Recently a student wondered if guilt was a feeling or a defense. What a great question!
Conscious Guilt as a Feeling
If someone slaps you in the face, let’s hope he feels guilty afterward! Why? Because his guilt, an adaptive feeling, may mobilize him to reach out to you, apologize, and try to repair the damage he caused to the relationship. Sometimes, however, when we experience our guilt, it makes us anxious. So we use defenses: denial (“I didn’t mean anything by it.”), rationalization (“The reason I did it was that you were being a jerk.”), or minimization (“I think you are being too sensitive about it.”) If we use those defenses, we fail to repair the damage we caused, and our relationships fail. Genuine guilt is a healthy feeling. It mobilizes us to repair the damage we have caused others (Melanie Klein). And defenses against facing conscious guilt prevent us from healing our relationships.
Self-Punishment as a Defense against Experiencing Conscious Guilt
Sometimes, we run into another defense, which can fool us.
Pt: “I just feel so guilty about what I did to Sam.”
Th: “Did you apologize to him?”
Here, the patient narcissistically withdraws into self-punishment rather than reach out to repair the damage. Her so-called ‘guilty feelings’ are a form of self-punishment as a substitute for reparation. ‘I will punish myself rather than reach out to the person I hurt.’ (See Donald Carveth www.yorku.ca/dcarveth/guilt.pdf)