Guilt is no fun. We can feel guilt for our slightest slip-ups or misdemeanors. We sense that we deserve our guilt because we have allegedly done something wrong. But often the guilt is produced when, deep in our psyche, we absorb negative accusations from our inner critic.
Sometimes the misdemeanors we feel guilty about occurred ages ago. One client could still feel guilty because she had gotten angry for a few hours during her mother’s long, fatal illness over thirty years ago. The mother was sick for more than three years, and my client had been a conscientious daughter who tried her best to be helpful and ease her mother’s pain. But she still regretted that one-time outburst of anger and frustration. She said she had forgiven herself many times for the outburst, but the painful memory of it, and her guilt for allegedly having been a “bad daughter,” kept coming back.
I told my client, “The only reason you’re still feeling guilty and suffering in this way is because your inner critic is still able to hit you up with negative accusations about that long-ago incident. Those inner accusations of having been a “bad daughter” are unfair and quite irrational. Typically, our inner critic is unforgiving and cruel. It ignores the fact that we can’t be perfect. Even though, as you said, you forgave yourself for your angry outburst a long time ago, you still allow your inner critic to pass judgment on you. You absorb that negative accusation, which means you feel that the accusation has some validity. That causes the guilt.”
We absorb aggression and negativity from our inner critic because of our inner passivity. This passivity is an inner weakness, a place inside our psyche that we have not yet claimed (or infused) with sufficient consciousness. The outlines of this inner passivity, which affects men and women equally and causes us all sorts of problems including clinical depression, come clearer to us as we study our psyche and acquire self-knowledge.
As we get stronger and eliminate our unconscious passivity, we successfully shut down our inner critic and live guilt-free and in greater harmony.
UPDATE – A scientific study was published in June, 2012, proving just how right Sigmund Freud was about guilt as a major factor in depression. The study, published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, compared brain scans of people prone to depression with people who never got depressed to show significant differences in the regions of the brain associated with guilt. Freud famously said that depression was related to feelings of guilt and self-blame, which is how it differed from normal sadness. The self-blame Freud refers to is the action of the inner critic or superego as it assails or berates the personality for alleged faults, foolishness, and wrongdoing. As mentioned, the guilt arises because the individual, through his or her unconscious ego or inner passivity, unwittingly absorbs this aggression from the inner critic. The individual feels the guilt as a consequence of his or her unconscious submission, meaning is this case the individual’s willingness, through inner passivity, to absorb the aggression and to “buy into” the allegations of wrongdoing. When we understand this conflict and can objectively observe this inner dynamic, we can occupy with our self-knowledge and consciousness the area in our psyche that has been infused with inner passivity (a primitive consciousness if not a state of nonbeing). In doing so, we no longer absorb the aggression from the inner critic but deflect or neutralize it. As a result, we experience neither guilt nor depression. (See also, “The Hidden Cause of Clinical Depression.”)