Guilt. It’s big. As one of the building blocks of classic psychoanalytic theory, it is kind of everything. Freud is somewhere offering an energetic high five to Giselle right now. Finally, let’s talk about guilt, he says! A little bit about Freud, as it will be important to get our feet wet on the basics of his theory before we dive into the deep end of the guilt pool. So let’s break it down. Freud had many theories regarding human behavior. The two most well known models are his first regarding consciousness - distinguishing between the unconscious, conscious, and preconscious, and his second - distinguishing between the id, ego, and superego. Freud believed that humans are fundamentally in conflict with ourselves. Always. We are constantly waging an internal war, and that war or conflict is of great significance. Fun, right? Internally and unconsciously there is a constant high stakes hostage negotiation playing out between our most immediate primitive drives, the id- we want what we want when we want it regardless of the consequences, and the conscience and law of the superego. While the id acts as the drives we are born with and speaks to our primitive drive to receive pleasure, the superego gathers morality, conscience and law from our caregivers and also our environment - what is good and what is bad. The ego acts as the negotiator between the id and the superego, reminding the id that well, you can’t have it that way, but maybe your desires can be met this way instead. The superego acts in opposition to the id. There is a misconception that the superego is all good. That’s not the case. The superego’s attempts to create depravity and perfection can turn perverse and demand the same high stakes negotiating capacity of the ego. Freud would warn that we fall ill of our own moral ideals and we should question those moral ideals with the same weight that we question our drives. Again with the psychoanalytic continuum. Both sides. Always. Good and Bad together. Now here’s where it gets into mind melt territory. Freud also believed that there was an unconscious part of the ego - unconscious to the ego itself that was repressing the drive to act as negotiator between the id and superego. So imagine in a hostage situation not knowing if the negotiator is a double agent. Crap. Welcome to the Freudian dumpster fire of human behavior.
So here’s where guilt comes in. Guilt essentially is the byproduct of this constantly waged war between the id and superego. Guilt is our attempt at reconciliation, it is our ego at work negotiating between our desires and morality. Here’s a positive reframe for you, guilt is the fruit that we harvest from the planted seeds of our internal conflict between the id, ego, and superego. The practice of psychoanalysis - specifically Freudian style psychoanalysis - developed out of an adherence to this model. We experience guilt about our impulses and actions, which then, according to Freud, cause symptoms. This compromise between what we want and what we allow ourselves to get creates guilt. Guilt or the manifestation of this conflict is what leads to symptoms like depression, anxiety, even phobias. So that’s the analytic theory part.
Now guilt on paper serves great purpose. It feels like shit by design and in doing so, guilt convinces us to abide by the laws of society. To get along, protect each other, do no harm, and play by the rules. It can be said that guilt is functionally designed to protect us against doing harm to those that mean the most to us. Our family, friends, and loved ones. Guilt serves the evolutionary purpose of keeping those close to us safe. At its most primitive, guilt is an emotion of survival.
Neuroscientists have been able to target where guilt lives in the brain. Guilt involves neural networks in the frontal and temporal parts of the brain. Scientists have found that in a state of guilt there is activity in the amygdala - essential to your ability to feel emotions and perceive emotions in others and frontal lobes but not a tremendous amount of activity in both brain hemispheres. Researchers concluded that this lack of hemispheric involvement points to guilt being purely linked to a person’s learned social standard and not incredibly complex in terms of brain function - quite a detour from Freud.
So that’s the background on guilt. Interestingly enough the two models seem to hold opposing forces of their own. In the Freudian realm guilt exists on a plane of great complexity and persistence. And in the neuroscientific realm guilt appears to hold less complexity than other emotions, sticking primarily to the parts of the brain that involve emotion and not a complex combination of pathways like other emotions can exhibit. Perhaps, as I think Freud would say, it is both. We know what choices or drives will lead to guilt, but complex as we attempt to reconcile the state we find ourselves in once our ego has determined the outcome.
For more on GUILT listen to JOY IS NOW Episode 15 with Giselle Gyalzen