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Guilt Feelings

Updated on December 9, 2011

In psychology, feelings of guilt are considered to be a factor in neurotic behavior. According to Freudian theory, guilt feelings arise when the individual violates some ideal of the superego. The superego represents the ideals and values the child learns from his parents and his culture. These values are held up as essential for a "good" person. When the ego (the self that the individual is aware of) responds to impulses from the id (the primitive biological strivings and impulses ) in violation of the superego, then guilt feelings may result. Although we speak of a "guilty conscience," it would be more accurate in Freudian theory to speak of a "guilty ego."

Franz Alexander, in 1938, became the first psychoanalyst to differentiate between guilt and shame. He described guilt feelings as a reaction to having performed some disapproved act or having wished to perform such an act. Guilt provokes the need to be punished, it has an inhibiting effect on the individual and especially inhibits aggressiveness toward others. Often the guilt ridden individual turns his hostility on himself.

There is a close relationship between guilt feelings and depression. Shame, on the other hand, is a reaction to a feeling that one is weak and inferior to others. To get rid of shame, the individual may seek to prove that he is not weak and can outdo the person who shamed him.

Shame does not necessarily require the violation of standards and of the superego; even animals are thought to experience shame. But guilt feelings can occur only after the individual has developed a conscience- that is, he has incorporated the moral values of his culture into the superego.

The Freudian view is that in neurosis an overly severe superego inhibits free expression of primitive impulses; the neurotic then is inhibited, blocked, and repressed. O. H. Mowrer, an American psychologist, differing with the Freudians, says that guilt and self-hatred do not come from failure to live up to harsh parental values. Instead, an individual may experience legitimate disgust and guilt because of his actual behavior.

Mowrer holds that recovery comes when the individual confesses his errors and makes attempts at restitution, thus relieving his guilt.

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