Both guilt and social pressure are vitally important: they are of
help in controlling "the beast within"--our greed, anger, and lust. They
also help us fulfill our responsibilities--our work, studies, care and
concern for others, taxes, show of love, etc. Our guilty conscience is
vital in helping us be good.
On the negative side, excessive guilt (and shame) can create
terrible suffering, even make life not worth living. Almost 80% of
adults attempting suicide had histories of guilt (and/or shame). Among
3 to 14-year-old children who had tried to kill themselves, 25% were
seeking to be punished for masturbating or wishing someone were
dead (David, 1977). A guilty conscience can change our social lives,
dampen our enjoyment of life, cause fears and worries, and create a
heavy load to carry emotionally.
Some writers have made a meaningful distinction between "real"
guilt and "neurotic" guilt. Real guilt is feeling badly about something
you did that was truly morally wrong. Neurotic guilt is when you
haven't done anything wrong or what you did doesn't warrant the
amount of guilt felt. Real guilt may be expressed through neurotic
guilt, however. An example will help. Suppose a depressed 18-year-old
becomes obsessed about having stole another girl's underclothes when
she was 14. That's neurotic guilt. It seems likely that the real guilt
involves something else, not just old underwear. A psychoanalyst
would suspect primitive infantile urges were causing the real guilt--
e.g. closeness to one parent and resentment of another parent or a
sibling. Other therapists would look for the source of guilt in more
recently repressed guilt-producing acts or thoughts--e.g. anger at a
parent or sexual temptations. Neurotic guilt frequently substitutes for
real guilt (it helps hide what we are really guilty about).
Guilt or feeling immoral can result from having "bad" thoughts and
wishes (even unconscious ones according to some therapists), not just
overt acts. This is a great moral argument. Some people think
thoughts and feelings, no matter how inconsiderate or destructive (like
killing someone), are not immoral because they hurt no one. Yet,
some great religions and thinkers have taught that "the thought is
equivalent to the deed." Jesus said, "whosoever looketh on a woman
to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart"
(Matthew 5:27-28). Hinduism teaches that one is judged by his/her
motives and desires, not just actions. Buddhism says, "All that we are
is the result of what we have thought." Similarly, Freud's basic notion
was that urges and fantasy, not just actions, shaped our character and
determined our fate (Fingarette, 1971). Even recently, the pervasive
cognitive movement in current psychology contends that thoughts
influence emotions and actions. So perhaps we can't say "thoughts
don't matter." But surely immoral thoughts, never acted on, should
not generate intense guilt like an immoral act itself. Thinking of hitting
you is not the same as hitting you. You will have to decide for yourself
if immoral thoughts are okay (if still resisted), inconsequential, or bad
(see catharsis in chapter 7).