For some people, difficult feelings of anger, resentment and hatred are hard to bear. It is perhaps easier to turn anger inward and punish ourselves rather than punish the ones who are close to us. The ensuing guilt plays a major role in those with a longing for self-punishment. The moment a child begins to grasp the idea of guilt; he also begins to understand the concept of how punishment is followed by forgiveness. It becomes clear to him that there is a connection between guilt, self-punishment and forgiveness. Self-punishment is born in the hope for forgiveness and a longing for love.
In families where there is emotional neglect, the carers have lack of emotional awareness, or find it difficult to provide enough care and attention for their child. Some carers are not able to see or understand their child for who he is, or are not able to make sense of the child’s emotional difficulties for him. In some families, the carers may be absent or too distracted to see to their child’s emotional needs and in some others, there may be a lack of boundaries or too many boundaries and so on. All this creates developmental problems in children, leaving them with a great deal of unconscious rage and resentment towards those close to them.
However, it is important for a child to hang on to his idea of the good parent. He cannot, therefore, allow himself to dislike his parents or be angry with them even if they are behaving badly because the child needs his carers for survival. This all happens at an unconscious level and the resulting unconscious rage and anger creates an equally unconscious sense of guilt. These forbidden feelings give rise to self-punishment with the aim of achieving forgiveness and regaining the love of his parents.
While there is nobody available to make sense of what is really going for the child, this conflict between love and aggression continues to play a pivotal role in the child’s life confirming his sense of badness and unworthiness. Self-punishment provides an important solution for the child who desperately needs his parents to be good because he depends on them. Self-punishment helps the child take some control over his emotional pain of being neglected.
These unconscious feelings can continue into and throughout adulthood. Usually adults with this kind of background find it difficult to explain their feelings of guilt, depression, anxiety and so on. They are unable to pinpoint anything wrong in their childhood and cannot find any severe deprivation or trauma from their childhood that could explain such feelings.
However, in families where a child has experience of carers who are regularly available and emotionally consistent, this cycle of guilt, self-punishment and forgiveness is replaced by a cycle of hope, love and forgiveness. In this environment, the carers are able to give hope when there is emotional difficulty for the child. They are attuned to the child’s feelings and can help the child understand his feelings. They do not retaliate when the child shows anger or other difficult feelings and are able to show forgiveness when there are unpleasant feelings between them and the child. In this scenario, the child grows up with a compassionate self-awareness. He does not feel bad or unworthy and does not feel the need to punish himself for his bad feelings. He develops a balanced view of himself and others and comes to believe that the world is not as unforgiving as one might otherwise think.
How does Therapy help?
It is through a therapeutic relationship and analysis that we can develop a deep understanding of our childhood trauma. By listening, talking, naming and making sense of our past difficulties in a trustworthy and holding environment, we may come to understand the truth about ourselves. We may begin to give meaning to our childhood trauma and work through our feelings of anger, resentment and regret. By so doing we may eventually be able to mourn the loss that we have endured.
As the truth about ourselves slowly emerges, we may begin to take responsibility for our own actions. We may learn how to tolerate our guilt rather than avoid it by the act of self-punishment. As the therapeutic process allows us to develop a more compassionate self-awareness, we may eventually begin to end the cycle of guilt and self-punishment and learn to forgive the imperfections of ourselves and others. As our conscience becomes kinder and less threatening, our relationship with ourselves and others become so much less distorted by our past experiences. Ultimately, we become less anxious within ourselves and our relationships with others become more rewarding.
Siassi, S. (2013). Forgiveness in intimate relationships, a psychpanalytic perspective. London, UK.
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