Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Car Guilt

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 4, 2012

Tony, forty-one, smashed his car. “What does an accident mean?” He asks, saying that on the one hand, he did not mean to crash, but on the other hand, he could have been more careful. “Accident is a relative term,” he continues. “Yes, it is a gray area, in which you did not have intention, but that does not mean that you were not responsible,” I say, creating a spectrum of feelings. “I just feel so guilty,” Tony says, which strikes me as both logical and puzzling at the same time. “You feel guilty because you feel like you did a bad thing,” I say, trying to understand the nature of his bad internal state. “Yea, I am having trouble forgiving myself.” Tony says in a particularly harsh way. “Do you think you should be punished?” I ask, probing for greater understanding of his superego. “Well, I think I am punishing myself. I just feel uptight since it happened.” Tony says that he takes it upon himself to feel tense as a form of retribution for his behavior. “Where does this harshness come from?” I ask, thinking that he has internalized a harsh superego from his childhood. “Yes, my parents were very hard on me when I messed up, but I also think that I would be hard on myself anyway since I do not understand forgiveness.” Tony explains a nature/nurture argument in which he explains that, by his account, he was hit twice. “Forgiveness is a wonderful skill,” I say, helping him entertain this notion as something that he can work on. “Our insurance will go up. We have to get a new car. We are inconvenienced and that creates stress in my family. Forgiveness is not coming easily.” Tony says, outlining his subsequent struggles. “Those are all good opportunities to practice,” I say, trying to help him begin with a baby step. “When you can forgive yourself, you will be better at forgiving others, and that will help you feel more relaxed in relationships.” I say, emphasizing how importance forgiveness is to both self-esteem and interpersonal relationships. “You smashed your call, but you do not have to smash your soul.” I say, highlighting that he is making the experience of his accident much worse by imposing hard negative judgments on himself. “That is a challenge,” Tony looks at me with hopelessness, bordering on despair. “You are up for it,” I say, using words of encouragement, but also understanding how hard forgiveness will be for him.

6 Responses to “Car Guilt”

  1. Jon said

    Guilt, as we have discussed before on these virtual pages, can be considered to be a silly emotion. If one has done what one can to avoid a bad situation, there is no rational guilt. However, there are two key and incompatible words in the above writing – emotion and rational. Emotions are not rational, they just are. Or, to be more correct, they are trans-rational.

    You and Tony are now exploring why he feels guilt over a car accident. As with most journeys into the psyche, this goes beyond the rational. Hopefully, the road to forgiveness will not have too many bumps along the way.

    • Some psychoanalysts say that the feeling of guilt PRECEDES the crime. There can be a general guilt about living in the world, perhaps secondary to a feeling of guilt for being a burden on one’s parents, even though, as you say, that makes no sense. Tony’s guilt runs deep, and as such, the car accident was a trigger to a deeper problem. Thanks, as always.

      • Shelly said

        Ok, Shirah, you got me. How can one feel guilt about living in the world, for feeling like a burden on one’s parents? Nobody asked to be born. If anyone should feel guilty, it should be the parents for creating the child, or for making the child feel like a burden. Tony’s guilt for crashing the car is logical. His insurance fees WILL go up. He WILL be inconvenienced with having to either buy a new car or fix the old one. It all makes sense. Because it makes sense to me, I feel his guilt will pass quickly.

        • jo said

          In response to Shelly, sometimes I feel guilty about living in the world and I often feel like a burden on my parents. This is mostly due to my health problems (I think), which started as a young child. I worry about how my health affects my family and how it is a drain on society as a whole. I have insurance guilt. I also feel guilty about using the earth’s resources in irresponsible ways. It doesn’t all make sense, but it’s there.

          • Hi Jo,
            Thank you for chiming in. You expand on my notion that guilt, on one level, makes no sense. You did not cause your health problems. Yet, at the same time, your health problems have an impact on those around you, and that awareness, for you, leads to a feeling of guilt. Yes, it does not make sense, but it is there. That is the work of psychotherapy, to unravel those conflicting notions. Thanks again.

        • Yes, nobody asked to be born, but that does not mean one is not a burden, and feeling like a burden can cause overwhelming guilt. There is no logic here-only the language of feelings. Tony’s guilt both makes sense, on the one hand, and is historically rooted on the other. The car accident, in many ways, was a trigger to deeper feelings. As to whether his guilt will pass quickly, I am not so sure. The deeper aspects of his guilt are likely to linger. Therapy might help this feeling linger less intensely. Thanks.

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