The Psychology of Guilt

in StemSocial14 days ago (edited)

Expulsion From the Garden of Eden
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Credit: Masaccio (1401-1428). Public domain.

I couldn't decide if I should add a personal note to this blog or not. But without the note, there didn't seem to be much reason for writing. So here is a bit of information: I didn't see my father from 1958, when I was eleven, until 1988, when he died. As he entered old age, I didn't try to visit him, or contact him.

And yet, I feel no guilt.


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What causes guilt? Where does it come from? One clinical psychologist from the UK offers a rather succinct summary:

...guilt is a feeling of remorse or sadness over a past action, experienced when we think we’ve caused harm or breached our moral code

Do we need guilt? Most sites I consulted for this blog assert that guilt is an adaptive response to wrongdoing. As a matter of fact, the inability to feel guilt may actually be a symptom of psychopathy. But is it possible to feel too much guilt? 'Too much' guilt is a bad thing. That's what a lot of sites on the Internet say.

Guilt
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Credit: Rallé. Used under CC 3.0 license.

Personal growth guru Tony Robbins, for example, instructs us on How to Stop Feeling Guilty. We must 'forgive ourselves', and must 'change our negative self-talk'. If we have done a wrong to someone, we can 'apologize'. If that is not possible, we should drive out the 'negative thoughts' with 'positive thoughts'. Then we should learn from our mistakes: "...find the lesson," he advises, "– and then don’t let it happen again."

But is it really true that guilt is bad for us? I make a distinction here between guilt and shame. These are quite separate emotions. A 2017 article published in the journal Behavioral Science explains:

Within the field of guilt and shame two competing perspectives have been advanced. The first, the social-adaptive perspective, proposes that guilt is an inherently adaptive emotion and shame is an inherently maladaptive emotion.

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Although in vernacular speech the terms guilt and shame may sometimes be used interchangeably, there actually is a significant difference between the two. Psychologist/psychoanalyst Richard Burgo explains in Psychology Today:

  • Guilt involves the awareness of having done something wrong; it arises from one's actions.
  • Shame is the painful feeling about how one appears to others (and to oneself) without having done anything.

In considering guilt, and only guilt, there is a generally acknowledged burden, a sense of responsibility that comes from having done something 'wrong'. Wrong of course is a value term. When it comes to guilt, it is dependent upon one's personal values, one's sense of right and wrong.

Soul in Bondage
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Credit: Elihu Vedder (1836-1923) Public domain.

As an article in Clinical Psychology Review suggests, part of the problem in discussing guilt is defining terms. After reviewing 23 sources, the authors of this article come to the conclusion that there is "...a lack of conceptual clarity...Measures of guilt do not correspond well to the definitions from which they derive".

Despite the difficulty in coming to an agreement on terms and definitions, the authors offer this: central to feelings of guilt is a "focus on one’s action or inactions involving real or imagined moral transgressions." Guilt is personal and therefore difficult for a researcher to quantify or define.

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Some Studies on the Weight of Guilt:

The heading of this section, "The Weight of Guilt" is chosen deliberately. One consequence of guilt that keeps popping up in studies is weight gain.

From Stigma Health

Weight stigma facilitates unhealthy eating and weight gain...

and

...we found that perceived weight stigma predicted weight gain over (a) 10-week period

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Perceptions of weight stigma are said to lead to maladaptive eating behavior and weight gain. As a matter of fact, according to some studies, guilt about being overweight may actually decrease physical activity.

According to an article in Obesity Science and Practice

Perceiving one's weight as ‘too heavy’ is associated with lower levels of physical activity and higher levels of sedentary behaviour.

and

...the mechanisms underpinning the associations between weight perception and lifestyle behaviours have not been identified...the self‐conscious emotions of shame and guilt may mediate these associations.

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In addition to the weight gain that may be associated with guilt, there is another weight-related phenomenon: the sense of feeling heavy.

Research out of Princeton University describes how people are literally 'weighed down' by guilt. The researchers report that

...recalling personal unethical acts led participants to report increased subjective body weight... We also found that this increased sense of weight was related to participants’ heightened feelings of guilt...

An interesting consequence of this increased sense of weight was that the feeling influenced the study participants' overall sense of fitness to fulfill physical tasks.

...those who recalled unethical memories, which can be accompanied by sensations of weight, perceived the physical behaviors to involve even greater effort to complete (tasks) compared to ratings provided by those in a control condition.

Melancholy
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Credit: Edvard Munch. Public domain

Guilt and Depression

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a condition recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. The Mayo Clinic offers a description of the symptoms for MDD. Included in the list is this:

...feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame

The association between guilt and depression is quite strong (in the literature). For example, the Atlantic Magazine cites research that shows children who suffer from an inordinate sense of guilt, have a higher risk of suffering major depressive disorder as adults.

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An article in WebMD discusses the relationship between guilt, depression, anxiety and obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD). The authors of this article explain, "Guilt is intertwined with other disorders, and separating them can be a challenge."

In the case of OCD, the authors assert, "OCD is all about recurring thoughts (obsessions) and actions (compulsions) that are uncontrollable. Guilt can act as a predecessor or an enabler for OCD." In the case of depression, the authors write, "The relationship between guilt and depression forms a swirling pool of negative thinking. They can often spiral out of control, feeding off each other until they are consuming."

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I Do Feel Guilty, But Not About My Father
I was brought up Catholic, so of course I feel guilt. Even for people who are no longer practicing Catholics, examining conscience is an unbreakable habit. Accepting penance for sins committed is part of a Catholic's DNA. However, when it comes to my father, there is no sin to repent.

When I was eighteen I received a letter from my father. In it he wrote: I wish you all the best, besides which I have nothing further to offer you. This letter was the first time I'd heard from my father in seven years. I never heard from him again.

That letter was my father's gift to me. It was a release from any doubt I might have had about filial obligation. I don't have the sense that I have caused harm, or breached a moral code. Though I may feel guilt about many sins of omission and commission in my life, on this one I get a pass.

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Credits and Sources

The idea for this blog came from the Inkwell Nonfiction prompt that was offered last week: Letters. I didn't want to write something very personal, so I made this a science blog for one of my favorite communities, @stemsocial.

Illustrations not Credited in the Post
Two accent pieces are mine (I created them):

  • This accent  black and red tiny.png and this accent  black and red2.png

Two were derived from images I borrowed from LIL, the LMAC Image Gallery:

Research Sources:
https://www.axahealth.co.uk/health-information/mental-health/resilience/what-causes-guilt-and-how-to-overcome-it/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5746692/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-43727-0

https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/signs-guilt

https://www.tonyrobbins.com/personal-growth/how-to-stop-feeling-guilty/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5746692/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shame/201305/the-difference-between-guilt-and-shame

https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/ethical-relativism/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4119878/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6132275/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7448164/

https://www.princeton.edu/news/2013/10/08/weighed-down-guilt-research-shows-its-more-metaphor

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20356007

https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/signs-guilt

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/childhood-guilt-adult-depression/384176/

https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2018/07/11/when-catholic-guilt-gets-way-catholic-faith

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3670430/

https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0032836

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7318342/

https://doi.org/10.1037/h0032836

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1973-24305-001

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0277953694001219

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/never-binge-again/201812/does-guilt-make-you-fat

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This was a really good reading for me.

it's a self-perspective thing to feel guilty about things. Sometimes we count them and others don't feel that way. We must forgive ourselves and understand that everything we do has a reason.

In my past there are many things that one would like to change, but if changing them changes my present and I don't get to be where I am now, I wouldn't like it.

even if i did something bad i accepted it and i'm in peace with it because everything has brought me to where I am now

We must forgive ourselves and understand that everything we do has a reason.

I agree, but I also think we have to learn from the misdeeds. If we let these go too easily, they will not teach us to do differently in the future.

even if i did something bad i accepted it and i'm in peace with it because everything has brought me to where I am now

You are fortunate to feel this way. I wish I could change some things. But, there is no cosmic eraser that gets rid of past deeds. So I do my best to be a better person than I was then

Thank you very much for reading my blog and for sharing your experience, @malos10

I had to smile when you mentioned being raised Catholic as I was too. I think the world has changed dramatically since those childhood days when an impure thought was a sin. Heck I just saw tv documentary that showed Janet Jackson’s breast in that fracas on the football half-time when Justin Timberlake torn her top. Officials and sponsors were outraged but that is mild to what goes on under the guise of show business.

I’m glad you don’t have any guilt concerning your father. There are many past situations I would have liked to have handled differently but either didn’t have the knowledge or confidence. Mainly now I TRY to be kind…doesn’t always work! 😆

With age does comes being comfortable in your own body and not trying to keep up with the demands of the herd. I can’t say I’m free of guilt or sadness but I try to remember we are here to learn lessons..sometimes the hard way.

Much appreciate you used my lil image, A.G. @agmoore. Have a wonderful week ahead. 💜

Hello my friend, @redheadpei

I’m glad you don’t have any guilt concerning your father.

That certainly is not warranted, but as you suggest, time has mellowed me a bit. I do feel a little pity for him. Imagine growing old and not knowing your children. I can't imagine that.

I can’t say I’m free of guilt or sadness

I think you and I have some of the same treatments for sadness: those critters outside and the strays that need our help.🐤

It's a pleasure to know you my friend. Thanks so much for stopping by. Stay warm☀️

Wow, this is an incredible write-up, @agmoore. I'm so glad it was inspired by The Ink Well prompt. As one of your co-admins, I know how these ideas sometimes churn us up or get us thinking. They can brew in our minds. I sometimes think of four or five different approaches to any given prompt, and sometimes weeks after we publish it. The mind is a funny thing.

As for guilt, I also grew up Catholic. I won't blame Catholicism 100% for my feelings of guilt. I simply have a very strong sense of commitment to others. And I've felt a lifelong deficit in myself in that regard — as in, feeling that no matter what I do I am bound to cause harm. And have, in fact, done so. It is without intent but not without remorse.

I like the Tony Robbins suggestions for ridding ourselves of guilt. It's not a very useful emotion. I liked your weight analogies. Guilt is an emotional burden. The weight of guilt sits on our proverbial shoulders. Like Atlas, we soldier on beneath it.

One thing I sort of thought you alluded to in this article was the notion that guilt makes us human. It shows that we have heart and soul. I believe that. If you read my letters article, you'll meet Bill, a social predator and sociopath who would steal people's time. He would pull them into his weird conversational trap — attempt to assimilate their manners in some demented effort to relate to them, and not let them go, regardless of how much they tried to peel away. And he had no sense of the torment he caused them, and no guilt.

Shame is an even more useless than guilt, and is downright unhealthy. But one can almost see the utility of guilt in a world where we absolutely need to have compassion for one another and be able to walk in one another's shoes. The trick is to find a balance, I think, where guilt triggers actions — to make amends, to forgive and love ourselves, and to be more kind and thoughtful going forward.

Thank you, @jayna, for that thoughtful response. Yes, the word prompt is interesting. It is meant to encourage us to write about one thing, but then one never knows where the mind will lead us.

I did mull this over as an essay for the Inkwell, but was never comfortable making it about 'me'. So (maybe it's a Catholic thing 😄) I took myself out of the thing.

I didn't have a chance to read your essay. There was a lot to work out here and finally (phew!) it happened.

you'll meet Bill, a social predator and sociopath who would steal people's time. He would pull them into his weird conversational trap — attempt to assimilate their manners in some demented effort to relate to them, and not let them go, regardless of how much they tried to peel away.

Wow, that sounds horrible. I really need to get over there and read it. I'm already feeling hostility toward this person.

Everything we learned (especially that stuff learned early in life) adds to what we are today. In the end though, it is our life, our responsibility. We take it all and make the best of it and ourselves.

Thanks so much for stopping by.

Everything we learned (especially that stuff learned early in life) adds to what we are today. In the end though, it is our life, our responsibility. We take it all and make the best of it and ourselves.

Yes. At the end of the day it's all about responsibility — to ourselves and those in our lives. If we suffer from unmanaged guilt, it limits the amount of energy and love we have to give others (and, I believe, leads to a bad form of narcissism). So in fact, we should feel a responsibility to those around us to deal with guilt so we can live fully!

we should feel a responsibility to those around us to deal with guilt so we can live fully!

Brilliantly true. Sometimes I think of the Hebrtew toast, L’Chaim! (To Life!). That sums it up. In the end we are here, we live and we find a way to rejoice in that.

I went to an all-girls’ Catholic school until I was thirteen, I was selected for novice training; I almost became a nun. As for your father, I’m sorry to say that I hope he had an unhealthy dose of both shame and guilt (your poor family). In this world of predators, sometimes we’re lucky and we escape unscathed, but for many the pain caused by others, especially family, can be a debilitating disease that infects of hearts with malice. I’m so glad that you had the sense to give up on him. Kudos 🤗💕❤️💕🤗🤗💕❤️❤️🥰🥰🙃🪔❤️💕🤗🥰🥰🙃❤️💕🤗🥰

Hello @itsostylish,

One of my cousins was a novitiate and then a nun for many years. She eventually left and got married. That religion bug gets us early, doesn't it?

As for my father: He was full of anger and hate. What he did, the way he lived, seemed to eat him up more than anyone else. In the same letter he actually said:

"The genes inherited by you through me is the only possible explanation for any intellectual attainment" I had achieved (he was referring to scholarships I won).

I can't imagine what was going on in his head, what it must have been like to be him. Fortunately, I had a devoted mother. My uncles, cousins and aunts were kind, loving and generous. So, in a way, I won the luck lottery. Imagine this: I inherited his genes and still ended up happy 😆

Thanks so much for reading my blog. I couldn't resist the prompt, knowing I had a very peculiar letter as a legacy from my father.

Thanks for your contribution to the STEMsocial community. Feel free to join us on discord to get to know the rest of us!

Please consider delegating to the @stemsocial account (85% of the curation rewards are returned).

Thanks for including @stemsocial as a beneficiary, which gives you stronger support. 
 

Thank you very, very much, @stemsocial

It's amazing how one word, 'letters' leads to another, 'guilt', then moves on to, 'shame', forwarded to, ' weight gain', 'depression', all the way to OCD.

You did thorough research on this, and it's admirable. You may not have felt any iota of guilt over your dad, because he probably didn't offer you anything other than what was written in the letter.

I think we can only feel guilty over our actions toward someone if we owe them anything. Like your father, if he had been an integral part of your life, supporting, providing, and making sure you had a comfortable or anything close to a comfortable life.

But since there was no sacrifice on his part on your behalf, your emotions write it off.

I guess this is why most people would try as much as they can to not be in people's debt or favor. And that's because they would always be obliged to return them one way or the other.

For this discussion, one would only feel guilty over severing such a relationship because the other party had done them a favor once, and instead of returning with good deeds, they did them wrong.

I don't know if I am making any sense.

Hello @loveah,

It's so nice of you to stop by and read my blog.

Of course you make sense. You are referring to duty, I believe, to an obligation that comes because of a sense of duty. But if there has been a complete separation, a denial of association and duty on one side, then the other is free. When my father freed himself from obligation, he freed me.

instead of returning with good deeds, they did them wrong.

Yes, exactly. He disavowed his role as father. In doing that, he freed me from any responsibility I might have had as a daughter.

Thank you very much for that thoughtful comment. It is much appreciated.

What an interesting discussion! I've pondered a lot about the concept of guilt, as well as shame, just for my own self, and it's really reassuring to see that even those who seriously study these phenomena agree on the "lack of conceptual clarity...Measures of guilt do not correspond well to the definitions from which they derive".

Illustrating both feelings in simple common phrases, I would say guilt is the "Look what you've done!" admonishment, while shame is more like "What would the neighbors think?" In both cases it's an indirect way to put the individual in charge of their own punishment, a convenient way to educate them into the norms of society (if they are children) and manipulate them into compliance (in case of adults). Whether there's a difference between the two may be debatable.

Coming from a European background (I was baptized catholic too, but thanks to plenty of atheism / agnosticism in the last generations of my family, religion had little impact on my upbringing) I am very familiar with guilt. The same thing can't be said about so much shame, which seems to recall some stuffy, archaic notions held in high vregard by the petty bourgeoisie in the past centuries, and appears completely outdated in today's culture. At least in Europe! In East Asian cultures, on the other hand, it appears to me that shame is a much common tool to make people toe the line. (Not sure if the experts agree on this.)

It's quite interesting how you highlight the relationship between guilt and depression, eating disorders, and OCD that it can cause. I interpret this as an invitation for all of us to overcome our own guilt, and help each other do the same. I think it's so much easier to stop feeling bad about ourselves if the people around us show us that we don't have to beat ourselves up. I would even go as far as saying, it is an important process for a better functioning society.

What I have seen in people who overcame guilt is a heightened sense of moral and values, as they became more conscious of the things they refuse to feel bad about, while consciously making sure they don't fall off the other side of the horse into arrogance. "Yes, I know exactly what I've done. That's why I'm the one who needs to deal with it."

Those people who have overcome their feelings of shame... they tend to shine in a radiating light of exciting beauty and confidence. "The neighbors are free to think whatever they want. It's their business, and none of mine."

Whether there's a difference between the two may be debatable.

I think they overlap, but for me there is a definite distinction. It's hard for me to let go of the wrong I did years ago--the hurt I caused. I try but I don't let myself off the hook too easily. Shame: that's another thing. I came of age in the 60s, which means I pretty much am free of social pressure. Shame is the ultimate social pressure :)

I love this line:

The neighbors are free to think whatever they want. It's their business, and none of mine.

As for Catholicism: I am a skeptic, in all things. So of course orthodoxy came under attack kind of early in my life. Still, I respect what my mother loved and what she taught me, so I try not to disparage those things she held dear.

I definitely agree that we cannot allow guilt to rule our lives. I just hope I don't accumulate more 😃. Try not to hurt. That's what it amounts to for me.

Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. It's a pleasure to have my writing (and research) regarded with interest.

Hahaha, I love this:

I came of age in the 60s, which means I pretty much am free of social pressure.

I should tell you, I came of age in Germany in the 90s. Though the 60s had a huge fascination on us, in the end my whole generation seemed to be convinced that we had surpassed the flowerpower years in terms of free love and all. (Though of course none of us could tell for sure, and our parents only smiled knowingly...)

Try not to hurt.

Absolutely! I agree 100%.

It's a pleasure to have my writing (and research) regarded with interest.

And it's my pleasure to read it. I came across your post by chance, but now I'm following, so from now on it'll be intentional.

Thanks for a well researched piece, I looked at all your cited links, thanks once again.

Thank you! There was more reading I did in preparation. For me, a blog like this is a learning experience. Thanks so much for reading and checking out those resources.

A very important content for everyone, at some point in our lives we feel invaded by guilt and for whatever reason, for an oversight with someone we appreciate, for not doing what is necessary to help others, in short for many things.

Personally I loved reading your extraordinary content of great contribution for everyone. Greetings.

Thank you very much for reading my long blog and for your positive feedback.

we feel invaded by guilt and for whatever reason, for an oversight with someone we appreciate, for not doing what is necessary to help others, in short for many things.

You are right, it is a challenge to find a balance between taking responsibility for our deeds/misdeeds and being burdened by guilt. We all have to find a way of meeting the challenge.

Hope you have a great weekend.


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