Guilt Feelings/Guilt Complex
Note: Page numbers enclosed in parentheses are citations from The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A systematic presentation in selections from his writings. (H. L. and R. R. Ansbacher, Eds.). © 1964, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Used by permission of Perseus Books Group.
Guilt feelings are experienced and expressed as if they were serious judgments imposed upon oneself of moral failure or short-coming. Their meaning can be understood in their consequences, which are to stall and provide a substitute in place of forward movement and contribution on the useful side of life, while at the same time safeguarding one’s feelings of self-worth and superiority. The statement, “I feel guilty because I don’t do what I know I should do,” can be translated into, “I feel guilty because instead of doing what I know I should do.” This veils the individual’s retreat from useful participation. Another statement “I am guilty of the same faults I see in others,” should be seen as including a hidden meaning, “but at least I have the decency to admit it.” Guilt feelings and their complex of deception, pretense, and hidden claims to superiority differ from contrition, which is an acceptance of responsibility for past errors, combined with a readiness to make restitution where possible, and an intention to use any present opportunity to behave more honestly, usefully, and cooperatively in the present situation.
Of a patient obsessed by guilt feelings who prostrated himself and shouted to a large congregation at church, “I am the greatest sinner of all men!”, Adler said, “His feelings of guilt were [the] means to make him appear more honest than others and in this way he was struggling to achieve superiority” (Adler, 1980, p. 33). In another instance, illustrating Adler’s way of reducing the dramatic power of a disturbance, a young man confessed, “I masturbate, and I feel guilty,” to which Adler replied, “You masturbate and feel guilty? It’s too much. Either masturbate or feel guilty” (K. A. Adler, personal communication, n. d.). [See Hesitating Attitude/Distancing.]
Preference for the hinterland of life is notably safeguarded by the individual’s mode of thinking and argumentation, occasionally also by compulsive thinking or by fruitless guilt feelings (p. 273).
In the majority of neurotic cases the fact is that a guilt complex is used as a means to fix its maker on the useless side of life (p. 272).
© Griffith, J., & Powers, R. L. (2007). The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (2nd ed.). Port Townsend, WA: Adlerian Psychology Associates (p. 50).
Definitions of concepts are used by permission of Jane Griffith. A comprehensive list of concepts and definitions can be found in The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 Terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler by Jane Griffith and Robert L. Powers, available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Adler, A. (1980). What life should mean to you. (A. Porter, Ed.). New York: Perigee/G. P. Putnam. (Original work published 1931)