During my pediatric residency, I was supervised by a psychoanalyst who had a special interest in (and knowledge of) the phenomenon of guilt. She had her own way of listening to my reports of what I’d heard patients say; and invariably she’d remind me that there was “a problem of guilt” for one or another person I was seeing in psychotherapy.
I remember a particular patient, a woman of 25, a graduate student in literature, who made it hard for me to follow my supervisor’s advice in interpreting the “guilty feelings” that (we both thought) were responsible for a given spell of depression. Every time I tried to come up with a clarification or interpretation, I was told by my patient that I didn’t quite understand — that she was ashamed of herself, because she’d done something she knew to be wrong, whereas I was always talking to her about the guilt she felt, meaning an irrational or unconscious response on her part.
At the time, I wasn’t prepared to pay much attention to that most interesting distinction. My education and mode of thinking had persuaded me that we have all sorts of lusts and rages at work in the back of our minds, unbeknown to ourselves, and that we also experience a sense of wrongdoing within ourselves (also, rather often, unbeknown to ourselves) for having had such desires or such angry, even murderous surges of feeling.
Nor would I, today, doubt that the mind is, indeed, plagued by irrational and unconscious drives, which (in turn) are condemned by our consciences, often without our even knowing that such an arraignment or judgment has been made. What is interesting about our age is that we dwell so intently on such matters — as if the only kind of remorse we really know is unconscious, and is a response not to crimes of commission or even omission, but rather, of the imagination.
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