In An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud discussed the concept
of resistance, stating that the patient is unconscious not only of
his resistance, but also of his motives for resistance, and that
people with an excessively powerful unconscious sense of guilt can
be difficult to treat.
When a person has an unconscious sense of guilt, the individual will
remain sick, because there is an unconscious belief that he or she
does not deserve to be healthy, or that he or she deserves nothing
better than to be 'punished'. If one type of illness or symptom goes
away, it may be replaced by another. Sometimes such a person can be
helped or improved if they experience severe misfortune - since they
unconsciously accept that they deserve it, they will not complain,
but try to make the most of it.
I can think of a few areas in which my conscious mind has not
accepted guilt, but in which unconscious guilt might have
affected my life.
The first relates to expense. Children are expensive. My parents
were always fighting about money, and I became hypersensitive about
being a financial burden.
The second relates to my mother, but perhaps in a few different ways.
I found out, at age 16, that I was pregnant only days before my
mother died. It could be that I (unconsciously) think I 'caused' her
death through getting pregnant. Also, not long after she died, my
father made a pass at me, and unconsciously, this could represent a
kind of Oedipal conflict - I killed off my mother to pave the way for
my father's attention.
One thing that most people forget when they think of Freud's theories
is that the unconscious familial dramas - which often have a sexual
nature - are unconscious. They are not usually available to
conscious awareness, and if development occurs normally, they don't
affect us in 'unhealthy' ways.
I was raised Catholic, but had an abortion. I did not consider myself
Catholic, and I consciously believed that the abortion was the right
decision for me. It could be that unconsciously, I believed I was
committing murder, and that I deserved to be punished - a 'fair'
punishment being that I myself did not deserve to have a life, or
However, I can't help but think that this might also have at least
something to do with my perception of how my parents saw me - that
it would have been better if I had not been born. I felt guilt about
being a burden and source of unhappiness to them. It was
myself I was aborting without regret.
Another issue that springs to mind is that in some cultures and
religions, if a female has sex before marriage, she is considered
ruined and of less value. Catholics are supposed to forgive sinners,
but it could be that there was an influence in my mother's superego
that would have judged my situation very harshly, such that I knew it
would have been devastating for her to know I was pregnant. She
'conveniently' died before finding out, and perhaps some of my guilt
is related to that, as if I killed her off to cover up my mistakes,
or not have to face the consequences and had to create consequences
that fit the 'crime' of killing her off. The timing of me finding out
I was pregnant and her dying was really a matter of days. Also,
although she didn't have conscious knowledge, perhaps some part of
her knew or guessed, and that was what killed her. She felt like a
failure as a mother, she felt horrified.
I could also have felt guilt about the unfairness of my mother's
death at such a young age and the fact that her contributions had
been undervalued, not only by me, but by my father. It may partly be
related to the hurt I caused her in choosing to live with my father.
As a result, I may have decided to 'prove' that her contributions had
been essential, by showing that I was not able to function properly
or grow up and become a contributing member of society without her
Also, my inability to maintain thinness could relate to guilt. I
could be proving to my mother and myself that without her help, I was
unable to manage the 'problem' of my unattractiveness. While I lived
with her, she had provided enough structure that I did 'eat like a
normal person', and was able to maintain a somewhat thin appearance
considering my particular frame.
The last source of guilt is not so unconscious: throughout my life I
have felt extreme guilt related to my gluttony and slothfulness. The
years of staying in and draining resources. The shame of being
controlled by my drive to eat. This guilt makes it difficult to face
others, to start relationships, to go out in society. It doesn't seem
that there is any way to make up for all the waste, or all that I
have taken without 'giving back', and for not taking responsibility
for my own life.
It is a kind of encouragement that I, however slowly, developed the
ability to find the people and resources necessary to help me
progress to a new stage of understanding. The people I have so far
been drawn to have all added something necessary, they have all been
part of my individual alternative solution.
But if I have some kind of excessive unconscious guilt that keeps
throwing obstacles and delays my way, when I think I'm making
progress, it seems like there is some kind of unconscious hostility
or viciousness directed against me such that I am not allowed to
enjoy too much, get too full of myself - I have to have these
reminders of how little power I really have.
The superego is to be questioned by conscious intent. Ideas that
seem irrational to me consciously, things that I would find difficult
to believe had an effect on me apparently must be examined carefully.
It seems like it should be easy to dismiss the 'input' from ancestors
with which I don't consciously identify or agree, but this doesn't
seem to be the case in practice.
If a person has had unconscious guilt related to a parent, what does
it take to resolve it? For instance, if unconsciously I had a need to
punish myself by proving my mother's worth through throwing away my
own life - 'I could not make it without her' - how would I go about
changing that internal idea? By openly recognizing her contributions?
But haven't I done that already through the years? Perhaps not enough
for the superego.
Our forbidden desires cannot be hidden from the superego
(Freud) - so even if you don't try to satisfy your drives, the
superego will attempt to punish you just for having the desires in
the first place.
Renouncing aggression leads to the superego taking aggression out on
the ego - the amount of aggression is not representative of father's
aggression, but of child's toward father.
Guilt about this aggression is repressed and turned on
The idea of an all-knowing, all-seeing God who pronounces judgment on
our actions, thoughts and desires - in me guilt related to what I
have mentioned may have resulted in this original idea of God
developing such that I could not escape his wrath. My creation of an
observation-delusion might be related to this idea that I had escaped
punishment for something I deserved to be punished for.
Throughout my life, I destroyed what I wrote. I didn't really have
the chance when young to develop as a writer, because I was not able
to truly examine my thoughts. They were all judged and discarded
with an extreme sense of shame. Where did this come from? Guilt
related to my thoughts making my parents feel bad? Or guilt related
to making anyone feel bad? Was it only self-consciousness about
possible stupidity, or was it actually guilt related to my thoughts
and feelings? If I did feel guilty about my thoughts and feelings,
to the extent that I needed to destroy them, what does that say about
how likely I was to accept myself?
To Freud this was not a simple perception of a defect. "The
child feels inferior if it notices that it is not loved; and the same
goes for the adult."
It is difficult to distinguish between a feeling of inferiority and
one of guilt, but both are expressions of conflict or tension between
the superego and the ego.
...All who seek to be nobler than their constitution permits succumb
to neurosis; they would have been better in health if they had found
it possible to be morally worse...
I wonder if guilt contributes to my efforts to explain myself. I have
done it before, I have put in the best effort I am able at the time,
and for what? To absolve myself of guilt? To help others to
understand? To become more conscious of unconscious guilt so that I
can do something about it?