Two kinds of guilt

One resulting in shame on someone else’s behalf, the other stemming from self-doubt

A friend and I went together to meet a counsellor, as my friend was concerned about his teenage son who would prepare well for his exams, yet would never complete his answer papers and come home feeling guilty.

He assumed that his son feared he might not fare well even if he completed answering all the questions, and thus tended to sabotage himself.

My friend felt ashamed of his son and said so to the counsellor. The counsellor shared with us an interesting thought which rang true for me.

He told my friend that his being ashamed of his son came from what he called ‘moral guilt’, a belief my friend seemed to carry: ‘What will people say? How will I face them?’ Such guilt, the counsellor said, emanates from the assumption, ‘my son is useless’. Guilt of this nature is unhelpful, for it not only devalues the individual, it also harms the relationship with the individual.

“The guilt your son is experiencing on the other hand is,” the counsellor termed, “Existential guilt.” “Not that I am useless or incompetent, yet I suddenly feel a lack in me that causes anxiety resulting in not completing what has been undertaken.”

While the former guilt tarnishes one as being useless the latter tells the individual ‘I feel incomplete’.

Countering the latter is easier. The counsellor advised my friend to sit with his son and help him understand that all of us suffer some lack or the other. Therefore, instead of resisting this feeling of lack and allowing it to paralyse him, if he can merely listen to the deep anxieties consuming the child and assure him that he also experiences such moments of lack, of un-sureness and self-doubt, the child will realise he is not alone. With constant encouragement, the anxiety will lessen and help restore faith and belief in self.

“Treat him as though he has succeeded, then surely he will begin to believe so,” said the counsellor to my friend.

The writer is an organisational and behavioural consultant. He can be contacted at ttsrinath@gmail.com

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