Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Quilt of Guilt

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 26, 2015

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.

2 Responses to “Quilt of Guilt”

  1. Shelly said

    You say that guilt may sometimes stem from a failure from making one’s parents happy at a very early age, before one is able to express oneself appropriately. This guilt feeling may continue on and built upon itself layer upon layer. So I’m thinking that the child progresses to an age where he can express himself and probably behaves in a self-fulfilling prophecy…behaves badly to “meet his parents’ expectations of bad behavior.” But the child is by then responsible for his behavior and is indeed responsible for causing his parents angst and anxiety. The guilt is justified. How do you justify this?

    • It is always a question about how much an adult should try to please their parents versus trying to find an authentic meaningful life for themselves. Hopefully, a budding adult can find a win-win situation in which both are true. However, for the vast majority of people, this presents a chronic dilemma. If the parents have high narcissistic needs, then pleasing the parent can mean a soul-crushing existence and as such, the child’s lives a lifeless life, but the parent is narcissistically gratified. However, in other situations, the parents are justifiably concerned about the choices their child makes and in this situation, the child has to struggle with trying to understand what makes sense for them, given the upset of the parents. So, how much do children “owe” their parents, is a question that each person needs to answer for themselves. The first step, as predictably, I will say, is to begin to understand the conscious and unconscious factors at play, before moving on to making large decisions which change the course of life. Thanks.

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