Traumatic Early Bonds Called Guilt

In the last post we saw several reasons why it is so difficult to abandon our own pathogenic beliefs and schemas, even when our experiences disprove them. Among the different factors contributing to this fact, one of the more relevant is unconscious guilt. As Freud (1916, 1923, 1925, 1929) pointed out decades ago, patients punish themselves with their symptoms and problems; and, as suggested by Fairbairn (1952, 1963), their suffering is a function of their bonds with bad internal objects.  According to Control-Mastery Theory, we could add that the strength of unconscious guilt is a good approximation of the strength of these bonds.

Guilt is a painful moral emotion depending on our capacity to feel empathically the distress of another person, on our attributing to ourselves the responsibility for this distress, and on our desire to avoid or repair it (Friedman, 1985). Recent developments in affective neuroscience and cognitive, developmental, and evolutionary psychology (Zahn-Waxler & Robinson, 1995; Bybee & Quiles, 1998; Hoffman, 2000; Panksepp & Biven, 2012) stress that guilt is a function of our altruistic/pro-social motivations (Tomasello, 2016), which are as primary as our egoistical and self-centered motivations. If individual natural selection can explain why we may be so egoistic, our altruism evolved thanks to group selection (Wilson, 2007, 2015): we harbor pro-social altruistic motivations because we are a eusocial species living in groups.  The abilities and motivations that drive us to help another human being have been “rewarded” by evolution because they have promoted the survival and reproduction of our groups.

Guilt stems from fear (of losing the bond with or the love of another person), attachment (to that person), and care (for him or her) (Gazzillo et al., in press; Kochanska, Gross, Mei-Hua & Nichols, 2002).   In contrast to classical psychoanalytic thinking, there is no need to harbor aggressive wishes in order to feel guilty; believing that what you want or do could harm your loved ones or your relationships with them is sufficient to cause guilt. And in contrast to classical cognitive models (e.g., Kohlberg, 1969), contemporary moral evolutionary psychology shows that feeling guilty is not a consequence of complex reasoning, but of an intuitive emotional assessment of the reality we face.

There are six “moral foundations” (Haidt, 2012) that we all share because they are “wired” in our brain and shape our moral sensitivity: we value protection and condemn harm, appreciate loyalty and criticize betrayal, reward equity and punish cheating; we appreciate the respect of legitimate authority and condemn arbitrary subversive actions; we want to be free and disrespect oppressing others and, finally, we feel that our body is to a certain extent sacred and are morally disgusted by its degradation.  Different cultures shape the meaning and give more weight to some of these foundations and less to others, as do our personal experiences -- in particular the early, traumatic experiences that are the bases of our pathogenic beliefs. These beliefs may transform guilt, which is basically adaptive, in a relevant pathogenic force.

Control-Mastery Theory (Bush, 2005; Weiss, Sampson & The Mount Zion Psychotherapy Research Group, 1986; Weiss, 1993) has focused its attention to four families of pathogenic beliefs which give rise to four kinds of guilt: survivor guilt, separation/disloyalty guilt, omnipotent responsibility guilt and self-hate. Survivor guilt refers to a painful emotion that people may experience when they are surpassing important others, believing that they are hurting them by being more successful, happy, fortunate, etc. Separation guilt stems from the fear of harming others by becoming independent and moving away, while disloyalty guilt stems from the belief that being psychologically different from them will be hurtful to loved ones. Omnipotent responsibility guilt involves an exaggerated sense of responsibility and concern for the happiness and well-being of other people, and it is based on the belief that one has the duty and power to save loved ones in trouble. The last kind of interpersonal guilt, self-hate, arises when an individual complies with severely critical, abusive, or neglecting attitudes of important others, often a parent. It describes the feeling of being inherently wrong, inadequate, guilty, and not deserving of love, protection, and happiness. These interpersonal guilt feelings described by CMT are compatible with four of the six moral foundations pointed out by Jonathan Haidt (2012).

Unconscious interpersonal guilt condemns people anytime they try to be separate, different, or better off than their loved ones and anytime they try to give value to themselves and their life. Various childhood experiences give specific meanings to being different, separate, or better off than love ones, but the basic conflict remains the same: am I allowed to pursue my personal and relational wellbeing or must I sacrifice my life to my early love objects?

Finally, according to CMT guilt often supports chronic shame, which is an expression of compliance to shaming parents or identification with shameful parents; in either case, shame is maintained by difficulties in differentiating and becoming independent from or displeasing parental figures.  In other words, the feelings of shame are maintained by guilt toward loved ones.  In a zero-sum game, interpersonal guilt causes us to experience our gain as a loss for the people we depended on, and leads us to sabotage our life out of loyalty and solidarity with the relational vestiges of our past.




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