Guilt: Conscious and Unconscious

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?”

Pt:  “No.”

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

Projection of the Superego to Avoid Experiencing Conscious Guilt

Here’s another pattern.

Pt:  “I feel terrible about what I did to Sam.”

Th:  “Did you apologize to him?”

Pt:  “No.  Isn’t that terrible?”

Here, the patient invites the therapist to judge her.  Then the conflict would be between her and the therapist rather than between her and her conscience.  She invites the therapist to punish her to avoid experiencing her guilt, which would mobilize her to repair the relationship.

How do we distinguish guilt from self-punishment?  Genuine guilt mobilizes, but self-punishment paralyzes the patient.  Genuine guilt leads the patient to repair the relationship.  Self-punishment leads the patient to withdraw from relatedness.

Self-Punishment Masquerading as Conscious Guilt

Everyone has worked with a patient who feels angry with an abusive boyfriend.

Th:  “What’s the feeling toward him for hitting you?”

Pt:  “I feel angry.”

Th:  “How do you experience this anger physically in your body?”

Pt:  “I feel guilty.  I think anger is wrong.”

Here, she judges herself to avoid experiencing her rage.  The self-criticism paralyzes her, preventing her from channeling her anger into adaptive limit setting and self-protection.  Genuine guilt helps you improve a damaged relationship with others.  Self-punishment damages the relationship with yourself.  Here, the patient damages the relationship with herself by turning the anger toward the boyfriend back onto herself.  What she calls ‘guilt’ is actually self-attack and self-reproach.  Always differentiate the feeling of guilt (which mobilizes us to repair genuine damage to a relationship) from the defense of self-punishment, which patients often misinterpret as guilt.

Differentiating Healthy Guilt from Self-Punishment

Subject matter: Healthy guilt is for what you did—you hurt someone.  Neurotic guilt is often displaced.  A patient feels neurotic guilt over forgetting someone’s name.  In fact, she hates the guy.  So she accepts self-punishment for the lesser crime.

Quantitative factor: The amount of healthy guilt corresponds to the wrong deed you committed.  Neurotic guilt corresponds to the need for self-punishment.

Expiation:  Normal guilt can be expiated by repairing the damage you inflicted on the relationship.  Neurotic guilt cannot be expiated because it is how we punish ourselves.

Time Limit: Normal guilt disappears because you repaired the damage you caused.  Neurotic guilt never disappears.  The self-punishment continues.

Self-limitation vs. self-aggravation: Normal guilt is self-limiting through reparation and compassion for self and others.  Neurotic guilt grows in intensity as the patient misuses more elements of reality to torment herself with new “crimes.”

Exhaustibility: Normal guilt is a realistic response to a real deed and therefore exhaustible.  Neurotic guilt is an unrealistic form of self-punishment, which is inexhaustible.

Type of guilt: Normal guilt is realistic.  Neurotic guilt is an unrealistic form of self-punishment.

Outcome:  Normal guilt rises then ends with reparation.  Neurotic guilt is forever. (cf. Edmund Bergler)

Unconscious Guilt

Ever since Freud’s paper on pathological mourning, we have known about unconscious guilt.  The patient has an unconscious phantasy of rage toward a loved one, which triggers unconscious guilt.  We see this in children’s play.  In the sandbox, adults are constantly being killed off….then magically brought back to life!  The child expresses her rage, and undoes the death, so she has done nothing to feel guilty about.

But many children suffer traumas to the bond so severe, that the resulting rage and complex feelings are too much to be dealt with only through play.  Instead, these children must use defenses to ward off those feelings.  They feel rage toward loved ones who have hurt them.  At the same time, they feel guilt over the rageful impulses they feel.   To protect their loved ones, they ward off their rage and turn it on themselves.   As Bowlby pointed out, this protects the attachment bond, which the child needs for her survival.  Thus, a small child represses rage that, if shown or acted out, could damage a relationship she needs for her survival.  She feels guilt for this rage because she also loves the people she relies on.

Sadly, due to the immaturity of the child’s mind, she often feels her wish is the same as a deed.  Operating in concrete-operational thought (Piaget), she equates a wish with a deed.  So she keeps feeling guilty for wishes she never acted out.

For Davanloo, this unconscious guilt over unconscious murderous rage drives self-punishment and suffering in adulthood.  Rage today is linked unconsciously to rage in the past and the conflicts which overwhelmed the child.  Thus, accessing the patient’s unconscious rage in the past liberates the unconscious complex feelings the patient had toward her caretakers.  By feeling those complex feelings as deeply as possible, the patient no longer needs to use defenses to ward them off.  By experiencing her unconscious guilt over unconscious rage as deeply as possible, the patient no longer needs to ward off her unconscious guilt from the past through self-punishment in the present.

Does the feeling of unconscious guilt drive self-punishment?  According to Melanie Klein, three things can occur.  In what she calls the paranoid/schizoid position, the child, who equates her wish with the deed, believes she has damaged the other person irreparably.  To avoid her guilt, she projects her rage onto others.  “I do not have to feel guilt over my rage.  Mother is enraged with me.  I must fear her.”  The experience of these complex emotions overwhelms the child’s integrative capacities, especially when she equates reality and fantasy.  Unable to tolerate the mixed feelings, the child projects her rage onto her loved ones, and now fears them.

The child, having projected his rage onto the mother, may also punish himself to ward off her imagined attacks.  This gives rise to the pattern of self-punishment we see in therapy.  If the child’s parents cruelly punished him, he will punish himself as a way to identify with his parents.  “If I do to myself what they did to me, I am them, and have not lost them.”

According to Klein, as the child gains a greater capacity to differentiate reality from fantasy, and to tolerate complex emotions within herself, he sees he has not destroyed his mother.  “Perhaps mother is only damaged, and I can repair her.”  The child shifts from projecting his rage to owning it, from fearing the mother to repairing her, from relating to fantasy to relating to reality, and from warding off his guilt to bearing it.  Now the child is able to tolerate his experience of guilt, which mobilizes him to repair his relationships, even if the damage all took place in fantasy.

When this development does not take place, the patient’s defenses against facing his unconscious rage and guilt continue into adulthood, perpetuating his suffering.  Our task is to help him face his conflicts today and access the unconscious rage and guilt from the past, so he can become free from childhood solutions, which prevent him from fulfilling his potential today.

Hopefully this differentiation between conscious and unconscious guilt, so-called ‘guilty feelings’ and genuine guilt, self-punishment vs. genuine guilt, and unconscious guilt versus the defenses against it, has been clarifying.

In the meantime, don’t forget to purchase our dvds on working with the fragile patient.  Check out our new teaching video.  And don’t miss our next webinar on Psychodiagnosis on April 20.

Thanks so much for all your support.


P.S.  If you have questions you want us to address send them to and we’ll answer them in future blogs.








5 responses to “Guilt: Conscious and Unconscious”

  1. Florian Wschiansky (Geneva, Switzerland) Avatar
    Florian Wschiansky (Geneva, Switzerland)

    dear jon,
    thank you very much for your crytal clear clarifications about “Guilt: Conscious and Unconscious”. thanks to your examples and your clear differentiations, i understood it and appreciate it a lot.
    no doubt for me, you’re gifted to teach those matters.
    thanks again,
    (Geneva, Switzerland)
    (i had the pleasure to briefly meet you in oxford in july and to see and hear your comments, explanations, …)

    1. Jon Frederickson Avatar

      Thanks so much Florian. I’m glad you found it useful. Feel free to send me topics or questions you would like me to address on this blog. And that goes for all of you who read this blog. Send me your questions and topics. After all, it’s here to help you! I look forward to seeing you again.

      Best, Jon

  2. […] Frederickson, Jon. “Guilt: Conscious and Unconscious.” ISTDP Institute. ISTDP Institute, 8 Apr. 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. <;. […]

  3. Donna Avatar

    Hi, thank you for helping me understand guilt: conscious and unconscious. I would be grateful for some more clarity around unconscious rage and guilt from the client’s past…. what if the rage was repressed but relates to a reality of neglectful parenting, physical and emotional abuse. What if it doesn’t relate to fantasy but was too much to tolerate? Can the client learn to tolerate their guilt and repair the relationship??

    1. Jon Frederickson Avatar
      Jon Frederickson

      Usually, the rage does relate to past frustrations, neglect, or traumas. The problem is that the child is feeling rage toward the person he loves. To preserve the relationship with the person he loves, he may turn the rage upon himself, project it onto others, or detach. The rage was too much for the parent to tolerate, so they could not regulate emotions together. Thus, the child, unable to depend on a parent for affect regulation, must rely on a defense for affect dissociation to preserve an insecure attachment. Thus, in therapy, we help the patient bit by bit tolerate mixed feelings of rage toward those he loves. And as he bears those feelings in the relationship without using defenses, the therapist helps the patient bear the guilt that is evoked by feeling anger toward a person he loves. And this can be done. However, the way it is done will depend on the patient’s pathway of anxiety discharge, system of defenses, and affect tolerance. My new book, Co-Creating Safety, shows some ways of doing this with fragile patients.

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