What happened to ambiguity?

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) has been my favourite novel since I read it at thirteen. As I was reading it from a 13-year-old’s perspective, I could not grasp the societal or existential themes. Instead, the book perfectly expressed something I felt but took me years to figure out. Specifically, Gregor’s transformation is what those of us trapped in the shame-based guilt cycle are most afraid of. We will wake up one day, and unbeknownst to us, the whole world has discovered what we truly are: a monstrous vermin.

The Oxford Dictionary defines guilt as ‘the fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime and a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offence, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined’. Hence, guilt is a genuine and useful emotion, and it is essential to feel bad when we do bad things. However, within this article, I focus on the feeling of remorse for imagined wrongdoing – specifically, when guilt becomes a person’s primary emotional relation to others, distorting our sense of responsibility towards others.

This specific emotional state – once defined as neurotic guilt – used to be at the heart of psychological theory. In fact, psychology as we know it began with psychoanalytic theory, and one of Freud’s central questions was the function and place of the then-called ‘neurotic guilt’ that was at the cause of so many of his clients’ symptoms. However, it has been rather neglected in our discourse on mental health in recent years.

What exactly is shame-based guilt?
Shame-based guilt is one of those ‘irrational’ kinds of guilt, which involves a deep-seated belief that one is inherently bad or unlovable, leading to persistent feelings of personal inadequacy, unworthiness, and a general sense that one is fundamentally flawed. How we see that flaw depends on who we are as a unique individual, but it typically appears in ‘buzzwords’ like useless, lazy, ugly, mean, selfish, manipulative, etc.

When we are stuck in this shame-based guilt cycle, most of us will spend our lives doing everything we can to ensure no one else can see just how – insert buzz flaw here – we are. For example, if we think we are lazy, we will probably work above and beyond to hide from everyone how lazy we are. If we think we are selfish, we might try to do everything we can for others, even working in healthcare, for an NGO, as a therapist, etc. But of course, it never actually works, because deep down, we know our intentions are ‘impure’.

From an evolutionary perspective, guilt is one of our most potent regulatory tools, as it is one of the few emotions that is fundamentally relational (i.e., you can feel sad alone, you can feel happy, confused, disappointed, and on the list goes, but if you were truly and completely alone, what exactly is there to feel guilty about?).

Psychoanalytic perspectives on guilt
While psychoanalytic theories on guilt are complex, they can be summarised as stemming from conflicts between unconscious desires and societal norms enforced by the superego (inner critic). It serves as a mechanism of self-punishment and moral regulation, playing a role in developing the individual’s conscience and shaping their psychological well-being.

In Freud’s pivotal book Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), he extended his theory to the collective – arguing that civilisation requires individuals to sacrifice some of their primal instincts and desires for the sake of communal living. Still, this sacrifice comes at the cost of inner conflict and a sense of unfulfillment. In other words, life and love are inherently ambiguous; everything we want will also disappoint us, and everyone we love we will also hate.

Poignantly, towards the end of his work, Freud argues that as civilisation advances, the demands and restrictions placed on individuals by society will increase, and things will become more polarised. This, in turn, will intensify feelings of guilt and strengthen the superego, leading to greater internal conflicts and psychological distress.

Okay, and what is your point?
In my experience, there are few, if any, mental health conditions that are not saturated in this kind of ‘neurotic’ or shame-based guilt. However, while we are finally at a point in society where mental health is being spoken about in a real and stigma-decreasing way, the role guilt plays in mental health issues has been left out of the conversation. Sure, we speak of inner critics and low self-esteem, but these terms fail to articulate the fundamentally relational, and thus ambiguous, nature of guilt. Instead, we are living in an ever-binary world where our relationship with ourselves and each other are becoming increasingly mediated by fantasies of certainty.

For example, that guilt cycle of ‘I am only pretending to be nice, I know that I am actually mean’ can be seen as a conflict between your wish to be part of a community and your wish to do whatever you want. Within that still, we find a struggle to accept ambiguity (i.e., the fact that we can love and hate everything and everyone at the same time and all of the time.) Accepting ambiguity could well be the solution for this kind of guilt, but in our increasingly polarised and binary world, it is becoming harder and harder to find.

The danger here is that if we are not aware of the fundamentally ambiguous nature of ourselves and our relationships with others, guilt can all too quickly dominate our relationship with ourselves and others. Without speaking about and being aware of this, much like Gregor, rather than tame the beast, we can find ourselves continuously feeding it.

Written by Molly Fitz