How Guilt and Your Conscience Work

We’ve all experienced guilt. We do something we are ashamed of, and we feel guilty. But what brings about this shame? How does this emotion work?

I was raised in a devout Christian home, and grew up hearing about “godly sorrow”, sin, shame, and remorse, all from the perspective of Christianity. I was taught that inside of every man was a moral compass which pointed them in the “right” direction, and those who lose this sense of “right” and “wrong” have perverted their nature through sin. Later I came to find out that guilt doesn’t work this way at all.

People can feel guilty for near anything. In normal cases, people feel guilty for doing something they feel to be “wrong”. They’ve violated their own moral standards, and now feel an unexplicable emotion which presents itself. Normally this ties directly with depression.

But people do not neccessarily have to do something wrong to feel guilt. Some people feel guilt for thinking a certain way. Maybe they feel hatred for someone which their morals believes they should have affection toward. Maybe they lust for a woman other than their wife, and daydream about her in thought. It seems if they think on anything their moral standards prohibit, they feel incredible guilt.

What’s also interesting about guilt is that people can have feelings of guilt for things which are completely harmless on all accounts. A saintly nun may eat the last piece of chicken and think to herself, “Oh me, I’m awful. I should have saved that for someone else who may come in here hungry.” Some feel guilt over failing to do something they thought they should have done. “I should’ve visited my grandmother last weekend. She won’t be around much longer.”

To make this even more complicated, neurotics can have guilt over crazy things, and lack guilt in other areas. They can chop a person’s head off, and cut them to bits, and feel no guilt at all. But to think an ill thought toward his mother would be the ultimate sin. He may even cut himself if he thinks ill of his mother, and break-down into tears.

Also, some people seem to have no sense of guilt at all. They’re not neccessarily psychopaths, but they just have no sense of guilt at all. When something bad happens, it’s treated dispassionately and written off as, “Oh, that was unfortunate.”

So to summarize these points to note about guilt:
1) Guilt for doing something wrong
2) Guilt for thinking about something prohibited
3) Guilt for things that don’t seem to deserve any such feelings
4) Guilt can be lacking in some areas where it’s important, then abnormally strong in another area
5) Some may have no sense of guilt at all.

First I’d like to talk about the issue of absolute guilt, and the inner moral compass.

Absolute guilt and the inner moral compass

As just mentioned, I grew up thinking there is absolute guilt. I thought that certain actions existed in the mind which were simply “evil”, and everyone knew this. To kill someone without good reason is evil. To steal is evil. To talk bad about others behind their back is evil. And the list goes on.

The problem though comes in when these notions are closely examined. If you are to say we all have a notion of guilt for killing someone without good reason, what constitutes “good reason”? I am a pacifist, and believe that people can always change, and that all evil can be cured through things like psycho-therapy and other proper instructional teaching. I do not believe killing is ever justified.

If I was to kill someone, I would feel great guilt. I feel guilt for squashing bugs. I one time smashed a bug which was crawling on the bathroom floor. I don’t know how he got in there. I then thought, “Poor bug, you didn’t know better. Did that hurt? You are stupid, but pain is certainly real for you, as it is for me. I doubt you even know where you are. You can’t read a sign that says, ‘Stay out, this is Jason’s house'”. I begin to think that the duty of beings of higher intelligence is to watch over those with lower intelligence, and make the world a more pleasant place for everyone. I could have easily captured the bug and released it outside.

Other people squash bugs, shoot birds, go hunting, and all sorts of things, and feel no guilt at all. I sometimes wonder about that. When I go to church, a lot of the people in my church like to hunt. I guess living deep within Missouri, that is to be expected. I hear them talking about killing a deer. One guy will say, “Man, I nailed it with my bow. Got it right behind to leg. It was limping, but ran off. I chased it, following the blood trail. I found it on the ground a mile or so off, as it bled to death.” Then they complain how they had to haul its carcass across the woods, to their big truck. I think, “How gruesome.” What if intelligent aliens came down to our planet, and hunted us down with laser guns. They cloaked themselves with light-bending technology, shot you while hovering cloaked over city park, and then as you hobble away bleeding to death, wife screaming, they finally find your carcass there on the ground. They behead you and stuff your face, and keep you on display in their home. How would we think of them? What’s even more strange is that they’re Christians, and God supposedly put man in charge of his creation, to take care of all the animals. And look at them, bragging about brutally killing the subjects of their kingdom.

You see here how vile the beastial aggressive instincts are within man. It doesn’t surprise me that “psychopaths” can chop up a human being, and feel no guilt. All that it would take for these hunters I go to church with to be the same way is to take away their religion. If they were to lose their sense of “sacredness” for human life, they’d be hunting your children as they played in the park, and cooking them over the camp fire. I could see them skinning people’s daughters, gutting them, and hanging them from a tree, like they do with deer carcasses.

I was with my Dad just a few days ago. He was amazed at a white cat, who killed a mole in the back yard. It laid crouched in the garden, waiting. Then it pounced on a much weaker animal and ate it. Dad went around the house telling everyone how neat this cat was. Next he went outside and put out milk for it. I think he next said something about how wonderful God’s creation is, and how intelligent these animals are.

I didn’t share my true feelings. I only thought, “What violence, and what horror. A blind mole, digging a hole, trying to make a living like any other animal, pounced on out of nowhere by a malicious cat, who chewed on its head while it’s still alive.” One man thinks that such things show God’s glory and intelligence. I sit back and wonder what kind of intelligence that would be. I guess it’s fine as long as God doesn’t create beings more powerful than us, to pounce on us.

Now my Dad, these hunters, and myself are all human beings. For the most part, we do not differ that much physically to justify a great distinction. But it’s obvious that our sense of guilt, remorse, sympathy, etc., is different because of the way we think of things.

To futhurer illustrate this point, people can kill during war-time, and as long as they feel the war is justified, they likely will feel little to no guilt in killing their enemy. In reality, the government sending you to war may be evil, and you may be a tool of evil. But needless to say, the soldier will only feel guilt if he believes he’s doing something evil, not whether or not what he actually is doing is evil.

So to conclude for most normal people, guilt only arises when killing if they feel they had no good reason to kill them. Like we said earlier, psychopaths can chop people up, and feel no guilt at all. Also, it seems mankind has violent aggressive instincts, and enjoys such violence. After all, movies are filled with sex and violence. How many video games do you see where you’re a saintly angel, going around healing the sick? So we see that it can get more complex than this, but we’ll leave killing alone for now and move on to stealing. Afterwards we’ll start to get into the psychic mechanisms of guilt.

The other day Greg and I went to see the new Rambo IV movie. We sat down to watch the movie and then the projecter began to malfunction. We then left for a couple hours and came back at the next showing. This next time about 30 minutes of the movie played, and then the projecter malfunctioned again, and they could not get it fixed. We then were told to go to the front-desk and get refunds for our tickets.

As we were going to the front-desk, Greg saw a ticket-stub on the ground for another movie. He picked up the stub, and took it to the front-desk as well. He then was refunded for two ticket prices, instead of one. I then asked him, “Why did you do that?”

Then a big grin came over his face for a moment, which I found strange. Then he said, “Well, they wasted our time today. I’m justified.” I didn’t say anything, but pondered how he felt no guilt doing this. He also is not poor, and has no need of the extra few dollars. I then said something like, “I suppose if we think in terms of the consequences of our actions, this sort of thing has very small consequences, and is not worth considerable debate.”

My Dad used to run a firework stand with a guy, and he would cheat on his taxes. Since the income was cash, he wouldn’t report it. Whether this is “stealing” is up for debate as well. I don’t neccessarily believe the government puts our money to good use (or at least most of it), so not paying taxes may be a good thing, I dont know. But my Dad would feel very guilty if he did not pay his taxes. It would be a “sin” to him.

So we see that some people can steal, and feel no guilt at all. What “justifies” an action? Whatever you want to justify it really. If them wasting 30 minutes of our day justified taking $7 from the movie theater, then it justified you to do so. And if the theater doesn’t do anything about it, it seems that’s that. As far as a morality based on the consequences of our actions, that most certainly is the conclusion, but there does seem to be a twinge of nastiness to this. But is this only due to my upbringing being different than his?

The morality of stealing is completely rooted in property, and people have different views to what they feel entitles them to something. To Greg, you could say them wasting our time justified the extra $7. To Charlie, my Dad’s co-worker, you could say cheating on his taxes is not stealing, because the government does not deserve his money anyways. So naturally, guilt of stealing will be based on whatever views you have toward property, and what belongs to whom, and for what reasons. Ownership is a human distinction. There are no property tags on the items themselves. There is no absolute entitlement to anything in this world, other than brute force to withold from others what you claim is yours. After all, government property is only that which is backed by the force of the government’s police and military.

It really all boils down to people have a free will, and can do (or at least try) whatever they set their minds to doing. If that something is to steal from you, if they can get away with it, then it happens. Same with killing. Christians hope that God enforces a moral code upon death, and holds people accountable for their actions. This is basically like an all-powerful military. Naturally, there’s no way to prove with any evidence whether this will happen or not, so discussing the possibility will only lead to argumentation, but no way to settle the conflict.

Before leaving that topic though, I would like to comment on the thought that God will punish the wicked, and reward the righteous. I honestly have no desire to punish anyone. Like I said before, I think such ways of thinking is bad basis. I believe people do evil out of stupidity. Sometimes they do it because they are in need. Sometimes because they just don’t understand what they’re doing. We can talk about intentions, but evil intentions are always rooted in past bitter experiences, which with proper psycho-analytical treatment, can be removed.

It’s my own opinion that punishment is beneath God. God would understand the reasons why the person did what they did, and would have knowledge on how to cure the person. Since really all I’m concerned with is that the person stops doing evil and harm, if God could cure them and impart knowledge to them, then that’s all that would be required. The evil person becomes cured, and go ahead and let them into heaven. There’s no need for anyone to go to hell. This, of course, is all rooted in the assumption that evil is done out of stupidity. If people freely chose to do evil, then I would have to recant this opinion. I only hold this view tentatively, but I find more “truth” in it the opposite side, but I find my own ability to gauge truth of a person’s will and intentions rather lacking.

I could go into a very large discussion on the nature of why people do various things they do, and how various actions people consider “evil” are oftentimes rooted in past bitter experiences, and hurts. From my own experiences in this area, past painful experiences tend to block out various emotions of love. When this happens a person can easily lose their sense of guilt due to the fact that it becomes more and more difficult to develop emotional bonds with other people. We will discuss this dynamic later, but first, let’s give an overview of how the entire psychic mechanism of guilt works.

The Psychic Mechanisms of Guilt

Throughout this entire section, my main goal is to show that guilt is created out of ambivalent emotion. It is a mixture of both love and hate. Though this explanation is indeed quite simple, the process by which the particular love/hate relationship which we call “guilt” is developed is quite involved. This discussion of psychic mechanisms will cover guilt, remorse, conscience, right/wrong, and all other dynamics tied to guilt as well. We will now tackle how this development takes place.

First I’d like to quote from Sigmund Freud’s Book, Civilization and its Discontents. This passage is found in Chapter VII:

“As to the origin of the sense of guilt, analysts have different views from those of the psychologists; nor is it easy for analysts to explain it either. First of all, when one asks how a sense of guilt arises in anyone, one is told something one cannot dispute: people feel guilty (pious people call it “sinful”) when they have done something they know to be bad. But then one sees how little this answer tells one. Perhaps, after some hesitation, one will add that a person who has not actually committed a bad act, but has merely become aware of the intention to do so, and also hold himself guilty: and then one will ask why in this case the intention is counted as equivalent to the deed. In both cases, however, one is presupposing that wickedness has already been recognized as reprehensible, as something that ought not to be put into execution. How is this judgment arrived at? One may reject the suggestion of an original — as one might say, natural — capacity for discriminating between good and evil. Evil is often not at all that which would injure or endanger the ego; on the contrary, it can also be something that it desires, that would give it pleasure. An extraneous influence is evidently at work; it is this that decides what is to be called good and bad. Since their own feelings would not have led men along the same path, they must have had a motive for obeying this extraneous influence. It is easy to discover this motive in man’s helplessness and dependence on others, it can best be designated the dread of losing love. If he loses the love of others on whom he is dependent, he will forfeit also their protection against many dangers, and above all he runs the risk that this stronger person will show his superiority in the form of punishing him. What is bad is, therefore, to begin with, whatever causes one to be threatened with a loss of love; because of the dread of this loss, one must desist from it. That is why it makes little difference whether one has already committed the bad deed or only intends to do so; in either case the danger begins only when the authority has found it out, and the latter would behave in the same way in both cases.”

That’s quite a passage. So much was covered in that small blurb of text.

The first thing to be established is that ethics do not come into play unless there is more than one person involved. Since we noticed earlier that the sense of guilt has heavy ties with a person’s conceptions of right and wrong, this seems to be a suitable starting point.

If you are a person living on a remote island, far out in the middle of the ocean, with no interaction with anyone other than yourself, then what ethics are there? Are there any constraints on your behavior there? Outside of survival, and making things comfortable for yourself, I can think of none. (Excluding animal rights, but we’ll assume there is no sentient life on the island, other than yourself. Just you, plants, and trees.)

So right and wrong seem to come into play when dealing with others. But how does this dynamic come into existence, and when are we first introduced with the concepts of right and wrong?

Near everyone is first introduced to “right” and “wrong” by whoever raises them. This includes the person’s parents, family, babysitters, early school teachers, etc. Now what kind of ethical constraints do these early influences try to impress upon the child?

Children are born self-centered, so the first thing they are taught is to share, and to think of others. Elementary school classroom rules mostly revolve around this idea. Take some of their rules for instance:

– Listen carefully
– Follow directions
– Work quietly. Do not disturb others who are working
– Respect others. Be kind with your words and actions
– Respect school property and personal property
– Work and play safely
– Clean up after yourself
– Remain in your seat unless given persmission to leave it
– Talk only when permitted

Listening carefully assumes denying your own instinct to blurt out whatever, and to listen instead of talk. Following directions means for them to deny what they want to do, and do what the teacher wants them to do. Work quietly makes them have to think of the other students who are working. Respecting others, and playing safely are similar in nature. Cleaning up makes them learn that what they do has consequences on others, and if they make a mess, they will have to clean up their own messes. (Notice as we get older, people use their same childish terminology and say, ‘I’ve created a real mess this time.’) Remaining in their seat makes them stay there, even though they have tendencies to want to run all around, and exercise their developing motor skills (This is instinctual. Animals play with one another to help develop coordination. We’re no exception. It’s instinctual survival preparation. Children are not born with more energy, it’s instinctually developing motor skills. They have impulses to do so.). Talk only when permitted is also required for an orderly classroom, because the single teacher cannot answer multiple questions at once.

In this sense, ethics is about restraining yourself from doing something you want to do. Children want to be selfish. They want to speak freely whenever they want to. They want to run around, make noise, and cause trouble. They want to destroy things. They do not want to sit still. All these rules force them to hold back.

Now what causes them to obey these rules? Fear of punishment.

When I was growing up, I was spanked whenever I would act up. Other children are grounded, or put in a corner for “time out”. All of these things are hopes to discourage the child from their present course of action.

I can remember in church, if I made so much as a peep, I was taken to the back, and spanked. My parents didn’t mess around. If I was caught wrestling my brothers in the house, Mom got out the belt, and would begin threats to spank us, and often would do so. If Mom got really mad, she would get Dad on us. If Mom told Dad we’d been bad, that was the end of it. Dad spanked us probably ten times as hard as Mom would. Sometimes Dad would make me go out in the yard and cut switches (bendable sticks). If I came in with a thin small switch, he’d make me cut another. Then if I came in with another thin one, I’d have to get another, and so on. Finally when I came in with a thick painful switch, he would whip me with all of them, starting with the thin ones, and working his way to the thick one.

If I was to disrespect my teachers, I was sure to get this same treatment at home.

Parents do this to make home life bearable. Children on the loose not only harm themselves, but destroy everything in their path. Some of the disciplinary actions is done out of love, and some of it just to keep the peace. Teachers need the children to behave, or teaching is impossible.

A child’s mind is simple, and “guilt” to a child is synonymous with fear. They do what’s “wrong”, and they are worried they may get caught. Their degree of fear is based on the degree of punishments they’ve received in the past for that particular action. “Right” is basically whatever they can do without being punished for it.

The next moral stage comes during adolescence. The child begins to notice causes of pleasure, and finds that the main source of what is good comes from their parents. They start to realize their dependence on the people in charge over them, and pleasing them becomes very important. Most of morality at this time is about fulfilling expectations of those who look out for them.

As we grow older, mental life becomes more complex. Though the child oftentimes loves his or her parents, teachers, etc., they begin to develop closer relationships with peers.

A person may not fear punishment from their parents anymore, but they begin to have social fears. People begin to depend on one another for all kinds of things, and how others think becomes something heavily considered. Children, and even adults, want to be “cool”. They find great pleasure in friendship, or being admired, and try to create this dynamic. Young men and women start to develop romantic interests in one another, and begin to worry about their self-image, so they can attract whoever they like. Adults begin to work in companies, and start to rely on income sources for their livelihood.

As a child we live in our own little world, and only slowly begin to realize others exist. The first people we realize outside of ourselves is our parents, or whoever looks over us. Later we begin to need our peers and others we live with in our society, and things get very complicated.

When dealing with others, painful experiences are inevitable. There will be young men who fall in love with women, who do not return the affection. Some kids just won’t be cool, and due to all kinds of circumstances, such as how they were raised, manners inherited from their parents, social status, money, etc, they will be ill treated by the other kids. People applying for jobs will be overlooked, and someone much less qualified will get the job, due to inside connections, good looks, etc. There will be children raised in horrible homes, where they are not loved, and treated poorly. There is no need to enumerate all the painful things that happen in this world, caused by our dealings with others. We are all aware of them.

As we grow older, we have to slowly lift the veil of childhood protection given to us by our parents, and become a man or woman. Father, mother, older brother, older sister, or whoever, can no longer make our decisions for us. We have to step out into the world and try to establish a life for ourselves.

Ultimately this adult pursuit is guided by the “pleasure principle”. Basically we try to create a world around us where we are happy and satisified, and try to eliminate the things we hate from our lives. Unfortunately this pursuit is not an easy one, and there are many complications.

One of the first lessons we learn as a child, which is carried over into our adult lives, is to forgo immediate gratification, and if we wait, we can oftentimes have more pleasure. This principle becomes known as “sacrifice”, and if you’re willing to make the sacrifices, you can oftentimes come out better in the end than someone who is not willing to endure in life.

For example, you move out on your own for the first time. You can do like most Americans and get yourself a pocket full of credit cards, and get all the things you want right then and there, or you can instead forgo the immediate pleasure of having everything, and slowly save up your money. The person who saves up his or her money oftentimes comes out ahead because they don’t get burdened down with interest payments.

To summarize, though this is somewhat simplified, morals develop in three main stages: 1) In children things are completely instinctually driven. “Right” is whatever they want to do, and “wrong” is anything you’ve driven enough fear in them to stay away from. 2) Adolescent stages are about fulfilling expectations. “Right” is doing what their parents, teachers, and others in charge over them tell them to do. “Wrong” is breaking the rules they’ve been given. 3) Adult stages the protections and over-simplication of simple rules no longer can satisfy the desired needs, and people have to start making decisions for themselves. These are guided by the “pleasure principle”. People try to find a life where they are happy, and eliminate the things which make them unhappy.

Now that we’ve laid down basic moral development, we’ll now move on to explaining psychological models of the mind. After we briefly explain the psychoanalytical model of the mind, we will show how the dynamic of guilt takes place within the context of this model.

The psychological model of the mind consists of three main sections: Consciousness, unconsciousness, and preconsciousness (or subconsciousness). Within these three sections three functions take place, which are the ego, the id, and the super-ego. First we will explain the sections of the mind.

Consciousness is the experiences of the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smelling, and tasting), combined with “thinking”, which is the familar process we all know about, when words bounce around in our heads, or that faint recollection of sense perceptions when we try to remember things which have happened to us in our past. For example, you may try to think about your girlfriend, and then a picture of her comes to your mind, and you faintly “experience” her within your own mind.

Next comes the “unconscious” aspects of the mind. We all know that in the mind there is subject-matter that is currently on our minds, and then there is all the other information we know about, but we’re currently not thinking about. If someone was to ask us where we were raised, our mother’s name, where we work, etc., we would be able to tell a person this information, but this does not neccessarily have to be on our minds at that moment. We normally call this “memory” and “recollection”. This basic distinction between unconscious and conscious would suffice if it were not for the discoveries of Freud and other psychoanalysts.

Later came a distinction between the “preconscious” (subconscious) and the unconscious. Basically psychologists learned, when treating people with mental problems, that sometimes people can have painful experiences happen to them, and because these people cannot handle the pain emotionally (for various reasons, which we’ll avoid talking about for now), it creates an amnesic experience in them.

For example, say you take your wife out to dinner, and then an armed robber attacks the restaurant, tortures you both, and you both barely make it out alive. Say your wife watches the robber kill another man right in front of her.

After the event takes place, and the police are questioning your wife a few hours after the event happens, she may not remember anything, or be able to recall what the man looked like, or anything that happened. Her mind has thrusted the event away into some secret compartment of the mind, and locked it in some vault. This information is now inaccessible to consciousness by normal means.

This woman will still remember where she works. She still knows her mother’s name, and where she went on her honeymoon. This information is untouched, and psychologists call this her preconsciousness or subconsciousness. This other information of the painful event which she can no longer remember is called her unconsciousness.

When the police ask her what happened, she will say she doesn’t know. Then the office may ask her, “Well certainly something happened to you. Look at these scratches on your arms, and what about your torn dress, and can’t you see the bullet holes here in the wall?” She will think, but will not be able to recall the event. She will acknowledge that something must have happened, but she will not remember. Also, looking at the torn dress, scratches on her arm, etc., may make her very nervous. She may cry out, “I don’t know! I DON’T KNOW!” At that point, she bursts into tears, and her head falls on her husband’s shoulder.

One of the core discoveries of the unconscious realm is that it has effects on consciousness, but the person experiencing the pain does not know how or why. This woman, cannot remember the event, but she can still have nervousness when anything “reminds” her unconsciously of the event. The same happens to a war-veteran, who is just fine until he sees an old classic gun hanging on the wall of a pawn shop. He stands there, looks spaced out, and loses his train of thought. He then gets nervous and begins to sweat. His wife asks him, “What’s wrong?”. He says, “I don’t know. I’m fine. I’m fine.” Psychologists call these “triggers”. Before they can help a person with their problems, they must know what triggers these nervous attacks.

All kinds of events can be thrust into the unconscious realm. A woman can be stood up at her wedding, or a woman can watch her child get run over in the street, or a businessman can have a deal fall out from under him which will send him into financial destitution. Any event which casues considerable pain can end up thrusted in the unconscious realm.

Now that we’ve described the sections of the mind, let’s move on to the functions of id, ego, and super-ego.

All of us are born with a biological constitution. Our bodies are physically wired up to do certain things. If you look out the window, you will see birds making nests, squirrels burying nuts, and ants gathering food. None of these animals have to be told to do this. It’s innately wired into them, and they do it out of an impulsive drive to do so.

Human beings are no different. We have all kinds of wiring. Nobody has to tell us to eat. Nobody tells us to urinate, or defecate. Nobody tells us how to breathe, or puts sexual drives within us, which attract us to others. These things exist within us, and drive us to certain actions, sometimes whether we like them or not. This is our “id”. The id is our biological constitution, and our impulses to do various actions instinctively.

The id has no sense of time, no morals, and does not think of the consequences of its actions. It simply does what it does. It doesn’t care about anyone or no one. It only cares about it, itself, and it.

The next function is the “ego”. The closest thing I’ve ever found to what the “self” is is the ego. The ego is an organized mental force, and group of mental processes, which “control” a person. It is in charge of movement. It also controls what is allowed into conscious thought. In some respects, you might think of the the ego as your free will, and your ability to resist thinking about things you don’t want to think about. These things would constitute the conscious aspects of the ego.

The ego is like an energy octopus (I know, quite a strange thing to call it) which embeds itself all throughout the mind. One of its tentacles is sent into consciousness. Another of its tentacles reaches into the id. Another of its tenacles reaches into the super-ego (we’ll talk about that soon). The ego acts as a gateway to the mind.

With the woman who cannot remember the armed robbery, her ego is the part of her mind which has thrusted the event away from her consciousness, and it is also in charge of keeping it away from her. This makes an interesting point to notice: the ego is partially controllable by “free will”, but at the same time, it’s also known to do it’s own thing at times. When a painful event happens, it can start thrusting things into the unconscious and sealing them away, and not ask you what you think about it one way or the other. In some respects, it works like an uinterruptable power supply (UPS) does with a computer. During an electrical storm, sometimes large surges come down the power lines toward the computer. The UPS will keep your computer running if the surges are very low. But if a surge comes down the line which is too powerful for it to save the computer from, it will simply sever the circuit to save the computer. The ego has functions that do the same thing with painful events. Unfortunately these severs in mental association, which the ego performs, are imperfect, and also, can oftentimes screw a person’s mind up more than it saves them.

The ego is in charge of all mental defenses. Repression, which is what we just talked about, is one of its most extreme defense tactics, which it uses when powerful pain surges happen. But it also has other tactics available to it. The use of these less powerful tactics seems to be controllable with free will.

These include things like denial, displacement, and rationalization. During denial, something they were hoping for is thwarted, and they deny the true outcome of the situation. I have a friend who lives in denial. I consistently tell him a girl he likes does not like him that way, but he keeps telling himself some day the tides will change. He refuses to look at the situation for what it is.

In displacement, you get angry at something, but you refuse to take it out on the person who made you mad, because that would create more problems than you want. For example, your boss may say something crude to you, but you hold it in, because if you lose your job, you’ll be in big financial trouble. So then you come home, and punch the punching bag, yell at your wife and kids, or lift weights in the gym.

With rationalization, you treat the problem in some abstract manner, which treats it dispassionately and logically, and avoids linking the problem to you. It allows you to deal with the problem, and find a solution, without thinking that the problem is actually happening to you specifically, because if you actually think about it happening to you, you get so mad you wouldn’t be able to concentrate effectively on a solution.

Denial, displacement, and rationalization are just a few of the ego’s mental defense mechanisms. Hopefully these will serve to give you an idea of the kinds of things the ego does. Light-weight mental defenses seem to be left for the person to manage, but hard pain surges are automatically handled without asking the person.

Now to control the ego, you have to use words. You’ll probably notice that whenever you’ve made decisions in the past, you first thought about the situation in your mind, words bounced around in your head, and then you choose how you were going to deal with the painful situation going on.

Basically, within the “id” (your biological makeup) there are all kinds of processes going on. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I oftentimes have people tell me about emotional experiences they’re having and they don’t know quite how to put it into words. They have these feelings and other emotions, which they know they experience, but they do not know how to describe them.

Now if you cannot describe them, and put a word label onto them, you cannot think on them consciously, and you will not be able to choose how you are going to deal with those events. They will just happen, and pass. You might remember that you’ve had them, but you will not be able to identify their cause. Remember, consciousness deals with your immediate sense perceptions (sight, hearing, etc), and also has the ability to bounce words around in your head. Now if you cannot put those feelings into words, you cannot bounce them around in your conscious thought, abstract them, analyze, and think what you’re going to do. You’ll need a word to act as a marker, with criteria, so you’ll be able to identify the same feeling the next time it happens, and distinguish it from other feelings. (Note: If you’re going to do this, think more in terms of triggers, and when they happen. Emotional “types” are less important than when and how they are generated.)

I recently read a book on vocabularly building. The author said that people who have high vocabularies not only statistically have better jobs, and make more money, but also have more success in all other areas of life as well. It’s not all just communication either. They’re able to think more clearly, and identify problems better. Having many words to clearly distinguish all kinds of different concepts makes it possible to think on things more clearly.

I was watching a movie with Greg not too long back called Idiocracy (I think). The world was completley filled with idiots. A man went to the doctor, and the doctor told him, “Man, you’re f**ked up.” The guy thought, “What does that mean? Am I going to die? Am I sick? Is my arm broken?” You’ll notice how vague it is. There’s not even a distinction between a broken arm, an infection, cancer, or anything. The same phrase is used to describe everything.

Without having words to describe things, all of your emotional life and thought life will be crammed together, like a bubbling cauldron of randomness. All these random feelings will mix and swirl around. Only words will bring about order, and allow you to start controlling your emotional life.

To summarize the ego, it is the place where consciousness takes place. It is a person’s reasoning and thinking. It is linked with the id, super-ego, and consciousness. Part of it is controllable, allowing a person to form mental defenses, and control them, but part of it is automated as well. Since a major part of conscious thought is words bouncing around in your head, you will need words to identify things going on. A big part of psychology is giving the patient conceptual words to describe the mental experiences they’re having, and linking all these concepts to various triggers.

Now we will discuss the super-ego. The super-ego is complex, and is a little more difficult to fully understand. Part of the super-ego is unconscious, and part of it conscious. It is the section of the mind where ideals and morals are found. It functions as if it is a life which lives inside of you, but is not you. (If that makes sense). It watches over you, and judges you according to your own ideals. It talks to you.

If you set goals, and fail, it criticizes you. If you achieve your goals, it congratulates you. This second life, which acts almost like a second you, living within you, is your conscience. It’s intelligent. It’s smart. It sees your every move, and never lets you get away with anything.

You may think it’s you, but it’s not. It talks to you almost in the third person. “Why did you do that?”. “What are you doing?”. “Don’t think about that. That’s not good for you.”

People who do not understand the super-ego mistake it for the voice of God, the devil, spirits, or anything else. They lay in prayer at their their bedside and talk to it. They sit before statues and communicate with it. They get premonitions from it, or even think the thoughts it generates are intuitions.

The ego is who is in charge of free will, as we mentioned earlier. From one angle, this “super-ego” is constantly bombarding the ego with standards, rules, and ideals, which the person can oftentimes never live up to. On the other hand is the “id”, constantly trying to gratify itself, oftentimes in ways the super-ego is displeased with. The ego continually has to choose which way it’s going to go, and which side it’s going to give in to.

The voice of the super-ego comes from a vast array of impressions you get from everywhere. If you constantly go to church, and listen to sermons, and read the Bible, your super-ego will always hold you accountable to all the teachings you’ve been hearing and reading. If you constantly go to business seminars, your super-ego will be constantly telling you things like, “You’re being lazy. Why aren’t you working on the project? You need to get to work!” It will be reminding you of all the business teachings you’ve learned, but are not doing. If you keep reading weight loss and exercise books, but are not exercising or eating the right foods, it will keep telling you to get back on track.

But the super-ego is not always helpful, and its advice is not always good. If you grow up in a home where you’re constantly told, “You won’t amount to anything. Who are you to think you can do that?” Then your super-ego will keep making disparaging remarks. You’ll be reading your school and college materials and this voice will tell you, “See, this book is hard. You know you’re stupid. Why are you trying?” You’ll be on a date with someone and it will say, “She’s out of your league. Why are you bothering?”

Your super-ego is your beliefs and your ideals. What a delicate mechanism it is!

It can be difficult to understand how it is programmed, and where it gets its “recordings”, which it always plays back for you, torturing you night and day, and screwing with your emotional life. What these inner security cameras look for, and constantly judge you by can be a real mystery sometimes.

Growing up as a Christian, my parents (who are ministers) would tell me to continually read my Bible, and keep “feeding on the Word.” They’d say, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” I was told to read these Bible scriptures over and over and over and over, and get them burned into my mind, so that the law of God was “written in my heart.”

What they were telling me to do was constantly bombard my mind with the Bible, and then that material would make it into my super-ego.

What’s fascinating about it is that whatever you preoccupy your mind with, finds it’s way into the super-ego. You can read a bunch of philosophy books, and say they are all about pacifisim and the nastiness of war. All the sudden you’ll become gung-ho against war, and for a few weeks after you read the book you’ll be a hardcore advocate of pacifism.

But then you read another book, written by Shaolin monks, who talk about self defense. They talk about becoming one with nature, and that peace and tranquility are superior to victory, but sometimes you have to defend yourself. You begin to contemplate this, and though at first you resist, somehow after hearing it enough times, this seems to become your new beliefs. Now your super-ego seems to believe life is less sacred than it was before, and if a dog comes attacking you, you’ll probably punt-kick it.

From my own experiences in this area, with things I’m quite sure about, my mind does not budge. If someone tells me, 2+2=5, I will disagree every time, no matter how many times someone repeats to me 2+2=5. I will say, “No. That is impossible.” By “quite sure”, I simply mean, that which has shown the best evidence.

But on things I’m unsure about, and it requires faith, my beliefs seem to be based on whatever impressions I receive the most of. It seems the mind’s programming for beliefs is that if you don’t have solid reasons for your beliefs, then it holds the belief you are exposed the most to, and assumes that if you’re hearing it so much, it has more likelihood to be true than one you don’t hear often. (Though this is illogical, I suppose in a primitive world, without such crafty lies, deception, and subterfuge coming from news propaganda and political agencies, it would work out for you.)

But, if you know the truth, then you are unmovable, at least, as long as your memory retains the truth within it. I don’t have to read my Physics textbook everyday to retain my belief in the law of gravity, but faith in an abstract and intangible savior-God seems to require constant reminders.

Now these voices can really torture a person. You may begin to wonder how you can even combat them. They’re making you miserable, but how can you get rid of them? It’s almost like you wish you could forget the lessons you’ve been taught, so you could live your life of “sin” in peace. Ignorance is bliss!

You learn about organic foods, and all the chemicals and preservatives that are put in foods today. You hear about how they cause cancer, and all sorts of other problems. Then you go to the store, and the only organic cereal there is to buy is oat bran and corn flakes. You then get the temptation, “Why can’t I just buy that box of Chex over there!” But you think, “No, no. It has BHT! It has BHT! That causes cancer. I can’t eat that.” Then the id starts to talk back, “I’m hungry. I don’t want that organic crap.” Then the ego starts to mediate, “Well, eating one bowl, I’m unlikely to get cancer. After all, the FDA wouldn’t approve it if it wasn’t safe to eat. Also, I don’t have money to always buy these organic cereals which aren’t even as good.” (Notice the ego rationalized its way out of the super-ego’s ideal standards, by using a mental defense mechanism, and made a compromise with the id.)

I’ve noticed these ideals can be reprogrammed by knowledge of the negative consequences of actions. If you learn negative consequences to decision making, this seems to be where the super-ego gets its strength. After all, the super-ego is an ideal, and an ideal breaks down into pleasure and pain. The warnings of the super-ego will be based on how serious the believed pain, and or how much pleasure you think you’ll be missing out on.

There’s things to notice though, about the super-ego. The super-ego can hold beliefs, and enforce them, and not necessarily have good reasons why.

One time I had a friend ask me, “What do you think about pornography?” I told him, “That stuff’s no good. You should stay away from it.” He asked, “Why?”, and strangely, I had no good reason to tell him. The tumbleweeds started blowing by, and crickets were chirping as I stared back at him, and had no idea what to say. I then thought it over and thought, “Well, masturbating is the only reason you’d do that. Is it healthy to masturbate. Hmm. Well. This all just seems wrong.” Then I thought about scientific studies, and have read studies how if men do not masturbate every so often (assuming they have no wife or g/f or whoever to help them release it), it will eventually build up, and release itself in wet-dreams anyways. Also, if we men don’t release it, we start being attracted to all sorts of women. You’ll be over at a friend’s house, and can’t take your eyes off his girlfriend, or even worse, his mother. Giving his mom that starry eyed look. lol. Wow.

The only criticism I could think of is that it promotes lack of self-control, but honestly, that’s not a good reason. If you let the tension build up, you’ll be in less control, and end up getting a girl pregnant, or getting a STD, instead of releasing it masturbating. Then again, people who look at pornography all the time can become womanizers, and lose self-control as well. I honestly do not know the answer to this, other than to get married. But then there’s guys who love solitude, and wouldn’t want the wife for anything other than sex, and that’d be bad too. I can’t say really.

This is when we get into the unconscious side of the super-ego. Some ideals and standards which are found in the super-ego have known sources. You remember reading an article which told you such and such, or a lecture during college, etc. You know the reasons why you hold that ideal. But other times, such as the case just mentioned, you have no idea why you have convictions and feelings of guilt about certain actions, you simply do.

These sorts of unconscious super-ego programmings came from childhood, your parents, or whoever raised you. As a child you soak up whatever is around you. Freud actually identifies the inital forming of the super-ego to the Oedipus complex, but I’d rather stay away from that topic for the meantime.

Unconscious programming can be some of the most difficult to get rid of. Without knowledge of psychoanalysis, learning to trace thought associations and recall your past experiences from memory into consciousness, I do not know how. It is not easy without help from a trained psychologist.

Now we can finally use this entire discussion to talk about right, wrong, guilt, and remorse.

Right and wrong are based on programming in your super-ego, which seems as if it can be programmed to be near anything (and sometimes this programming is unconscious, based on past events). The words “right” and “wrong” inherit their meanings from early childhood days. If you do what’s “right”, you’re rewarded by Mom and Dad being proud, and giving you treats. If you do what’s “wrong”, Mom and Dad punishes you. Later, Mom and Dad are simply removed, and instead of them punishing you and rewarding you, society and life as a whole punishes you, or rewards you.

As stated earlier, guilt comes from ambivalent emotions of love and hate. It is a conflict between id and super-ego, and your ego mediating. I’ll give an example.

I do a lot of reading, and learning things is my life. It’s what’s most important to me in the world. Now when I’m at home, mother sometimes comes in the room, and disrupts me from reading, to tell me something. I get quite angry when this happens, because I lose my train of thought, which can be difficult to get back sometimes, especially if she has some petty job for me to do, and I have to get up, do it, and go back to my room.

Now my mother has been good to me throughout my life-time, but sometimes when she comes in my room, and performs these disturbances, I snap at her. I’ll say, “Ugh, what is it!” It will be late at night, and she’s coming in the room to give me all the clean clothes she’s washed for me. Then she’ll quietly close the door as fast as she opened it. Then remorse sets in. I think, “Jason, you shouldn’t treat your mother that way. She washes your clothes, and that’s how you treat her?” This is a love mixed with hatred dynamic. I love my mother, but hate what she just did. Of course, I love my mother much more than I hate what she just did. After the minor spike of anger and frustration was released in me snapping at her, my next emotions of love kicked in, and I felt remorse. I felt sympathy for the person I inflicted damages upon.

The super-ego was the source of the voice of conviction. My id was why I snapped at her.

Freud compares the ego and id dynamic to a man riding a horse. The ego is the man, and the id the horse. The man sits on top of the much more powerful horse. If the horse is startled, and runs in a frenzy, it can be difficult for the rider to get the horse back under control. Sometimes as the rider, you have to watch where you take the horse.

If you take careful notice, you’ll find that the feeling of anxiety, when there’s a difficult decision to make, feels awfully close to guilt. You get that nervous burning in your chest, and then that nasty feeling like some chemical has been released into your bloodstream which neutralizes all happiness it finds. That’s because they are the same thing.

During indecision, you’re not sure which decision to choose, because you wonder about the consequences of what will happen, and are afraid of pain. During guilt, you feel the conflict between id, and super-ego, and your ego is in indecision as to which to listen to. Do you eat the piece of cheesecake, or do you keep to your diet for the night. You’re unhappy if you eat it, because you know you’re going to gain all that weight. But you’re unhappy if you don’t eat it, because is life meant for you to eat carrots and bananas for every meal? Id says cheesecake, super-ego says not to eat anything. Both voices, if taken to extremes, are bad.

If you recall from the beginning of this entry, some people felt guilty for doing certain things, but others felt guilt simply for thinking about prohibited things. Now we can see why this is. Since this conflict exists between the super-ego and the id, that is why it doesn’t matter if you do the prohibited action, or simply think about it. It’s an inner conflict, and if your super-ego prohibits such thoughts, but id wants to think them, you’ll have the conflict.

We also mentioned earlier that some people feel guilty for things that don’t really seem justified, and others can feel no guilt when they actually “should”. Now we can see that it all depends on super-ego programming, and that programming can be quite strange, depending on some people’s life circumstances, past history, and culture.

As for those who feel no guilt at all, such as my friend Greg, who can steal from the movie theater, and feel no remorse nor convictions, they have lost their love of others, for whatever reason. Remorse is generated by love. If you do not love the people you wrong, then no remorse will happen. There’s no love nor respect for the movie theater, nor its workers, nor the function that it serves for the community.

A man who loves somebody doesn’t want to take anything from them, he’d rather give to them, and help them.

Before ending this entry, I’d like to talk about penance, “salvation”, and self-punishment.

Now those who “sin” against their own super-ego oftentimes feel guilt, but they also feel something else as well. They feel they deserve some sort of punishment. It’s always common to see a psychopath talking about purity, sacrifice, and cleansing from evil. “Our blood will wash this filth away!”

Christian saints feel like they’ve been tainted with sin, and beg the Holy Father to cleanse them again. Jesus had to be killed, with a blood sacrifice, to appease God’s anger for mankind’s sin.

You may wonder where this all comes from. It comes from our animal instinct of aggression, which isn’t given a proper outlet, so its energies are infused into the super-ego in the form of self-punishment. We mentioned these aggressive instincts earlier, when I talked about hunters killing animals. You also find it in video games, movies, and even certain sports. The instinct is there, and the methods mentioned are just ways we outlet it. Originally man was a hunter, and needed it. Our society no longer needs such crude instincts, but unfortunately our biological constitution is still wired to chase buffalo around in plains with spears.

I always find it interesting when I meet young people. You could tell them, “I build bridges! I’ve designed buildings! I create power plants!” They see pictures of the work and say, “Oh, that’s nice.” Then a military guy comes in, “I shoot guns! I blow stuff up! I fly fast airplanes! I deal with things which are shiny, loud, and go boom!” The kids are mesmerized. This is because of aggressive instincts, and instincts geared toward hunting. Innate child interest in flying airplanes, demolishing buildings, and racing cars are just sublimated forms of hunting instincts.

Quoting Freud once again, in Civilization and its Discontents, Chapter VII:
“Hence we know of two sources for feelings of guilt: that arising from the dread of authority and the later one from the dread of the super-ego. The first one compels us to renounce instinctual gratification; the other presses over and above this towards punishment, since the persistence of forbidden wishes cannot be concealed from the super-ego.

Conscience is the result of instinctual renunciation, or: Renunciation (externally imposed) gives rise to conscience, which then demands furthuer renunciations…The effect of instinctual renunciation on conscience then operates as follows: every impulse of aggression which we omit to gratify is taken over by the super-ego and goes to heighten its aggressiveness (against the ego).”

There is one last thing I haven’t mentioned yet. When strong instinctual energy is held back, due to super-ego convictions (maybe religious beliefs, etc), then this energy has nowhere to go, it is infused back into your super-ego, which makes your convictions even more powerful and strict.

If you’re not careful with religion, you can make yourself terribly miserable, as you become more and more self-conscious, and more and more hard on yourself, for things that don’t even matter. The saintly nun, feeling guilty over her piece of chicken, is not exempt from this principle. Her aggressions are being redirected inwardly and released onto herself. She beats herself up mentally, over petty things.

As for the psychopath who kills everyone yet feels no guilt, he can do so because he has lost his love for those around him. He has lost his ability to form emotional bonds with others, most likely over prolonged periods of isolation, feeling different, and not being loved. The pain likely drove him to many complex mental defense networks, which make rational thinking near impossible. Combine this with confusing repressions, generating anxiety he doesn’t understand. His depressed mood makes him surround himself with depressing material and music, which programs his super-ego for death. Then he talks madness about blood-sacrifice and purity because of pent up aggression which has not found outlet and made its way into his already confused super-ego.

5 thoughts on “How Guilt and Your Conscience Work”

  1. Freud may be a brilliant and seductive writer, but his ideas are over half a century old. Some of his ideas have advanced the field of psychology and some of his ideas have little support in the psychological community. Reading an introductory psychology textbook (Bernstein, Weiten, Gray, Myers) and an introductory neuroscience textbook (Purves, Bear. Pinel and Gazzaniga author texts preferred by psychology depts which cover the same material as Purves and Bear) may introduce you to the limits of psychotherapy and the degree to which our personalities are biologically hardwired.

    You certainly have a passion for the subject, but you need to update your philosophical foundations and beef up your factual knowledge. For example, there is plenty of exciting research refuting your claim that children are selfish. On the contrary, humans are innately eager to help others and this behavior manifests in infancy. These findings suggest why our species is dominant over other species (that and thumbs).

  2. Wow. Well done sir. I like your take on the subject. Now, i’m going to go find some help. For my super ego is much too strong. Now, if only there was a way to do away with the super ego, maybe not entirely, but repress it. It seems that negativity generates from the super ego. Well, you cant get rid of the super ego, but perhaps, somehow, the unconscious aspect of the super ego can be altered? I need ro know some methods on how to do exactly that. I need to alter the unconscious aspect of ny super ego, or better yet, make it less present.

  3. I very much share your feelings from the first part of the post, however, curious, what’s the difference between humans and bugs that allows you to smash bugs but makes you Bertrand Russel-style care so much about human suffering.

  4. How would you define intimate love? By using Shaunti Feldhahn’s description that romantic
    like is a blending of genuine love, authentic respect, and
    legitimate nurturing of the inner child or soul of self and other “For Couples Only;” also, “Love SHOULD BE Challenging” by Dr.
    James Dobson is good. It is like someone
    got a magic wand and dropped sparkles all over you.
    It really is one of the greatest feeling of life and more regularly experienced when your a teenager or young adult.

    From then on the sparkles kinda disappear completely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *