An emotional state produced by thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise.
Guilt is both a cognitive and an emotional experience that occurs when the child realizes that he or she has violated a moral standard and is responsible for that violation. Typically, among American children, the violations include hurting another person, disobedience, or seizing of someone else's property. A guilty conscience results from thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self. Guilt feelings may also inhibit us from falling short of our ideal again in the future. Individual guilt is an inner reflection on personal wrongdoing, while collective guilt is a shared state resulting from group—such as corporate, national, or community—wrongdoing.
Guilt serves as both an indicator and inhibitor of wrongdoing. Healthy guilt is an appropriate response to harming another and is resolved through atonement, such as making amends, apologizing, or accepting punishment. Unhealthy guilt, sometimes called neurotic or debilitating guilt, is a pervasive sense of responsibility for others' pain that is not resolved, despite efforts to atone. Healthy guilt inspires a person to behave in the best interests of him- or herself and others and make amends when any wrong is done. Unhealthy guilt stifles a person's natural expression of self and prohibits intimacy with others.
Unhealthy guilt can be instilled when a child is continually barraged with shaming statements that criticize
An important difference between shame and guilt is that in the former, the child does not feel he could hae aoided the action; in guilt, he feels responsible. Guilt can be used to manipulate someone into behaving in a certain way. This is known as a "guilt trip." Provoking another's sense of guilt in order to obtain something that he or she might not otherwise have offered is a manipulation of internal motivations. If a teenager asks permission to go out for the evening and the single parent responds, "Go ahead and go to the movie, dear ... don't worry about me ... I'll be fine here all by myself in this big old house all evening with nothing to do ..., " the teenager will be made to feel guilty for the parent's loneliness. If the guilt trip is heavy, the teenager may decide to stay home with the parent, even though he or she really wants to go to the movie. It is appropriate to let people know when they have unnecessarily or intentionally hurt others, or have ignored their responsibilities to others. This will instill fair guilt that will help a person be less hurtful in the future.
Although conclusive studies have yet to be conducted, it is likely that the sense of guilt changes along with a person's cognitive and social development.
These stages have yet to be thoroughly documented and are still open to critique, particularly the early stages. Some people believe that infants and young children feel a great deal of empathy for others and could conceivably experience guilt over causing them harm.
Guilt can be deactivated, the conscience "turned off." Some people never seem to develop a healthy sense of guilt in the first place, through a failure to develop empathy or a lack of appropriate limits, while others choose to turn theirs off. Guilt can be deactivated in two different ways:
1) The person convinces him- or herself that the act was not a violation of what is right.
2) The person reasons that he or she has no control over the events of life and is therefore not responsible for the outcome. With no sense of personal responsibility, there can be no sense of guilt.
When guilt is reduced, internal limits on behavior disappear and people can act without remorse.
STAGES OF GUILT DEVELOPMENT
The researcher M. L. Hoffman has proposed the following stages of guilt development:
Infancy—Because infants have no clear sense of separate identity or the effect of their behavior on others, it would be impossible for them to feel true guilt over hurting another.
Early childhood—Young children understand themselves as physically separate from others, but do not yet have a deep understanding of others' inner states; therefore, they feel guilt over hurting another person physically, but not over doing emotional damage.
Middle childhood—With the increased understanding of others' inner states, children develop a sense of guilt over inflicting emotional pain on others or failing to act on another's behalf.
Adolescence to adulthood—Cognitive development now allows the young adult to perceive abstract, universal concepts of identity and suffering and, therefore, to feel a sense of guilt over more general harm, such as world hunger, poverty, oppression, etc.
Greenspan, P. S. Practical Guilt: Moral Dilemmas, Emotions, and Social Norms. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Hoffman, M. L. "Development of Prosocial Motivation: Empathy and Guilt." In The Development of Prosocial Behavior, edited by N. Eisenberg, pp. 218-231. New York: Academic Press, 1982.
Kurtines, William M., and Jacob L. Gewirtz, eds. Moral Development: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.
Middleton-Moz, Jane. Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1990.
Schulman, Michael, and Eva Mekler. Bringing Up a Moral Child: A New Approach for Teaching Your Child to Be Kind, Just, and Responsible, rev. ed. New York: Main Street Books/Doubleday, 1994.
Wechsler, Harlan J. What's So Bad About Guilt? Learning to Live With It Since We Can't Live Without It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
—Dianne K. Daeg de Mott