The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Imagine Oscar Madison’s predicament in Gene Saks’s film of Neil Simon’s Broadway hit The Odd Couple. He takes in his friend Felix Unger, who is suicidal after his wife threw him out. But Felix nags and whines, polishes and dusts. He insists on using coasters! He makes life intolerable for “divorced, broke and sloppy” Oscar, who snaps, and throws Felix out all over again. But Felix retaliates in his own infuriating style:

Felix: Remember what happens to me is your responsibility. Let it be on your head. […] Either I’ll come back and get the rest of my clothes, or someone else will.

Oscar: [blocks the door] You are not going any place until you take it back.

Felix: Take what back?

Oscar: Let it be on your head. What the hell is that? The Curse of the Cat People?

Felix’s revenge infects Oscar with one of the twentieth century’s most dreaded afflictions. Guilt. It’s the modern-day curse.

It should be a simple transaction: we transgress the rules, and are left clammy with SHAME, fretting our punishment and experiencing the CLAUSTROPHOBIA that comes with visions of reproachful looks and veiled criticisms. This is an intolerable experience, so we rush to repair the damage. If we are lucky, our attempts to atone—clumsy or otherwise—are accepted and the guilt fades (or we might even experience the heady rush of absolution!). Compensation is at the heart of the matter. From the Old English gylt, usually traced back to the German, geld (to pay), guilt demands we repay our debts.

It’s never that straightforward, though. Moral codes aren’t universally agreed upon, much less the behavior required to make amends. In the past, guilt didn’t appear on lists of the passions; the word described a fact of responsibility not a feeling—although contrition and REMORSE always figured highly. In our own age what counts for guilt is a ghoulish sort of stagnant feeling, a queasy sensation that keeps reappearing. It is haunted by a fear that it is excessive or unwarranted, so that we can speak of feeling guilty, yet in the same breath imply we’ve done nothing wrong (it’s more a plea: “Don’t make me feel guilty!” or an attempt to elicit reassurance: “But I feel so guilty!”). At the other extreme, there are those guilty feelings that can’t be worked off because it’s not clear how they’ve been earned in the first place—the guilt of being the sole survivor of a car crash, or receiving an award when your equally talented colleague did not; the guilt felt by children who imagine themselves responsible for their parents’ divorce. Some people take too little responsibility, others too much. And some have responsibility foisted upon them.

This modern vision of guilt as an emotion capable of being distorted and passed around emerged at the very end of the nineteenth century in the writings of Sigmund Freud. It begins with a dream Freud had in 1895. That day, Freud had received a visit from his friend “Otto” (the doctor Oscar Rie), during which they had discussed a patient they were both treating named Irma. Freud had diagnosed Irma with hysteria, believing her symptoms psychosomatic, yet Rie had reported that Irma was making no progress. This left Freud uncomfortable. Was Otto insinuating his psychoanalytic treatment was not working? That night, Freud dreamt he was examining Irma’s throat and found it full of white scabs. He suspected an infection caused by an injection Otto had given Irma. Clearly, Otto had been negligent, and not sterilized the needle properly. When Freud woke the following morning, he realized that in his dream, he had assigned the blame for Irma’s failure to recover to Otto. He saw that his dream was a form of “wish fulfilment,” and only then did he realize that somewhere in his mind he feared that Irma’s ongoing illness was his own fault.

In Freud’s later writing, guilt emerges as a feeling we are desperate to avoid—a feeling that the ego, so busy defending its fantasies of perfection, is always prone to hide. He argued that guilt itself is located in the superego, a punishing part of the conscious mind that has internalized the authoritarian—and often exaggerated—demands of one’s parents, and replays them over and over again (Freud called this inner monologue the “voice of the Father”). Freud, then, took up the old model in which guilty feelings were the consequence of transgressing a powerful authority, but, in place of God, put the ogres of childhood fantasy: angry parents. As we grow older, our desires may compel us to reject or disobey this oppressive voice. Yet, it still breaks through, often in peculiar dreams, or in an excessive need to make amends. One of the behaviors it gives rise to is the practice of sending other people on guilt trips. We may be so eager to avoid the unpleasant demands of our own guilty consciences that we shift the blame onto other people, especially those we resent for pointing out our shortcomings—in Freud’s case, his friend Otto; in Felix’s, his friend Oscar.

Freud’s ideas gave rise to a new way of talking about guilt. “A guilt complex” became a voguish diagnosis in the early twentieth century, and one that still shapes discussions of depression and anxiety. As Alfred Adler, one of the early architects of psychotherapy, put it in 1927, the guilt complex is a “combination of self-accusation and repentance,” which “strives for superiority on the useless side of life.” Even guilt itself, he wrote, with its whirring obsession with self-punishment and blame, was a kind of avoidance, a retreat from being useful: we feel guilty instead of doing what we know we ought. This Adlerian vision of guilt as a kind of stagnation or inhibition has been very influential in the modern self-help movement, in which guilt is seen to be the enemy of productivity, but also of personal fulfilment. When you’re so busy trying to atone for guilt you haven’t really earned, it’s hard to find much room to enjoy life.

So can guilt ever be made to vanish? For Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple, an impromptu ceremony captures the fantastical element of the desire for absolution. At the story’s happy conclusion, Felix waves his hand over Oscar’s head (“I remove the curse”), and Oscar curtsies in thanks. Oscar might mock it, calling Felix the “Wicked Witch of the North.” But for a man who’s spent the night driving round New York fearing the worst and fretting about the guilt that will inevitably haunt him, there is certainly relief on his face.

Most of us don’t have this chance to return to the source of the guilt and ask to have it removed. Perhaps those responsible are dead. Perhaps we’re too humiliated to make contact with them. Perhaps we fear a conversation would not bring a resolution anyway, but open old wounds and create even more guilt for the future. So instead, we find ourselves stuck in interminable conversations with ourselves. Was it our fault? Or theirs? Should we take more responsibility? Or less? Are the people we feel guilty about sort of angels (“How could I hurt her? She’s never been anything but kind to me!”) or shameless manipulators with impossible standards?

The truth usually lies somewhere between. Cognitive behavioral therapists suggest visualizing this balance by drawing a “responsibility pie chart,” to demonstrate to yourself the extent of your responsibility for bad things happening. What is clear, however, is that though we may walk through into a therapist’s office hoping for a priestlike absolution, or that they’ll excise our uncomfortable feelings of guilt with a ceremonial wave of the hand, a good therapist will set their sights far lower. It’s less a question of making guilt vanish than adjusting to its background hum.

For other emotions linked to debts see: ANTICIPATION; GRATITUDE.

See also: REMORSE.