Monday, March 5, 2007

Guilt as failed omnipotence

Guilt as failed omnipotence. Feelings of guilt are a psychological conundrum. Why would anyone want to make themselves feel bad? Why would anyone punish themselves? On its face, such behavior hardly seems rational. Further there are persons who are filled with guilt for events and actions of which they were clearly not the cause. By way of example, many of Woody Allen's movies provide examples of this. In addition, we all know persons addicted to guilt.: they want to feel guilty, even seem to need to feel guilt. Why is this?

What is the fantasy? Whether the guilty person really bears responsibility for his bad act, is a distant secondary consideration. The guilty person believes that he is responsible for some untoward act. He believes that he has done something and that this something is bad. Guilt seduces the unwary by persuading the guilty that the bad act was well within the guilty person's power. The guilty person is powerful regardless of appearances. First observation: guilt is a fantasy about power.

Although in the fantasy the guilty person has power, the exercise of power inevitably goes awry. This is because of a fault in the guilty person. There is something wrong with him. However, ugly and deformed his soul may be, he remains powerful. The guilty person has power but is incompetent: his incompetence ("sinfulness" in Christian parlance) prevents him from exercising power without unhappy consequences.

What is the temptation of this power fantasy? What is the alternative? Rampant, unchecked feelings of impotence and powerlessness. However, painful and unhealthy guilt might be, the alternative to guilt is even worse. To speak Freudian: guilt is an expression of castration anxiety. Because it is a denial of a piece of reality, namely of one's own feelings of impotence and powerlessness, guilt is a neurosis.

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