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Bill WhiteBill White
A blog about mental and emotional health

The Guilts: A Psychoanalytic and Cognitive View

Bill White Updated: Jan 21st 2011

Guilt can be absolutely crippling for anyone, but it hits those enduring mood and anxiety disorders particularly hard. We're just so darned tough on ourselves, aren't we? Well, let's see what we can learn.

court gavel and scalesThe definition of guilt varies, depending upon what school of psychological theory is examining it. We're going to take a peak at the psychoanalytic and cognitive perspectives. I'll go easy on the psychobabble.

Psychoanalytic Theory

The psychoanalysts would start with the superego in their description of guilt. In so many words, the superego is our active conscience. And the ego's job is to manage the interplay of the superego and the id, home of our primal wishes.

Now, some psychoanalytic theorists propose that one's superego can have, shall we say, a personality of its own. And it can range from easy-going to tough-as-nails.

Within this context, it would only make sense that an emotionally and mentally "healthy" individual's superego would lend a hand in feeling good about self. Yes, this particular superego, like a good parent, would administer discipline when one has thought or behaved badly. And the punishment is generally delivered in the form of guilt.

But when the individual makes sincere attempts at making-right their transgressions, the superego awards due credit and forgives. This is the psychoanalytic dynamic of self-forgiveness.

It would follow, then, that the tough-as-nails superego isn't so nurturing, as it pounds the individual with massive portions of guilt for a multiplicity of supposed offenses. And this leads to him/her constantly and desperately seeking shelter. And each futile attempt at lightening the burden of guilt is greeted with truckloads of shame, instead of relief.

Theoretically, it's this dynamic that greatly inhibits any sort of "making things right," and, ultimately, leaves the individual horribly trapped in infinite doses of self-disapproval and internal self-assault.

Individuals with superegos this brutal are forced to find some way, any way, of relieving their overbearing burdens of guilt and shame. Sadly, this is accomplished by a variety of very unpleasant internal and external methodologies. And the bottom-line is typically an extremely long and tragic life, suffocating in harmful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward self and others. Taken to the very extreme, physical harm to self and others may be an ultimate reality.

According to cognitive theory, guilt is a very powerful and potentially harmful emotion. And it's grounded in the real and perceived. Guilt is influenced by genetics, life-experience, and learning.

The cognitivists believe one of the foundations of guilt is negative self-thought. That said, the guilt-ridden individual generally turns blame for unfortunate circumstances inward.

Yes, though the behavior presentations associated with guilt hold the potential to be significantly outwardly harmful, it seems most of the harm is inflicted upon self. Any harm inflicted upon others is less directly aggressive, and more resentment or passive-aggressive based.

So there you have it, a psychoanalytic and cognitive perspective on guilt. I always believe that coming to understand the true nature of what we feel is crucial in living a more comfortable life. Perhaps this information will help you connect some dots. It may even inspire you to conduct some personal research.

Manage and enhance your life through education!


Bill White

After enduring decades of anxiety, depression, and alcoholism; Bill made it out of the woods. He found his lifes passion along the way, earned his counseling credentials, and is ready to lend a hand. Visit his blog at, and you can contact Bill at

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