Guilt, that feeling of having done something terribly wrong, an agony, so hard to explain, and yet so powerfully dominating one’s mental existence, is often the essence of mental paralysis and psychic pain. Guilt, the longstanding feeling, often beginning with the failure to make your parents happy, resulting in a longstanding, chronic sense of “being bad” without a narrative to understand this feeling. The lack of a narrative often suggests a preverbal experience in which the person felt frustrated before they developed language and hence it is almost impossible to develop words to describe the feeling. This nonlinear aspect of development, where feelings precede language, is one way of understanding why some people struggle terribly with expressing their feelings, and why some of those who have trouble are mislabeled as autistic, where the more accurate understanding of their limited language is a result of very early trauma.
Conscious and unconscious guilt are the plague of our existence in that the ‘quilt of guilt’ as I like to call it, is woven with both past and present, real and perceived, transgressions. Tyler, twenty-two, comes to mind. He married a woman who his mother disapproves of, and although he loves his wife, he is “massively depressed” because “life never feels right.” His narrative begins with his current symptoms. He does not connect his current discomfort to the agony of being unable to please his wife and his mother, at the same time. By his way of thinking, he has “to live his own life, and it does not matter that his mother is upset with me,” he says, with a tone which suggests he does not quite believe what he is saying. “It seems like your mood tanked right after your marriage,” I say, trying to create a timeline to help us understand the trigger for his mood state. “It is true that I wish I could make my mom happy,” he says, sadly and reluctantly. And so we begin an inquiry into his past relationship with his mom, and how that may or not be connected to his current choice in his wife. We talk about how he negotiated internally that his mate gave his mother grief, and that a part of him did not want to care about that, and yet another part of him, felt deeply troubled by that. The guilt that he feels for making his mom unhappy, reminds him of the guilt he felt when his parents divorced, when he felt that he caused their separation and hence he caused her mom to be deeply unhappy during that time in her life. Tyler begins to wonder if getting married to a woman his mom did not think was good for her, was a repetition of him, in his mind, causing his mother grief, by not keeping his father in the home. Perhaps, Tyler wonders, if he developed the identity of a boy who just cannot please his mother, and in fact, adds to his mother’s stress, and as such, he found a woman who would reinforce this dynamic with his mother.
As we speculate together, we see that his parents’ divorce, in his mind, was a pivotal developmental point which diminished his self-esteem considerably, giving him a sea of guilt which has landed deep in his psychic apparatus. Further life choices are woven into this guilt, creating, what I see, as a quilt, in which each developmental period, another patch of guilt is added on. Our work is to take off patch by patch, to help Tyler see that the divorce of his parents was not his fault, and hence although he might have felt guilty as a child, as an adult, he needs to see their marriage from a different perspective. This new perspective needs to see Tyler as a child who was a victim and not a cause of their divorce, thereby slowly giving Tyler the opportunity to rebuild his self-esteem, with much less guilt left so far down in his psyche.