black bulldog holding a "guilty" sign in a "mug shot"


How can you decipher whether the sorrow you feel is authentic or self-serving? Understanding your motives is the first step to understanding which type of guilt you possess. Do you apologize to absolve your own bad feelings or alternatively, is your apology driven by genuine remorse for the hurt you may have inflicted? The following two vignettes demonstrate two types of sorrow experienced from these opposing states of mind.

Consider eight-year-old Sam, who steals his younger brother Jeff’s Legos. When confronted by their mother, Sam denies all accusations, while his younger brother Jeff cries and stomps his feet. Their mother demands that Sam apologize to Jeff. Sam exclaims, “I didn’t take Jeff’s Legos and I am not sorry! Eventually their mother admonishes Sam to say he is sorry, using shame and withholding love. In order to avoid the consequences, Sam apologizes to Jeff. However, Sam is not truly sorry and has been misunderstood by his mother who values the apology over the truth.

In the second vignette, Mike and Jen are engaged and are getting married. Jen discovers that Mike is having an online relationship with another woman. Jen then calls off their wedding. In a desperate attempt to mend their relationship, Mike asks for Jen’s forgiveness. He is deeply regretful. Mike is genuinely confused about why he would risk losing Jen and decides to consult with a therapist. He enters psychotherapy so that he can better understand why he was self-destructive.

Mike eventually realizes that he feared commitment, having seen his parents go through a conflictual divorce. He realized that his fear of intimacy with Jen caused him to find fault in her. In hindsight, Mike became aware that rather than facing his unseen past Mike compromised the relationship and thus betrayed Jen. Mike spent months after their broken engagement feeling remorseful and wishing he could repair the damage and hurt he caused Jen. He knew that it was over yet Mike continued to mourn the loss and to face his responsibility for the end of the relationship.

As a psychoanalyst, guilt is a familiar theme expressed in my daily practice. Melanie Klein, a disciple of Sigmund Freud identified two types, persecutory and reparative guilt. Reparative guilt is the type in which there is recognition and responsibility taken for having hurt someone. This person feels sad and realizes that they need to repair the damage that they have done to the other from a place of authenticity. On the other hand, persecutory guilt is used by people to cleanse themselves of guilt. It is a way for the person to relieve their own discomfort and is self-serving. This person’s apology is an attempt to reduce feelings of persecution, in which they apologize to get the proverbial “monkey” off their back.

In the first vignette, Sam goes through the motions of apologizing to avoid punishment but he feels little remorse. He is not sorry for taking his younger brother legos and felt coerced into apologizing to Jeff. Sam’s apology is coming from persecutory anxiety.

In the second vignette, Mike experiences deep remorse and sorrow, knowing he hurt and betrayed the woman he loved.  He desires self-awareness to truly make amends so this doesn’t happen again. His apology came from a place of reparation, in which he took responsibility for what he had done. Mike felt genuine sorrow.

Feelings of guilt are at the core of much pain and suffering. Common human states of mind such as envy, hate, and greed are some of the emotions that can drive guilt both consciously as well as unconsciously. Conscious guilt is when a person is aware of what they have done to hurt someone. Unconscious guilt is experienced in displaced symptoms and psychopathology. People with unconscious guilt may experience a myriad of symptoms that let them know that something is going on. Unconscious guilt may appear in subtle ways such as; psychosomatic symptoms, impasses in their development, labile moods, anxiety, and depression. Self-destructive or regressive behaviors are the biggest indicator that the person is experiencing unconscious guilt.

To make sense of which type of guilt you feel… gently ask yourself:

  1. Do you apologize to clear your conscience? Do you apologize to get someone off your back or to win someone back into your good graces? Do you feel the person you have hurt deserves what they had coming? Is your apology being used to avoid further punishment or to get out of dodge? This approach is usually motivated by persecutory guilt.
  2. Is your apology coming from a deep awareness of how you have hurt or affected the person? Do you feel regret and remorse for the pain you have caused? If you wish you could have “a do over” and it is unbearable to live with the pain you have caused, your guilt is likely reparative.

Understanding what motivates you to say you’re sorry is the first step to an authentic apology.

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