How We Learn To Feel Guilt And Why We Pass It On To Our Children

Updated: May 20, 2020

It is extremely difficult to let go of guilt if you do not understand what is going on subconsciously.


Guilt can be a paralyzing emotion.

Once we feel guilty and start overthinking, it is nearly impossible to make any decision and move on. We just think and think and we want to do something to correct the situation so we can feel better. Until then — peace of mind is impossible.

The cause of guilt is doing something wrong. The effect of guilt is punishment. “I did something wrong, now I deserve to be punished.”

Most people are not aware of the punishment element, yet it still drives their behavior.

Children know this intuitively. I remember getting my first D from Math at school. I was 12 and I knew I screwed up. After I came home I received an endless talk from my mom. I remember asking:” Mom, why don’t you rather slap me so this can be over?”

Punishment buys us freedom.

When they announce “Guilty” at the court verdict, we go to prison so we can be free again. When we cross the speed limit, we pay the fine and we are free. When we feel we hurt someone, we want to do something for them so we can feel better. Better = free again.

That is why some people believe that revenge will make them feel better. Someone did wrong to them, they feel hurt and now they have the right to “settle the debt”. If it is buried deep in the unconscious, it feels like the most normal thing to do.

Guilt is a destructive substitute for responsibility and learning.

It is also one of the most difficult emotions to deal with because it can be hard to notice and has a tricky mechanism that keeps it locked in place.

Understanding the nature of guilt allows you to spot it, release it and heal from its effects.

The Evolution of Guilt

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” -proverb

Guilt is not built-in the child when it is born. It has to make an effort to create it.

How do we create guilt?

Every child is born free of beliefs, rights/wrongs, good/bad and any judgment whatsoever.

It is also born completely helpless and its survival is fully dependent on its parents.

To survive, it needs to learn how to get along with the adults and the external world. Therefore it starts adjusting its internal world to fit the external one.

A developing child’s brain is like a sponge — it sucks in all the information from the external world and creates its logic (if-then) that makes sense to it. The older it gets, the better judgment it has so the logic becomes more accurate. But early on, these judgments and logical links can have literally zero adult common sense.

For example: If I smile, my mommy smiles. If I yell, I get attention. But also — if I look sad, I’ll receive love OR If I break stuff, I get attention. If I [behavior], then [reaction].

In the ideal world, every child develops confidence through learning to trust and love itself and others. This is achieved through growing up in a safe environment to experience and learn, that is created by its parents through their unconditional love.

There is no punishment, judgment or "you should have known better", but safe and nurturing support in exploring and experiencing the world as a loved human being.

To this day, you know the feeling very well.

A feeling of unconditional love changes our body chemistry and emotional state. Just think of someone you truly love. Someone you hold dear, someone whom you unconditionally wish good, no matter if you receive anything back or not. Someone so beautiful to you that you wish to nurture them and to support that beauty and goodness. Someone whom if you give, it feels as if you gave to yourself. Someone, for whom you are eternally grateful. Someone, who you truly love.

For a full experience, take a deep breath, read it once again and then close your eyes and feel the feeling fully.

Did you feel any physical sensation in your body?

Chances are that you felt a warm, expanding tingling on your chest and maybe a little smile on your face.

For a child, who does not speak, talk and understand, a child who has no idea whatsoever about what is going on in this world and only has a feeling as a sense of direction, you can multiply this feeling by 10.000x.

For a child, this is the most beautiful feeling in the world.

Because of that, any slightest parental behavior that contains withholding of love becomes a form of punishment for the child (not talking to it, lack of emotional presence, physical punishment, etc.) and the child is ready to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to prevent this behavior from ever happening again.

For a child, withholding love is the worst punishment it can receive.

In the ideal world, love is never withheld from a child.

However, we live in the real world, which is imperfect and far from the ideal one. Every child is taken care of by the imperfect parents, who also had imperfect parents, who also had imperfect parents, etc.

Inevitably, a child in its endless playfulness, curiosity and zero patience will experience withholding love and punishment after the parental patience ran out or after parental insecurities and imperfections show up.

Some punishments are subtle, some are more obvious.

“[Mom does not talk to me.]” “Do not talk back rudely or you won’t play PC games.“ “Always say “good day” to others or dad will be mad at you.” “Have good grades or you won’t get money.“ “But also — look both sides before you cross the road or mom will yell at you.”

The behaviors causing withholding of parental love shape the child’s understanding of the world. It does not know that withholding is caused by its parents’ own mishandled emotions and insecurities. Its understanding does not go that far.

It just naively concludes — “I must have done X that made me deserve this pain.”

The child, therefore, embraces punishment as a natural and logical consequence of certain behaviors.

“If I do X, I will be punished. I rather do not do X.”

The intention is good — parents want to keep the child safe, maintain their comfort and balance AND the child adapts to the outer world.

When the punishment happens for the first time, it is unexpected and painful. The fourth time, it is more expected and equally painful. The eighth time, it sees the pain coming and therefore starts to fear it.

This fear of punishment is the feeling of guilt.

With enough repetitions, the mere thought of the upcoming experience of being punished is extremely painful. The child starts to feel tremendous fear of that pain happening again long before it actually happens.

Think of it as when you go to the dentist (or a public speaking performance or a mother-in-law visit — the principle is the same). You know it will be painful. The suffering starts long before the experience.

And that is how Guilt works.

Through repetition, fear of punishment becomes conditioned in the organism as a “natural response” in the same way as Pavlov did with his dogs.

The fearful expectation of punishment by someone important (parents, friends, colleagues, society, God…) is the basic nature of guilt.

The child does not know that this is a conditioned response, it believes that it is natural, logical and normal.

If fish lives its whole life in a dirty water, does it know that the water is dirty? It does not.

See it on your guilt examples — who will punish you for the things that you feel guilty about? Parents? Society? Police? Spouse? God (or any other moral authority)?

Because the painful expectation, that the punishment will come is terrifying, the child wants to do anything to relieve it.

The mind starts exploring what it can do to: 1. relieve this pain and 2. get love back again.

And all children, in their naive and innocent nature, create a fascinating coping mechanism that helps them to survive.

How do we pass it on to the next generation?

The tough part about guilt is living in an ongoing pain without any explanation of it. It’s all subconscious. If you feel chronic guilt, you might constantly feel like you did something wrong, you are wrong as a human being and other people are suffering or might suffer because of you. You need to constantly do things perfectly to avoid punishment, justify your behaviors, apologize, feel sorry about yourself and others, etc.

And because it seems unfair and illogical, you will be resentful towards those who are free to behave in ways that would make you feel guilty. Subconsciously you will judge them, and therefore, consciously they will annoy the hell out of you.

Many people heal from their guilt-conditioning, but most people, unfortunately, give up and resign.

They get bitter and subconsciously treat their kids and those around them in the only way they know: withholding love and punishing. This supports the guilt pattern and continues the cycle being passed on to the next generation the same way it was passed on to them.

Guilt can be healed. There is no reason to blame yourself or anyone else. It is impossible to completely avoid guilt in the same way as it is impossible to avoid any other emotion. We are all human beings, we are not broken and there is a way out.

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This article is part of the Guilt series.

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