September 4, 2007

Repentence: Guilt vs. Self-Destruction (3/4)

Posted in Philosophy at 11:08 pm by Caleb Winn


Having established the dangers of idolatry, and recognizing that most idolatry is ultimately rooted in narcissism, I’d like to turn my attention now to the question of how one should respond to this information. Recognition of wrongdoing should always elicit a response, for the question of idolatry is not merely an academic question. But this response may take many forms, which are well worth exploring.

In this effort, I’ve found Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents valuable for its observations about the nature of desire and the narcissistic nature of the human libido, and been especially blessed to read this academic paper by Dr. Donald L. Carveth about the strengths and weaknesses in the Freudian view of guilt.

What will follow is a sort of “baptized” view of Freudian psychology, as understood and expressed by a complete layman. I don’t have any real expertise in the area of psychology, except insofar as I have a psyche. My views are not essentially Freudian, but I think that a few of the arguments of Freud and his followers are very instructive when we consider the role of narcissism in the experience and expression of guilt.

Eros and Thanatos in the Heart of Man.

As Pascal noted in his Pensees, man is created to be Great, but has become wretched. As a result of our nature – created in the image of God, yet fractured by sin – man is pulled in two separate directions. Freud places these base impulses in the “Id” or subconscious, meaning that they are basic and instinctual, rather than being produced or shaped or even experienced rationally. He labels these basic, dueling impulses: erosand thanatos.

Erotic impulses are those rooted in love. Though there may be an element of narcissism here, the erotic desire is directed toward the good of the object. Whether or not the object is valued for its own sake or for the sake of one’s own gratification is not really, in this context, particularly relevant. What is important is to recognize that the erotic impulse leads to creation and preservation.

Thanatotic impulses, on the other hand, are rooted in hatred. The Thanatos does not seek to create, nor to protect, but only to destroy. One need not look far to recognize that there is an aggressive, violent tendency to human nature, and that the desire to gain domination or wreak destruction is not a social construction. There is a gladiatorial bent in the heart of man, which Nietzsche identified as well. Man seeks to destroy.

These two impulses duel with one another in the human psyche, pulling man in opposing directions. What we think of as “guilt” is actually a single label that we apply to two distinct psychological experiences, one rooted in Eros, the other in Thanatos.

Erotic Guilt.

The idea of Eros is that it is an expression of object-love. An experience of guilt that is founded in our erotic impulses, then, will be born out of love for the object that we have wronged. When a man who loves his wife dearly realizes that he has hurt her feelings, he will experience this sort of guilt. There are two defining factors of this sort of guilt:

First, it is externally focused. That isn’t to say that the guilty party seeks to blame others for his misdeeds. Rather, the focus is not on how awful he is, but rather on the object.

Second, it leads to efforts at reparation. Because this type of guilt (concern) is rooted in love for the other, the guilty party wants to do whatever is possible to undo the damage that he has done, and to restore the object to happiness and well-being. This type of guilt (concern) sees a wrong, and seeks to take practical steps to make it right. It is a productive and healthy psychological experience that brings about positive results.

The Unconscious Need For Punishment.

By contrast, the recognition of wrongdoing may also be rooted in the thanatotic impulse to destruction. The experience of guilt, rather than being rooted in love for the object, may actually be an action of thanatos in which the aggressive death-instinct is turned inward against the self. If man is intrinsically aggressive and destructive, the moral awakening that limits our actions does not also remove the subconscious impulses behind those actions. Instead of making man truly docile and peaceful, then, such action merely represses the ferocity of the thanatotic Id, and directs our aggressiveness inward against ourselves. As the thanatotic impulse is denied external outlet, its repression can lead to expressions of self-loathing, self-punishment, and self-destruction. It creates an “unconscious need for punishment”.

There are a few things to note about the “unconscious need for punishment” in contract to the experience of true “guilt (concern)”.

First, this “unconscious need for punishment” is essentially narcissistic, in that it is motivated by thanatos, rather than eros. The experience of feeling bad is brought about repressed aggressiveness, and not any real concern for the object. The person who responds to a transgression by crying out “I hate myself!” is not speaking out of love for the other. Any damage done to the object is unimportant, except insofar as it is ammunition for self-abuse.

Second, this “unconscious need for punishment” lacks any ending point. There will not come a time when atonement has been made for wrong, and the self-punishment can cease.

Third, this “unconscious need for punishment” does not seek restoration, restitution, or redemption. There isn’t a point to the self-abuse beyond the abuse itself. Because it is not motivated by love for the object, it will not lead to positive steps to restore the object to its former state, or undo the practical effects brought about by whatever wrong action caused the self-destructive feelings.

Self-Punishment As Guilt-Evasion 

Based on the above observations, it should be clear that the “unconscious need for punishment” is not an expression of remorse that is rooted in love for the offended, but rather an expression of narcissism that is rooted in hatred that seeks an outlet for its aggression. In a very real sense, self-destructiveness is a means of evading real guilt in order to avoid having to come to grips with the wrongdoing, and of avoiding having to make restitution.

Dr. Carveth cites a Dr. Safa-Gerard as outlining several potential causes for guilt evasion, all rooted in the idea that the guilt is too “unbearable” for the person to handle:

First, the individual may be unable to hold positive and negative self-assessment in their head concurrently. In this case, the recognition of wrongs committed (love-based guilt) drives out any possible recognition of positive attributes, and causes one to fall into hopelessness, despair, and self-punishment. The difficulty, then, is in expanding one’s cognitive horizons, probably through an external agent engaging rationally and reminding one of positive attributes that he or she possesses concurrently with the negative ones, thereby undermining the “all-bad” self-perception.

Second, the individual may link the specific “guilty” action to other guilty actions, unconscious or unspoken. There may even be a perception that one has wronged God. Because this is not brought rationally to light, and is kept unexpressed, it is thought too damning to be redeemable, and the individual remains unable to process the guilt and take practical steps to change, instead wallowing in self-pitying, self-punishing despair.

Third, the recognition of guilt (concern) is an admission of love for an external object, which forces the individual to recognize his or her lack of autonomy, and constructs a sense of vulnerability, which some are simply unable to psychologically accept, preferring to shut out all love-based thinking even if it means resorting to self-punishment as a means of evasion.

 For each of these problems, it seems as if the answer is a healthy view of self, which is willing to recognize good as well as bad, is willing to honestly assess the real conscious and unconscious causes of guilt, and is not afraid of the erotic, but rather is willing to admit concern for others.


In summation, then, true “guilt” is rooted in love for the offended object, and motivates practical change and efforts at restitution. Real guilt is a healthy and emotionally mature response to wrongs committed, real or imagined. The “unconscious need for punishment,” on the other hand, is intrinsically narcissistic, and functions as a means of guilt-evasion rather than as an expression of love-based sorrow. A psychologically healthy, emotionally mature person will have a well-developed view of self that allows him or her to express eros-driven productive guilt, rather than engaging in the unconscious need for punishment as a means of evasion.


1 Comment »

  1. RC said,

    This is an interesting article, but I don’t know what you mean when you refer to ‘object.’ Can you clarify? Is the object part of one’s self? Is it a parent?


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