Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Guilt

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 24, 2012

Lea, astonished me, when she says “I just feel very guilty for how I have behaved towards you,” as she refers to her incessant curiosity about my life. The surprise is not that she feels badly about her behavior, but the surprise is that she chose the word “guilt,” as if she has committed a crime. For the first time, in ten years of seeing her, I began to understand that she grew up feeling guilty about her behavior. Her mother, Carolyn,  was very jealous that Lea was the focus of her husband, Joe’s, Lea’s father’s,  affection. Consequently, it seems that Carolyn made Lea feel guilty for taking Joe away from her. All of these dynamics were subtle on one level and not so subtle on another. Through our work together, this feeling of guilt was reactivated in our relationship, in the transference, thereby illuminating a longstanding feeling which she has absorbed into every fiber of her being. To talk about the guilt she felt as a child is one avenue into this pain, but to reactivate this feeling with me, makes the work feel so much more alive and interesting. It also gives Lea tremendous pain, which we work with in a patient way in which we  peel away the agony in order for us to look at Lea’s history in a more detached way. The emotional pain is important to process, but so is her family dynamics. Lea is beginning to see how she fit into her parents’ marriage in a way in which she was robbed of certain aspects of her childhood. Living with guilt on a daily basis and not understanding the source, was a cause of huge confusion for Lea. Almost within an instance, clarity came.

10 Responses to “Guilt”

  1. Jon said

    Guilt can be considered a silly emotion. First, it must be understood that one should feel guilty only if one has violating one’s own set of ethics. If one is contemplating one’s actions, there is a simple guideline to follow. If one would feel guilty for doing something, then DON’T DO IT.

    I would argue that while Lea is guilt ridden, she is not guilty, but as you say confused. The emotional abuse from her mother, Carolyn, gives Lea a lot to deal with, as you have described it. Hopefully, the process of talking things through shows Lea that her “guilt” is indeed silly. She did not consciously choose either her family dynamics or her behavior to you. May she gain insight and come to a calmer place.

    • Thanks, Jon. I don’t think guilt is a “silly” emotion, in that no emotion “makes sense”. We all have feelings which presents puzzles for which we must try to understand them, both in the present, and how they relate to our past. Lea gives us an example of how a very old feeling re-surfaces in her current life. This feeling is a great source of suffering, for which you say, and I agree, that insight can lead her to a more centered, or “calmer” place. Thanks Again.

      • Jon said

        Perhaps we have issues with definitions. Guilt is defined as the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation or wrong especially against a moral or penal law; culpability. However, remorse is defined as a deep or painful regret for a wrong doing; compunction. I can easily see remorse for actions – intended or not. Guilt, to me at least is something different.

        Given that, I agree that emotions do not make sense – they are. However, I still think it silly to feel guilt over something of which one is culpable. Nonetheless, it happens.

        • Shirah said

          Yes, the issue of definitions is key. I am not sure where you are getting your definitions from. Guilt seems to me, to have multiple meanings, so I am using here to describe the feeling of having done something wrong, which is different than remorse in that with the feeling of guilt, one feels they deserve punishment. This feeling may or may not correspond to an actual behavior. Remorse, by contrast, refers to a feeling of regret for doing a specific behavior. I guess I am challenging your word “silly” since in some ways, all feelings are “silly”. Yet, at the same time, feelings, as I am sure we both agree, are the spice of life.
          Thanks.

          • Jon said

            My definitions come from the now antediluvian Unabridged Addition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language. As a point of information, its primary definition of silly is weak-minded; lacking good sense; stupid or foolish. Its secondary definition silly is absurd; ridiculous; irrational. (This, incidentally, is a long way from the original meaning of blessed, which became innocent, which morphed into its current usage.) So, yes, all feelings are silly. Also, I do agree that feelings are the spice of life.

  2. Shelly said

    Unfortunately, all of us have emotions that are unique to us and are triggered by early life events and for what it’s worth, are through no fault of our own. It is up to us to understand their origins and to work through them , and conquer them. This is one of the first instances in your blog where I see transference at work and I really “get it.” Thanks for making it clear to me.

    • Shirah said

      Hi Shelly,
      Thanks for your comments. Yes, early life events have an influence on our mental state which takes deep reflection to work at understanding these dynamics. Relationships of all kinds, including therapeutic relationships, help us to see where we make erroneous assumptions which are more based on past experiences than present ones. Understanding this phenomena makes us less defensive in our relationships and thus helps us to connect with others, and indeed, connect with ourselves, on a deeper level. Thanks Again!

  3. Shirah your blog posts allow your readers to see the significance of our unconscious repressions (in this particular case, guilt) and how they can impact our lives as adults in one way or another to various degrees. Unconscious guilt can cause tremendous pain and suffering and should be taken seriously. We all have “people from our past” in our heads and those early internalized relationships, to one degree or another, play out in our present relationships…ie: transference. It’s like a “reel of film” in our mind playing from long ago and distorting the relationships of people in our present. There are so many people (probably most) who have no clue that this dynamic is going on. Your blog, written with the layperson in mind (no complex medical jargon), serves as an excellent educational opportunity on the web and is a good step in popularizing the idea of “making the unconscious conscious”.

    • Shirah said

      Hi Eleanor,
      Your articulate description of the unconscious is really helpful to me. Thank you for the nice remarks. I see this blog as an adventure, so I am very pleased to know that maybe, in some small way, people around the world can get in touch with some aspects of their personal suffering. That idea gives me enormous gratification. Thank you again.

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