When you and I were children and we felt guilty, we knew we were bad. We did not and could not stop to think, “I’m being made to feel guilty, but by objective ethical standards I’ve done nothing wrong.” Instead, we felt our guilt as strongly as a kick in the stomach or a poisonous black cloud inside our head. When we felt ashamed, we did not have the ability to escape it by telling ourselves “People are making fun of me, but I’m perfectly fine as I am.” Instead, we believed—we knew!—that we deserve to feel shriveled up and shameful to the marrow of our bones. When we felt anxious, we did not dismiss the feeling as irrational. Instead, we trembled or our heart palpitated, and we felt genuinely doomed.
Guilt, shame and anxiety appear in every known culture. Neither children nor adults seem to escape feeling some of these potentially disabling emotions and probably almost everyone has experienced all three. In my forensic experience, even the most hardened criminals who feel no guilt or shame about committing murder are nonetheless likely to feel guilty about something else, such as thinking or talking negatively about their father or mother. They surely feel shame, and overwhelming shame may have ended up fueling, rather than inhibiting, their murderous reactions. Meanwhile, it is highly unlikely that anyone, criminal or not, has avoided feeling anxiety.
Guilt, shame and anxiety are so universal that they must have been built into our genes by biological evolution. That is, natural selection must have favored guilt, shame and anxiety because these emotions somehow promoted human survival and reproduction. If so, we have to ask, “Why did biological evolution favor or promote the survival of human beings with a genetic, instinctual tendency to feel guilt, shame and anxiety?” The detailed discussion of the theory of negative legacy emotions and how to find emotional freedom is in my latest book: Guilt, Shame and Anxiety.
Human beings have always been both extremely violent and intensely social. Humans struggle with the inherent incompatibility between their willful or aggressive reactions and their demanding needs for personal intimacy. Unfettered, these conflicting drives would have torn apart family life and made human survival and procreation impossible. Our survival required built-in inhibitions on the expression of willfulness and violence in our most personal and family relationships.
Built-in inhibitory emotions that automatically suppress our willfulness and aggression in our most intimate relationships promoted family life, at least in our more primitive states of biological and cultural development. Guilt, shame, and anxiety made children more likely to conform to their parents’ control, and it made parents less likely to unleash frustration and aggression on their children. Like most instinctual potentials, including hunger and sex, these emotions were triggered and fashioned by environmental events and influences in infancy and early childhood, and therefore they do not operate smoothly or without glitches.
From these insights grew the theory of negative legacy emotions—that we inherit a biological tendency to react with inhibitions on our more assertive and aggressive impulses within our intimate relationships, and that these built-in capacities for guilt, shame and anxiety are then activated and shaped in early childhood to limit or restrain willfulness and violent conflict within our close family life.
Unfortunately, natural selection is a crude process that takes place at an infinitely slow pace and that usually approximates rather than achieves a perfect solution. Natural selection for the capacity to feel guilt, shame and anxiety was not guided by rational ethical standards but by the necessities of survival and procreation. Built into us by the crude processes of natural selection and then activated and shaped by the vagaries of our unique childhoods, these negative legacy emotions have little or nothing to do with genuine or mature ethics. Over millions of years of evolution, they helped, however imperfectly, to moderate internal family conflict; but they serve little or no useful purpose in deciding how to live a mature adult life.
As adults, we must learn to identify and reject the influence of these negative legacy emotions, and instead seek to live by higher principles including reason and love. To have a fulfilling life, we must rise above our evolutionary emotional legacies through the conscious exercise of our higher human potentials. My book Guilt, Shame and Anxiety provides tests and tables to help the reader identify and overcome these unwanted, self-defeating emotions.
The concept of negative legacy emotions tells us from the start that we cannot and should not respond to our feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety as if they have a basis in either reality, or sound ethics. Ironically, when these emotions are most intense and convincing, they are almost always associated with trauma and abuse in childhood. Our most disabling feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety do not result from our bad or mistaken choices; they are the result of biological evolution and what was done to us as helpless children. As I document, these emotions have such an irrational basis that the most abused children feel the most guilt, shame and anxiety, while their perpetrators often feel self-justified and entitled.
The theory of negative legacy emotions helps us take giant steps toward emotional liberation and freedom. It tells us why we feel guilt, shame and anxiety. It makes clear there is nothing personal or useful about feeling guilt, shame or anxiety. It enables us to treat these emotions as primitive in nature and useless as guidelines for positive values and conduct in adulthood. It makes clear they are self-defeating, because they are likely to automatically kick in whenever we think about being self-assertive or pursuing our own interests, regardless of the merit of our aspirations or goals.
The book asks and answers questions like “Is guilt or shame ever a good thing?” “Won’t people act badly if they don’t feel guilt and shame?” “How does anxiety act as a form of anger management?” “Where do our own choices as children fit in?” “Are most so-called mental illnesses the result of guilt, shame and anxiety?”
Guilt, Shame and Anxiety defines these negative emotions, shows how they act as primitive enforcers of anger management, describes many alternative methods of identifying their presence in our lives, enables us to discover our personal negative emotional profile, and shows how to reject these emotions and to triumph over them.
And now we can answer the question asked in the title, “Do I have to feel so badly about myself?” The answer is a definitive “No!” You do not have to live with your emotions out of control. You do not have to feel stymied by painful feelings whenever you seek to be more peaceful or relaxed, more creative, braver, more loving, more independent, or simply happier. You do not have to live this way. You can learn to understand, to identify, and to reject your negative legacy emotions in favor of life-enhancing principles, including sound ethics, reason and love.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.