Unconscious Sense of Guilt

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The unconscious sense of guilt is an ego state resulting from conflict between the aims of the superego and those of the ego.

As a psychoanalytical term, according to Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (1973), the "unconscious sense of guilt" developed a more specific meaning over time than when it was first used simply to designate a feeling in the unconscious aroused by an act considered reprehensible. Its current definition implies an unconscious relationship between the ego and superego expressed in subjective phenomena from which, in extreme instances, any conscious perception of guilt is entirely absent.

The term itself appeared for the first time in Sigmund Freud's article "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices" (1907b). "We may say that the sufferer from compulsions and prohibitions behaves as if he were dominated by a sense of guilt, of which, however, he knows nothing, so that we must call it an unconscious sense of guilt, in spite of the apparent contradiction in terms" (p. 123). However, the basic idea had been adumbrated much earlier, in the second part of Freud's "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1894a).

In accepting the hypothesis that the sense of guilt arises simultaneously with the gradual development of the superego, it is important to stress that they both imply a social dimension, and that the superego also owes its existence to external factors and represents the demands of society to the ego. In addition, the superego not only frustrates certain tendencies of the ego, but also can divert aggression at it. When it does so, it manifests as a repetitive sense of culpability and expiation. In addition, as Freud wrote in The Ego and the Id (1923b), "One may go further and venture the hypothesis that a great part of the sense of guilt must normally remain unconscious, because the origin of conscience is intimately connected with the Oedipus complex, which belongs to the unconscious" (p. 52).

The sense of guilt appears to dominate instinctual life not only by acting to deny gratification, but also by leading to an increase in libido and thus the provocation of masochistic pleasure. Psychoanalysts see moral masochism as an expression of an unconscious sense of guilt.

Unconscious guilt is one of the most powerful factors in the gratification of passive libidinal wishes. Narcissistic patients should be helped to acknowledge the unconscious self-criticism and guilt that underlie their hostile demands for love. They must come to see how they project their thoughts and attitudes in order to regain self-esteem. What is in fact a deficiency of the superego is largely manifested as self-destructive refusal to acknowledge guilt, thereby provoking an obvious disorder of ego functioning.

Trying to help such patients become aware of their unconscious guilt reveals characteristic patterns. One often encounters solid resistance to acknowledging guilt or even accepting its existence, and frequently such patients use projection as a defense. An intense battle is waged with the aim of warding off unconscious guilt, of keeping it silent and hidden. Analysis of dreams may be useful achieving a degree of acceptance.

Inasmuch as unconscious guilt acts as a form of "signal anxiety," we might expect it to produce defenses against a subject's wishes. This indeed turns out to be the case, and the inhibitions one observes are its clinical manifestations, seen by some as representing a "signal function" that announces the presence of guilt. But the most important characteristic of the unconscious sense of guilt is that it deploys defenses against passive libidinal wishes, in contrast to guilt caused by active and aggressive libidinal aims.

The origin and nature of unconscious guilt, and the way in which it affects psychological development are both unresolved issues. Some psychoanalytical tendencies are distinguished by the treatment techniques they employ to deal with the sense of guilt. Some analysts focus interpretatively on the necessity to "liberate" the patient from guilt, which they consider pathological and to which the patient is seen as submitting out of masochism. Other analysts, in sharp contrast, believe that the denial of guilt is central to all neurotic conflict, and that guilt itself is due to aggressive fantasies against objects. This controversy arises from a conflation of two distinct ideas.

Grinberg (1965), from a Kleinian perspective, has suggested distinguishing "persecutory guilt" from "depressive guilt." This distinction permits a better understanding of the dynamic of the sense of guilt and thus fosters a broader understanding of the content and quality of object relations, as well as reactions to different stimuli and the normal or pathological process of mourning.

Persecutory guilt appears very early in life, and is associated with a weak and immature ego. It develops in parallel with the anxieties of the paranoid-schizoid position, or in the wake of some frustration or of a failure of depressive guilt. Despite its early appearance, persecutory guilt has an important influence upon subsequent psychological growth and plays an important role in the development both of inhibitions and masochistic attitudes and behaviors. Despair, resentment, fear, pain and self-reproach are the symptoms of persecutory guilt, as are a compulsion to repeat and a tendency to "act out." Extreme cases occur with schizophrenia, melancholia and pathological mourning.

To the extent that persecutory guilt diminishes, pain and suffering caused by object loss will increase, along with a more or less depressive manifestations. Concern for self and object, responsibility and, in the final analysis, the capacity for reparation will also increase. These feelings represent a form of depressive guilt which predominates in the normal process of mourning and in activities requiring sublimation.

LÉON GRINBERG Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.
   * ——. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.
   * ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
   * Grinberg, León. (1965). Deux sortes de culpabilité: leurs relations avec les aspects du deuil normal et pathologique. Revue française psychanalyse, 29, 2-3.
   * Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis Jean-Bertrand. (1973). The language of psycho-analysis (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). W. W. Norton: New York. (Original work published 1971)