Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

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.

7 Responses to “The Guilty Road”

  1. Shelly said

    Glad to see you back and writing after your very short hiatus. This was a great blog. Do you think Liam would have ever identified the feeling of guilt without your guiding him to it? Perhaps spending the money on an expensive hamburger and feeling guilty is more of a basic one: this hamburger is so expensive and beyond reason, and I could have spent the money on something more important to my family? I know that when I pay more for something than I think is reasonable, I feel guilty because it seems like I wasted money–I do not associate it with my feelings of low self-esteem but rather, “my kids could have used that money for something else.” Nevertheless, great job and great blog.

    • Thanks. I think psychotherapy encouraged Liam to think beyond the immediate situation, such that he began to look more deeply into the underpinnings of his discomfort. He came up with the word “guilt”. I thought that was very interesting. Yes, money is a complicated matter. In this case, Liam had few other choices for lunch, and hence his guilt was particularly puzzling. I am going to write more about the psychology of money, so stay tuned.

  2. zip said

    This post rang so true for me. I had the same experience at a hotel resort about a month ago — paid for an overpriced hamburger for lunch. The rest of my day was emotioally turbulent, to say the least, and I believe it all started with the discomfort of paying so much for a hamburger. Silly, but true. I’ll have to think about whether I felt guilty. I have trouble spending money in general.

    • Hi Zip,
      Thanks for your comments. Life is interesting-if nothing else. I think one’s relationship to money is partly biologically based. I will explore that issue in future blogs, so stay tuned. SV

  3. mim said

    i see a new market for us therapists – especially if we co-locate at the most expensive hotels!! great blog as usual… m

  4. willem nel said

    interesting

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