Guilt as Internalized Shame

Though our primitive conscience looks like self-blame, its origin is in shame--blame by others. When we are children, we don't blame ourselves for anything. Others do this for us. Later, when we are adults, we feel shame when we believe that others blame us for something--even if the "others" dwell in our own minds.

 These "others" take up residence in our minds during our first six years of life. At that early age, shame is gradually converted into guilt. We incorporate our external critics, judges, and punishers into our self-images, where they become internal critics, judges, and punishers. This process is termed internalization. Thus, guilt is internalized shame.

 By being punished for breaking rules, we learn to fear an unpleasant consequence every time we do something that displeases our parents or other authority figures. These lessons linger, for we embed these authorities in our consciences, where they become the infamous "they," as in "What will `they' say?"

 Even if "they" criticize us arbitrarily and idiosyncratically, we learn that whatever behaviors "they" define as wrong are punishable offenses. Worse, we believe "they" are with us at all times, and "they" can punish us whenever we displease them. This superstitious belief is a painful perception that is its own instrument of punishment.

 In short, when internalization is complete, our external critics are replaced entirely by internal critics. We learn to say that we blame ourselves, but it is actually the collection of internalized critics who blame us. Since this gathering is imaginary, a "guilty conscience" is no more than expecting punishment from imaginary judges. Obviously, confusing imaginary critics with actual critics is unrealistic.



Antisocial Guilt

The primitive conscience is not the collected wisdom of the ages. It is no more than the collection of the conditioned responses learned in childhood. Thus, the conscience is intrinsically neither good nor bad. Yet, its contents can be either good or bad.

 Because their primitive consciences are built by conditioning, conditioned children are the equivalents of programmed robots. Adolf Hitler knew this. He said, "Give me a child until he is six, and I will control him for the rest of his life."

 Hitler intended to use the consciences of children, not for society's benefit, but for his own. He fostered guilt falsely in the name of national integrity, just as many parents foster guilt falsely in the name of the family's integrity. Children of such parents learn to feel guilt for reasons that reflect, not society's needs, but their parents' needs. Their parents lay guilt on them to enforce their own feelings, annoyances, or perversions. Because abused children learn antisocial guilt, they are likely to grow up to abuse their own children. The "child-abuse" model exists in their conscience just as the "child-nurturing" model exists in the consciences of other parents. Obviously, this kind of guilt does not help society, and it hurts those burdened with it. Perversely, it is antisocial guilt.

 Mark Twain's wonderful character, Huckleberry Finn, encountered his antisocial conscience after he helped his friend, Jim, a runaway slave. At first, Huck obeyed his conscience, and criticized Jim for stealing himself from Miss Watson. Later, after reflecting on Jim's decency and humanity, Huck said,


I warn't feeling so brash as I was before, but kind of ornery, and humble, and to blame, somehow--though I hadn't done nothing. But that's always the way; it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway. If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does, I would pison him. It takes up more room than all the rest of a person's insides, and yet ain't no good, nohow.
Though Huck had been abused by his alcoholic father, he managed to overcome the consequences of his abuse by mastering his conscience with reason. Nonfictional abused children aren't as lucky; Mark Twain can't think for them.

 Most children taught antisocial guilt conclude that they are bad, not only when they break rules, but all the time. They grow up with self-reproach, believing that they are unworthy of love and unworthy of living. Wendy was one such person.


Wendy's Story

When Wendy was a little girl, playing children's games, her hypochondriacal mother controlled Wendy's behavior by complaining, "Don't do that! You'll give me a heart attack!" Or, "Don't be so noisy. You're aggravating my heart trouble."

 Wendy, knowing nothing about heart trouble or heart attacks, had no choice but to believe that her mother's words were true. As a result, Wendy was conditioned to believe that her behavior was responsible for her mother's heart problems. Her dilemma was that she couldn't figure out which things she did wrong.

 Of course, Wendy didn't realize that the scolding depended, not on her behavior, but on her mother's mood. As a result, she learned not to play at all, fearing that she held the power of life and death over her mother, and that her enjoyment could kill her mother. Wendy learned her lessons so well, that even as an adult, her conscience would prevent her from having fun.

 As a teenager, rebelling against her mother's domination, Wendy consciously promised herself that she would never be like her mother. This promise notwithstanding, Wendy had already learned how mothers are supposed to act from her mother's role modeling. Since her mother's image was imbedded in her conscience, Wendy unthinkingly accepted this image as that of an ideal mother. Therefore, as an adult, Wendy became hypochondriacal.

 Wendy's mental habit of hypochondriasis was a severe disability to her. Whenever faced with even a minor crisis, she collapsed into a heap of despair and helplessness. Yet, instead of addressing her state of mind, Wendy persisted in complaining about her state of health. In fact, her physical health was quite sound. Nevertheless, when her own daughter made noise while playing, Wendy parroted her mother's words: "Don't do that! You'll give me a heart attack!"

 One evening, Wendy told me much later, she caught herself using this extortion to control her own daughter. She was disgusted with herself at the time, but since she didn't know what to do about it, she quickly retreated from examining herself.

 Eventually, Wendy's mother died--unluckily for Wendy, of a heart attack. Wendy reacted to this crisis by immediately taking a downward turn. She experienced the same guilt she had felt as a child. She even imagined she could hear her mother whining, "Haven't I told you over and over that you would cause me to have a heart attack and die? Now, look what you've done."

 Wendy fell into a profound depression, and she began to experience chest pain. She had identified with her mother, unconsciously adopting a symptom of the disease that caused her mother's death. It was this symptom, not her guilt, that ultimately brought Wendy to my attention.

 Because Wendy was convinced that she had inherited her mother's heart problems, she had consulted two cardiologists. Each of them, after evaluating her carefully, concluded that her heart was normal. The second cardiologist, suspecting a psychological basis for her pain, referred her to me.

 Wendy did not call me immediately, however. Though she suffered from her pain, her conscience also made her feel comfortable with it. She didn't know what she had done wrong, but unconsciously, she believed that somehow she had killed her mother, and that she had to suffer for it. Her mother wasn't around to punish her, of course, so Wendy's internalized mother-image punished her with depression and chest pain. As long as she was miserable, her conscience told her, she was somehow atoning for her imaginary crime. Thus, she assuaged her guilt by suffering. Since her punishment was her reward, her guilt was sacrosanct. Moreover, there was no end to her punishment: She had to suffer as long as her mother remained dead.

 Like most people with hypochondriasis, Wendy also unwittingly arranged it so that her family could suffer with her. She seemed to "enjoy poor health." Yet, though she authored her own punishment, her suffering created serious problems for her. Naturally, these problems made her angry. But, not knowing why she was angry, she showed it as hostility toward everyone. That's why her husband, not Wendy, called me for an appointment. He wanted a divorce, but he was willing to stay in the marriage if Wendy would seek help with her hostility. Like Wendy, he failed to recognize her hostility as a sign of her depression.

 Wendy's depression resulted from blocked healing for her mother's death and for her own lost childhood. Yet, her tyrannical primitive conscience kept her from healing. It was easy for me to see this, but it was not easy for Wendy. Each time I introduced a psychological topic, she retreated into her physical complaints. We couldn't make progress that way.

 Finally, I found an effective way to stop Wendy's evading the issues. Each time she complained about pain I observed, "You sound just like your mother." At first, this comment annoyed her. Eventually, however, she acknowledged its accuracy. This insight allowed her to proceed with mastering her guilt.

 Wendy also noticed that she was copying her mother's symptoms. Almost immediately after she gained this insight, she lost her chest pain.

 After Wendy learned to apply reasoning to master her conditioned, antisocial guilt, she realized that her beliefs had nothing to do with justice. As a result, her depression lifted. As she learned to master her antisocial conscience further, the remaining vestiges of her hypochondriasis disappeared. As a result, she stopped the pattern of psychological child abuse that had characterized her family for generations.