The Guilty Road
Posted by Dr. Vollmer on May 5, 2010
Liam, forty-six, the child of holocaust survivors, tells me the following story about his trip with his wife and two small children to a plush resort. His wife, Nora, took the car to visit a friend, so Liam and his kids went to grab a bite for lunch at the hotel, where he ended up paying sixty dollars for three hamburgers. Nora returns after a long day with her friend, wondering how Liam and her children spent their day. Liam said “the food here is so expensive.” Nora responded “oh my goodness. You are here with your children, in the midst of total luxury and all you can say is that the food is expensive. Where is your perspective? Why do you have to say that first? What is your problem?” After much discussion, Liam said to Nora “I feel guilty.”
“What do you think was going on? I ask Liam. Liam said “I don’t know. I just felt guilty.” Liam’s mother survived Dachau, as did his mother’s brother. She married Liam’s father who escaped Poland before the war. His mother never spoke about the holocaust. His father could talk about his past, but he never expressed suffering. He spoke about how “lucky” he had been to get out before all the horror set in. “Do you think it could be related to your parent’s history from the war? I wonder. “I doubt it,” Liam replied.
The intergenerational transmission of trauma may or may not be applicable to Liam, but I am thinking about it. When parents experience a life-threatening experience, the emotional associations, such as survival guilt, could get transmitted to the children, wherein the kids experience feelings which they cannot tie to anything in particular, since the feeling is an identification with the parents’ experience. For Liam, this association to his “guilt” does not ring true.
“Do you feel like you do not deserve to stay at such a nice resort?” I ask. “Maybe,” Liam replied. “So the guilt has to do with your sense of self-worth?” I say. “Yea, that sounds right,” he responds. “So, rather than saying that you do not feel that you should be at an expensive hotel, you express your discomfort over the price of the hamburger,” I say. “That’s messed up,” he responds. “Yes” I say, “that is messed up.” We laugh together.
Guilt, as opposed to shame, is a feeling that one deserves punishment for an act that he has done. In this case, Liam was “confessing” to Nora his transgression of spending twenty dollars on a hamburger, even though Nora did not see that as a crime. It seems that Liam was hoping to rid himself of his guilt by “confessing” to Nora what he had done “wrong.” Nora, of course, did not understand that this was a confession, but rather she understood that Liam was being “negative” and as such, “ruining” her vacation. Since Liam did not connect his need to talk about the price of the hamburger with his feeling of guilt, Nora was left wondering why he was focused on the lunch bill. When Liam finally said he felt guilty, Nora said “well if you had just said that in the beginning, you could save a lot of money in therapy and that would have paid for your lunch.” Liam did not think that was funny, although he did think she was right.
The invisibility of guilt, makes the destructive feeling all the more powerful. Liam could not enjoy himself, he could not enjoy his children, all because the hamburger cost twenty dollars. Further, he did not understand the connection between the price of lunch and feeling guilt until later in the day, thereby causing Liam to feel uncomfortable for a sustained period. On the other hand, that Liam could eventually name his discomfort with the feeling of guilt, speaks volumes to the progress that Liam has made in psychotherapy. Once the feeling of guilt is identified, Liam can now wrestle with where that comes from. The guilty feelings, which have dominated Liam’s unconscious life, have now seen the light of day. Liam can now look forward to feeling less guilty in the future, as he begins to understand where this feeling is coming from. Nora can look forward to enjoying Liam’s company again as Liam becomes more at ease with himself. Their children will benefit by feeling happiness and joy, rather than tension and marital discord. I am proud of Liam for being able to name the feeling of guilt. We are on the right road.