What a Psychologist Says About Guilt – Part I

OK, here’s my take. On the surface, guilt is another form of anxiety. It is an uncomfortable feeling. It tends to be a little vague, like that experienced with panic or phobia. Anxiety has been described as fear without an object; that is, we don’t always know what makes us uneasy. Guilt is a little like that. We don’t always have in our awareness the cause of what is bothering us. We just know “something is not right.”

“It is a sort of waking dream, which, though a person be otherwise in sound health, makes him feel symptoms of every disease; and, though innocent, yet fills his mind with the blackest horrors of guilt”-William Heberden

Guilt occurs when we either did something we should not have, or we did not do something we should have. These are “sins” of commission or “sins” of omission, and both involve our reactions to at least one of what I call the seven deadly words or phrases. (These are described in detail in my ebook, “Why Relationships Fail.”) “Should” or “Should not” are the most common offending deadly words but any of the seven deadly words or phrases can set up guilt. (The others are “Always,” “Never,” “Must,” “Have to” and “Need to.”) Should and Should Not are probably used more to do this, so I’ll use these two to generally describe how guilt works. This is the same as what is found in the dynamics of procrastination, only with guilt, there is more of a sense of right vs. wrong relative to our behaviors. We then feel judged, then criticized. Criticism is the primary vehicle of guilt and is a function of comparing something done with something that should or should not have been done. In this sense, guilt dynamics are similar but not exactly the same as in procrastination, even though both are a form of ambivalence.

Procrastination is a function of comparing something not done with something that should have been done, usually more relative to time. Hopefully this is communicated with less personal criticism (but not always). Procrastination can have a judgment aspect, but usually it functions more at an evaluative or transactional level and can function all by itself without any consideration of judgment. One can have procrastination with or without guilt, but guilt more often occurs when there is a personal sense of inadequacy, regardless of whether or not there is a delay in completing tasks. Guilt is only slightly less likely to simultaneously occur with procrastination, and is slightly more convoluted. This can be confusing, so let me spell this out more concretely.

In guilt-inducing communication, one or more of the seven deadly words or phrases is used directly or indirectly to criticize. This means pointing out our failings, usually through more subtle means. If I say, “You should have cleaned up your room,” I am implying but not directly stating YOU are messy, inconsiderate or perhaps just a slob. If you respond to such a guilt-inducing communication, you feel “crummy” and are motivated to correct the situation to reduce your anxiety. While procrastination sometimes involves this, guilt almost always thrives on judgment and criticism. Think being a parent, scolding a child. In judging someone, the speaker evokes some standard, real or imagined, relative to some behavior(s) or values. The speaker who induces guilt judges the recipient to have failed to live up to some way of behaving or some way of thinking that the speaker believes to be THE (meaning, right) standard. Because of the conflict, the recipient then feels some amount of anxiety, which is a direct result of how much the recipient directly or indirectly accepts THE standard, stated or implied.

This is the first of a three-part series of articles on guilt, from a psychologist’s point of view. It focuses on underlying dynamics and is presented in a no-nonsense format.

Steven Griggs (1)

Steven T. Griggs, PhD

Private Practice since 1984.
National Register Credentialed since 1986
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