Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Childhood Guilt

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 30, 2012

Megan, forty-one, can’t shake the feeling that she caused her parents divorce because she had terrible behavior problems after her brother had a sudden death, when she was four and her brother was two. On the one hand, Megan knows that she was grieving for her brother, and that at such a tender age her grief manifested itself by terrible temper tantrums, but on the other hand, she believes that her tantrums caused so much stress in the house that her father left in order to be with his secretary who had no children. The logic of the situation is clear to Megan. The death of her brother led her father to grieve in his way, which was to withdraw from his family and seek refuge in another life. Megan’s understanding does not change her feeling of deep responsibility for her mother’s subsequent depression. Megan believes that if she was more cooperative during that tender time, then her parents would have stayed married and her mother would not have gotten depressed. “Maybe it helps to think that you could have done something to change the course of history. Maybe that is preferable to feeling completely helpless that your brother died, your parents divorced and then your mom was severely depressed,” I say, pointing out that feeling guilty is often a substitute for feeling helpless. “Yes, but that does not change the fact that I live my life, feeling terrible about myself and my behavior.” Megan says, explaining that in her mind, her low sense of herself all stems from this one extremely traumatic time in her life. “It is nice, in a way, to be able to consolidate your complicated self-image, down to one period of your long and extensive life, where you have done so many things, both good and bad. ” I say, reminding her that even though her brother’s death was a very significant time in her life, she has also done many other things, like get married, build a career, have her own children, which, if she can let those events into her mental interior, might also contribute to her sense of herself. “It is hard to keep the big picture, because I live in fear, knowing that life can change so suddenly. “Yes, managing that anxiety, which for you is so alive, is a particular challenge.” I say, reminding her that on some level all of us understand the uncertainty of life, but that for many of us, we are able to know that without letting that fact crack our core. “I know that I live in the past. I know that my brother died many decades ago. I know that it is particularly hard for me to find peace with that. You are the only person I can discuss this with, because I know that my husband, my friends and my family do not understand my anxieties.” Megan says, explaining to me that she feels alone with her feelings, in part, because she does not feel them to be legitimate. “It is hard to have feelings which go so far back in your life. It is hard for you to feel that is where you are right now.” I say, trying to help her accept where her mind is at. “Yea, I wish it made more sense to me,” Megan says with a heavy heart.


4 Responses to “Childhood Guilt”

  1. ashanam said

    Children usually believe what adults tell them. I’ve found that irresponsible adults explicitly or implicitly tell others (including their children) that those others are responsible for their behavior.

    It would not surprise me at all if the message didn’t get communicated in some way to Megan that her tantrums were causing tremendous stress in the family, that it wasn’t acceptable to find herself out of control and dysregulated because of her own grief, and that she needed to be on especially good behavior to meet the needs of the adults in the family. If that was the case for Megan, it may be enormously helpful to be able identify it.

  2. Shelly said

    Interesting that Megan should feel guilty about her brother’s death and the subsequent break-up of the family. How could a four-year old be responsible for a child’s death? Were these things she heard blamed on her by others, or just feelings she had? How does Megan function as an adult? You write that she is married, with children, with a career, so in the big picture, she seems to function very well. In the microcosm of her daily life (her internal world) she is still anxious about the loss and its effect on her self-esteem. Indeed, issues to explore.

    • Shirah said

      Thanks, Shelly. Yes, the guilt Megan feels is not rational, hence she cannot discuss it with her loved ones. The guilt is so deep, so hard to understand, yet, so strongly felt, that Megan lives in state of painful dis-ease. Yes, this is invisible pain as the outside world views her as a success. This discrepancy makes Megan’s life even harder. She is lonely in her pain. Thanks Again.

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