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Guilt, Feeling of


Guilt represents a sensation of intrapsychic tension, sometimes linked to apprehension of a catastrophic threat to oneself. It may also be manifest as humility, suffering, the need for punishment, remorse, and feelings of inadequacy.

According to Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (1968), the term describes an emotional state that arises in consequence of some action that the subject considers reprehensible; it may also refer to a vague feeling of personal unworthiness, unconnected to any particular act.

The "sense of guilt" appeared for the first time in Freud's work in his article, "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices" (1907b); however, he had previously suggested its outlines in the second section of his "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence." (1894a) Freud distinguished two sources of the sense of guilt: fear of authority and fear of the superego. The former compels renunciation of some instinctive pressure or action, while in the latter, internalization of parental authority initiates development of the superego. One of the functions of this agency (the superego), which is responsible for the evaluation and judgment of the actions of the ego, is known as moral conscience (1923b). Aggression stemming from this moral conscience prolongs and intensifies the aggression experienced from authority. Under the influence of the sense of guilt, the ego submits to the superego's demands, out of fear of losing its affection and protection. According to Freud, there is a link between the sense of guilt and the Oedipus complex.

Anxiety occasioned by loss (or potential loss) of the loved object is not the only manifestation of the sense of guilt. There is also the potential for psychic pain and suffering; excessive humility; repeated failures and regrets; constant asking for penitence, expiations, and renunciation; suicidal ideas; and the tendency toward self-punishment.

Melanie Klein (1948), like Freud, also saw a direct relationship between the sense of guilt and fundamental ambivalence arising from the life and death instincts. She stressed that this feeling not only appears in the oedipal conflict, but also in the very earliest relationships with the nourishing mother. In her description, damaged intrapsychic objects become persecutors.

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a), Freud described how the sense of guilt, together with the methods and mechanisms used to struggle against it, influence the individual's relationships, not only with their immediate family, but also other relationships within the larger social group, and even with civilization as a whole. One of the principal aims of psychoanalysis is therefore to understand how patients manage their guilt, for example, to understand the extent to which they can accept ambivalence and responsibility in the face of instinctual strivings and the feelings that generate guilt. The discovery that patients harbor feelings of both love and hate for their parents underscores the importance of guilt as a nodal area of personality development. In the first years of life, the specific ways that children respond to guilt may predispose them to neurosis and mental instability, but may also prove to be a source of success and fulfillment.

Klein (1945/1975), in opposition to Freud, attempted to show, through observation of children in analysis, that the superego emerges much earlier than Freud suggested. According to her views, the Oedipus complex also appears much earlier, during the first six months of life. The essential nature of the sense of guilt resides in the young child's impression that its own experience of aggressive instincts have caused hurt to the love object. The desire to undo or to repair this damage derives from the sense of guilt.

To the extent that guilt may be said to reflect, or result from, discordance between the ego and superego, emergence of the latter implies the ineluctable appearance of the sense of guilt.

LeÓN Grinberg

See also: Criminology and psychoanalysis; Death instinct (Thanatos); "Dostoyevski and Parricide"; Guilt, unconscious sense of; Law and psychoanalysis; Melancholy; Moral masochism; Need for punishment; Self-punishment; Superego.


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.

. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

Klein, Melanie. (1948). A contribution to the theory of anxiety and guilt. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 29, 113-123.

. (1975). The Oedipus complex in the light of early anxieties. The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 3, 1946-1963). London: Hogarth. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 26 (1945), 11-33.)

Laplanche, Jean; and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1973). The language of psycho-analysis. New York: Norton, 1973.

Further Reading

Pulver, Stanley. (1999). Shame and guilt: a synthesis. Psychoanalytical Inquiry, 19, 388-406.

Sandler, Joseph, and Sandler, Anne-Marie. (1987). Past unconscious, present unconscious, and the vicissitudes of guilt. International Journal Psychoanalysis, 68, 331-342.

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