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The phrases that trigger the pathological sense of guilt

The phrases that trigger the pathological sense of guilt

Pathological guilt re-proposes the emotions lived in the past, precluding a rewarding present and future ~ Anna De Simone | Illustration by Andrew Gable

Those who are sensitive to guilt are, in certain aspects, anchored to the emotional dynamics experienced in childhood . The guilt  is a factor that you selected in time with a clear evolutionary purpose: to lead us to maintain good relations with others. The  healthy sense of guilt , in fact, makes us fix our mistakes in a constructive way. The speech is very different for the pathological sense of guilt .

The guilt  is an unpleasant feeling connected at the thought of having damaged or could damage someone, it is accompanied by emotions such as  shame, anger, sadness and despair . When the pathological dimension unfolds, guilt can be associated with  feelings of inadequacy , a sense of inferiority and a feeling of being unworthy.

Contents hide 1 How does pathological guilt develop? 2 Phrases that trigger feelings of guilt 3 The sense of pathological guilt as a consequence of a trauma never worked out 4 The role of the Super Ego in the sense of pathological guilt 5 The sense of guilt as a personality characteristic 6 The hidden effects of the guilt feelings 7 How to overcome guilt

How does pathological guilt develop?

Pathological guilt can manifest itself as a result of a strong experience for which we are held responsible (an accident, a loss, a damage inflicted …). In most cases, pathological guilt can be traced back to the so-called ” residual guilt” . Let’s see what it is.

The  sense of residual guilt  is something that is learned  at an early age and persists until adulthood. Many authors describe pathological guilt as the ” emotional residue ” of the uncomfortable sentences that our parents repeated to us when we were still children. In reality, it is not so much “what we have been told” but “how they made us feel”.

To transform into a  stable and persistent emotional residue until adulthood , the child is not exposed to the feeling of guilt occasionally but  exposed systematically and repeatedly to guilt . Some educational models, unfortunately, leverage their own feelings of guilt and sensitivity towards children.

Why are children particularly sensitive to guilt? Because their biggest fear is to disappoint parents. Children live their experiences in an absolutistic and generalizing way. If a parent often relies on guilt, they will soon be assimilated in an equally absolutistic way.

Phrases that trigger feelings of guilt

Let’s make practical examples of phrases and dynamics that are found with greater frequency:

  • The mother who says to her son:
    “you have to eat everything because there are starving children in Africa”
  • The parent who warns:
    “you just have to be ashamed of what you have done”
  • Another cult phrase:
    “so you make Jesus cry”
  • Again:
    “mom does everything for you and you pay her back? You are an ungrateful! “
  • The parent who says:
    “If you continue to do tantrums you make me suffer”

As stated, an isolated sentence is not enough to trigger the  sense of pathological guilt  as an  emotional residue but an educational model is needed that  systematically leverages the child’s feelings of guilt  .

In other contexts, it is the  child who may feel guilty following the separation of the parents  or if a parent suffers. When a child sees a parent suffering, he may feel helpless and, having not yet developed the resources to “mentalize” what is happening, he may feel responsible for that suffering.

In dysfunctional families, the  scapegoat  can be the bearer of all the evils of the family; the so-called “black sheep”, in addition to feeling  different  and nurturing a “sense of non-belonging” towards his family of origin, will bring with him the burden of guilt. In this context, a child can be configured who is blamed for an unhappy married life (“if I stay with your father it’s only your fault!” If you didn’t exist, I would have a happy life! “).

A devastating dynamic can arise when a parent, demanding absolute devotion from the child , underlines every slightest lack as an irremediable damage “yet I do everything for you! Why do you behave like this?”.

Dramatic, for the psycho-affective development of a child, may be the questions such as: “do you love mom or dad more?”. Also in this case, the demand becomes harmful when it falls within an already strongly lacking educational context, characterized by emotional blackmail.

The pathological sense of guilt as a consequence of a trauma never worked out

A common feature of people who have suffered child abuse and trauma is the incomprehensibility of themselves . Those who have lived traumatic experiences in the developmental age tend, as adults, to live their emotional reactions and their internal states as if they were senseless, wrong , yet another proof of an internal defect that makes one’s life unworthy and impossible. Emblematic, when the trauma has never been worked out with a clear  attribution of responsibility to the culprit is the sense of guilt. Failing to blame an adult for what they have suffered, the child will begin to feel  guilty of the abuse .

This mechanism is absolutely destructive and common in highly disabling content where the child who has been abused does not feel victimized by what he has suffered but guilty. In these cases, guilt as a residual emotional experience can be very strong.

The role of the superego in the sense of pathological guilt

When it comes to  pathological guilt,  one cannot help mentioning the super-ego, one of the three instances postulated by Freud. The super-ego, according to Freud, would be the last instance of the personality to develop. Its development would occur during the phallic phase and healthy development would be associated with a positive resolution of the Oedipus Complex (in the male) or Electra Complex (in the female development).

According to Freud’s analysis, the deepest origin of the sense of guilt is in the Oedipus complex “since it derives the possibility of distinguishing between” good “and” bad “”. 

Every “no”, every “rule” and every “imposition” given by our parents is used to create our superego. By internalizing prohibitions, morals, severity, norms … we  strive to form that  dividing line between right and wrong .

It is clear that very rigid parents can induce the development of a very severe and critical-ready super-ego. The super-ego can be connected to what is called  self-induced guilt . In this context, one feels enormously guilty for having broken a moral norm, principle or concept which is very dear to us.

A practical example can be linked to a  sense of chronic guilt  in a person who, discovering that he is homosexual, does not want to disappoint his parents and thus begins to suffer or even deny his gender orientation.

The super-ego is composed of consciousness and ideal of the ego . While conscience is tied to morality and the concept of right and wrong, the ego ideal is tied to our standards. From here it is easy to understand that the  tendency to feel guilty  can be strongly linked to  high standards  and the consequent feeling of  not being enough  (strong self-criticism).

Guilt as a personality trait

In particularly adverse growth conditions,  pathological guilt  can become part of the personality structure of the  developing individual. In this context we speak of subjects with “high trait blame”. Guilt as a personality trait is not easy to discern to non-professionals, this trait can be traced back to mood disorders ( depression ), anxiety disorders (especially social phobia), abandonment syndrome (fear of loneliness) and obsessive compulsive disorder .

The hidden effects of guilt

Feeling guilty is a wearing experience but it is not only this feeling that invalidates the life of those who suffer from it. Those who feel guilty often do not consider themselves worthy of love and thus systematically end up in highly unbalanced relationships. Not only that, every little conquest can become an arduous undertaking: the feelings of guilt row against any life plan.

In practice, the effects of feeling guilty are not to be found only in the sensation itself but in the whole affective, working and social life of those who suffer from it.

How to overcome guilt

To overcome feelings of guilt it is necessary to investigate its origins. As we have seen,  guilt feelings  often arise in a dysfunctional family context , those who live with a high sensitivity to guilt can carry multiple injuries. Following a psychotherapeutic path may be the ideal choice to overcome guilt.

Working on your self-esteem can be an excellent strategy for getting rid of pathological guilt  as well as correcting the side effects of guilt. Earlier we talked about high standards and strong self-criticism.

Correcting self-critical thoughts is not at all simple but on an daily basis you can try an exercise: try to treat yourself as if you were your best friend. If you fail a goal, address words of consolation and not of condemnation, try to set yourself accessible destinations with a step by step job. Long-term projects, for those suffering from guilt, can be difficult to contemplate because among the hidden side effects there is self-sabotage .

It can heal from the pathological sense of guilt you can follow the suggestions that I have reported in the article on the inner Dialogue that heals.