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Guilt, anxiety and depression and Its Role in Mental Health

Guilt is generally viewed as a feeling state related to a sense of wrongdoing—a pervasive, highly uncomfortable state which has been described as anxiety plus a sense of badness. (Freud comments that, subjectively, “the sense of guilt and the sense of inferiority are difficult to distinguish.”) In other words its difficult to differentiate between neurotic guilt and “real” guilt or, between “guilt” and “guilt feelings.”

Neurotic guilt emanates from imagined transgressions (or minor transgressions that are responded to in a disproportionately powerful manner) against another individual, against ancient and modern taboos, or against parental or social tribunals. “Real” guilt flows from and actual transgression against another. Though the subjective experience is similar, the meaning of these forms of guilt are quite different: neurotic guilt requires working through the sense of badness, the unconscious aggression, and the wish for punishment; whereas “real” guilt must be met by actual, or symbolically appropriate, reparation.

If I embrace full acceptance of responsibility for my actions it will expand the scope of guilt by reducing my escape hatches. In so doing, I can no longer comfortably rely on alibis like: “I didn’t mean it,” “It was an accident,” “I couldn’t fight the urge.”

On a deeper level, I am guilty not only through my transgressions against another or against some moral or social code, but I am guilty of transgressions against myself. Kierkegaard and Heidegger most fully developed this idea. Heidegger uses the same word (shuldig) to refer to both guilt and responsibility. “Being guilty…has the signification of ‘being responsible for’—that is, being the cause, or even the occasion for something.”

Simply, I am guilty to the same extent that I am responsible for myself and my world. Guilt is a fundamental part of being human: “being guilty does not first result from an indebtedness, but on the contrary indebtedness becomes possible only on the basis of a primordial being guilty.” Heidegger then proceeds to develop the theme that “in the idea of ‘guilty’ there lies the character of the ‘not.’” The human be-ing is always constituting, and “constantly lagging behind his possibilities.” Guilt is therefore intimately related to possibility or potentiality. When the “call of conscience” is heard (the call that brings me face to face with my “authentic” mode of be-ing), I am always “guilty”—and guilty to the extent that I have failed to fulfill my possibility.

Our being is not only given to us but also demanded of us. I am responsible for it and required to answer, what have I made of myself. I am my own judge. This produces anxiety which in relative terms is the anxiety of guilt, in absolute terms the anxiety of self-rejection or condemnation. I am asked to make of myself what I am to become, to fulfill my destiny. In every act, I contribute to the actualization of my potential.

Guilt is not a negative, but a constructive emotion, that is to say a perception of the difference between what a thing is and what it ought to be. Therefore guilt is compatible with, even necessary for, mental health. When I deny my potential, fail to realize it, my condition is guilt. Each human being has an innate set of capacities and has a primordial knowledge of these potentials. If we fail to live as fully as we can, we experience a deep, powerful guilt.

How am I to find my potential? How do I recognize it when I meet it? How do I know when I have lost my way? Through Guilt! Through the call of conscience!

As I’ve stated in previous entries, I have a fear of assertiveness. Though this profession often calls for me to do so, I do not represent myself well in discussions with investors or marketers over the phone. I have often asked myself why? What would be the calamity? I have answered that question in varying ways over the years. Laziness, phobia (due to conditioning), feelings of ‘being on the spot,’ have all been differing levels of insight I have developed around the issue. However, I think it goes deeper than that. Ultimately it is exposure that I fear. I think it is fear of exposure that keeps me from doing the necessary work to advance in this profession and personally. I fear the people in power would insouciantly read aloud a list of all my professional failures, all the times I failed to deliver, been too soft, been too philosophical, judge my character based on my past choices, etc…

Gradually I am beginning to understand my “current” behavior, what I am doing right now, is the source of my fear of assertiveness and is the source of my self-contempt and my guilt as well. I am immediately and entirely the source of my own self-hatred. If I want to feel better about myself or even to love myself, I have to stop doing things of which I am ashamed.

Beyond that, I have discovered two roots of for my guilt. One stems from the way I have demeaned my encounters with others. The second source of guilt is the crime I commit against myself. For much of my married life my energies have been focused obsessively on career. I have rarely given my mind free rein, rarely engaged in other thoughts, rarely read, rarely listen to music, and rarely truly encounter another person. I live like a domesticated animal constantly yanked by a leash. What a peculiar way to live life. Surely there must be more to life than this. This guilt comes from my life denial and restriction, from my self-immolation and my refusal to become what I can become.

I’ve come to appreciate that guilt is more than a dysphoric affect state, a symptom to be worked through and eliminated; I regard it as a call from within which, if heeded, can function as a guide to personal fulfillment. The victim is my own potential self. Redemption is achieved by plunging myself into the “true” vocation of be-ing, which, as Kierkegaard said, “is to will to be oneself.”

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