I am not a fan of guilt. I believe guilt is a plague on the house of our mental health. The genius of Sigmund Freud taught us that we are primarily driven by both sexuality and aggression. He maintained that when we attempt to disavow, repress, or avoid these two primary drives, we end up feeling pretty lousy. Freud argued that one way our psyche wards off lousy feelings is through compromise formations. When we become aggressive, but lack an avenue to process or vent it, a compromise develops between the two competing psychic experiences in hopes of achieving maximum drive satisfaction with minimum resulting pain. For example, how many times have you become truly pissed off at your boss and then went home and yelled at your partner or dog instead? The point Freud was making over 100 years ago is that the aggression you feel towards something in your environment has to go somewhere, even if it means putting it somewhere it might not belong. Guilt is a product of misdirected aggression and indeed a compromise formed to mitigate the pain of unexpressed anger.
Let’s walk through a scenario.
Imagine yourself driving to work early in the morning, during the peak of rush hour in downtown Chicago. You are alert, coffee in hand and formulating your day while driving across the State Street Bridge. As you are crossing the bridge, the red light in front of you turns green and a calming sigh of relief washes over you; you will now be on time for work. As you approach the intersection of Wacker and State, a woman walks out in front of you through the cross walk, staring incessantly at her phone while typing an email or text. You quickly react, heart racing you slam on the breaks, screeching to a halt inches away from striking the woman while coffee falls into your lap causing a small but noticeable stain. The screeching breaks prompt the woman to look up from her phone; monetarily confused she makes eye contact, mouths the word “oops” and continues to cross the street with her bemused stare. How would this interaction make you feel? Would you become angry? Feel relief? Would you have a strong reaction? I’m comfortable disclosing I would most likely be pissed. I would feel entitled to at least 10 minutes of water cooler time with colleagues talking about the thoughtless woman whom almost got herself killed and ruined both of our lives in the process because she needed to finish an email. Likely, people would then attempt to soothe my rage with recitations of their own “near misses” and road rage. Feeling validated, my aggression sufficiently processed, I would head back to my office and pen a blog for the website, as blogging can be cathartic indeed.
Now imagine the same scenario, but instead of screeching to a halt nearly missing the woman, you instead broad side her, launching her into the half frozen Chicago River where she dies. What would you be feeling in the current scenario? Fear? Panic? Culpability? I would strongly experience all three. Do you think I would find the same sanctuary around the water cooler for my anger and aggression as I did in the first near miss scenario? Likely, I would not. The stakes have now been raised and judgment will surely ensue. People will be much less likely to defend you or support your feelings given the fact that you have accidentally killed someone. So where does that anger go if it cannot be directed elsewhere? Often times when backed into an emotional corner we direct the anger back on ourselves in the form of guilt. Guilt is corrosive and a powerful agent in the creation of panic attacks, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Guilt is the product of unresolved aggression. In the example earlier, it would feel socially unacceptable to express anger towards the woman who died in a traffic collision, even if it was her fault. I’d feel obligated to feel sorry for her and her loved ones, despite the pain she caused me.
The holidays can trap us in obligations towards others that are incongruent with our true feelings. Guilt often follows if you end up feeling like you cannot meet those obligations. Instead of enduring the guilt, try and focus on the anger you may be feeling that each obligation entails. Take responsibility for your annoyance or aggression, and seek support from close friends or understanding family members.
By allowing yourself to explore your feelings of anger and seeking support, you can resolve those conflicts in a healthier way. Give yourself the gift of guilt-free holidays this year.
Written By: Jason LaHood, PsyD