’m not sure what to do.
I could go on, sentence by sentence, through the remainder of that paragraph above. But I would only be repeating ad nauseum the same two conflicting voices spouting their shifting contentiousness. You get the point: The inner critic attacks and inner passivity defends. When we’re insightful or more conscious, we can stop the conflict from arising in the first place. If it still arises, we can now at least more quickly curtail it.
What if you really have been unkind or rude to a friend? Social faux pas are committed by the best of us. When we’re insightful, we don’t torture ourselves with guilt about it. We know when we have done something unkind, foolish, or inept without having to feel guilty about it. Our intelligence and goodness produce a rational sensibility that doesn’t need guilt’s unreliable guidance.
Sure, if we’ve blurted out a particularly barbed insult it’s probably best to apologize. Sometimes we can make up for a lack of good manners by showing up the next morning with coffee and doughnuts. If our friend mentions the incident and asks for an explanation or apology, we can acknowledge our inappropriateness without cringing in guilt: You’re right, Henry, I blurted those words out thoughtlessly. A mean streak sneaks up on me sometimes, especially after my third beer. I do apologize. I value you very much as a friend. No sweat, no guilt, no hangdog cringe.
When inner conflict is resolved, we’re guided by a sense of inner freedom rather than guilt. Because we no longer tolerate belittling attacks from our inner critic, we can support ourselves emotionally, easing the discomfort of having acted unwisely by knowing that, in our goodness and integrity, our unkind or rude behavior was out of character and does not represent something bad about us. We cut ourselves some slack: Okay, once in a while I get cranky and snap at people. I’m not, I’m happy to say, perfect. However, if we’re repeatedly or chronically cranky, we’d do well to remedy this by investigating its source.
There’s a school of thought that claims guilt is okay, that it helps us recognize any failure to live up to our values and standards. This theory claims that guilt, at its best, alerts us to mistakes and guides us in rectifying them. Psychopaths, it’s also noted, are notorious for having no guilt at all. I still say we’re guided best not by guilt but by our intelligence and goodness. True, many people might still need guilt as a red flag for inappropriate behavior, but they ought not to allow the guilt to sustain self-torture. We do well to eliminate what we can of mundane, everyday guilt. Otherwise, we could be in danger of having the guilt escalate into more serious emotional disturbances. When inner conflict intensifies, which can easily occur when we’re blind to these inner dynamics, our guilt can escalate quickly to become debilitating symptoms such as shame, fear, anxiety, and depression.
Guilt arises in proportion to how much we’re under the influence of inner passivity: A person on deadline who’s procrastinating (procrastination is a symptom of inner passivity) will feel plenty of guilt for the procrastination; a person who’s chronically indecisive (indecision is a symptom of inner passivity) will feel plenty of guilt for the indecisiveness. The pervasiveness of guilt in the human psyche proves, to my mind, the existence of inner passivity as a clinical feature of the psyche. If we weren’t inwardly passive to our inner critic, we wouldn’t allow our inner critic to assail us with unwarranted, flimsy accusations. These accusations claim that we somehow deserve to be punished (by taking on guilt) for even our smallest imperfections and oversights. With better insight and a more conscious connection to our authentic self, we simply decline to accept punishment for the inner critic’s irrational attacks.
Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) that, “The tension between the harsh super-ego [inner critic] and the ego that is subjected to it, is called by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for punishment.” This might be the most important sentence Freud ever wrote, though today its implications are largely ignored by mainstream psychology. The “need for punishment” refers, of course, not to a healthy need but to the need to appease the inner critic when an individual, through psychological ignorance, has no other recourse. Freud’s statement includes the phrase, “the ego that is subjected to it.” This refers to our psyche’s unconscious, subordinate ego, the seat of inner passivity. This realm of inner life is what our consciousness must now lay claim to.
Evidence of “a need for punishment” is found in the high incidence of self-injury, especially among young people. The more guilt, the stronger the impulse to self-injure. According to the American Psychological Association, “People who self-harm may carve or cut their skin, burn themselves, bang or punch objects or themselves, embed objects under their skin, or engage in myriad other behaviors that are intended to cause themselves pain but not end their lives.” Inner conflict in which the inner critic overwhelms the passive side of the psyche produces the feeling that punishment is required. Those who self-injure frequently feel a calmness immediately following their self-harming behavior, indicating the inner critic backs off once satisfied that enough punishment has been inflicted.
In conjunction with a need for punishment, guilt, like fear, can be inwardly transmuted to produce a peculiar alluring mania or jolt of excitement. I distinctly remember feeling this when, as a youngster, I stole carrots at night from a neighbor’s garden and when I sneaked off, too young to drive legally, in my dad’s car on early Sunday mornings before the family had awakened. Such misbehavior produces the thrill of being a “bad boy.” The guilt here, according to psychoanalysis, has been libidinized, meaning, in this context, that libido “sugarcoats” the guilt to produce the thrill of being naughty. Adults can experience this thrill when gambling recklessly, overeating or bingeing, watching porn, behaving promiscuously, or giving rein to other id impulses. Certain thoughts can initiate such activity: “I can do whatever I want,” “You only live once,” or “To hell with it, I’ll do it anyway.” In this way, guilt becomes an emotional launching pad to feel, by way of pleasure in risky activity, that one is aggressively outwitting the inner critic. Such comportment is a desperate ploy to feel power, defiance, and adventurism to cover up underlying passivity.
When we recognize the conflict between the inner critic and inner passivity, and understand inner defensiveness and resistance, we’re able to liberate ourselves from guilt.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.
Earlier posts about guilt: