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Summers, F. (1996). Existential Guilt: An Object Relations Concept. Contemp. Psychoanal., 32:43.

(1996). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 32:43

Existential Guilt: An Object Relations Concept

Frank Summers, Ph.D

The Psychoanalytic Theory of Guilt

HISTORICALLY, PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORY has been wedded to a concept of guilt inextricably bound to intrapsychic structural conflict and, therefore, pathogenic only in neurosis. In the structural model, the superego, formed in response to oedipal conflicts, is the agency of moral prohibition (Freud, 1923). If drive-based sexual and aggressive wishes violate its strictures, guilt is experienced, which leads to repression, and the conditions for neurosis are established. In Freud's view, the intent of these wishes, such as sexual longing for the opposite-sex parent or the desire to injure or destroy the same-sex parent, is cause for guilt. According to this view, guilt presumes the existence of psychological structure and, therefore, has no role in character pathology.

The primary modification of this concept of guilt has been Klein's formulation of the depressive position that guilt begins in the preoedipal period, as the child first becomes aware that its desire to destroy the bad object is directed at the same parent whom it loves and depends on (Klein, 1937). Guilt is the response to the intent to destroy the love object, and if unresolved in childhood, it leads to adult depression. Although Klein's theory of the origins of guilt differed from Freud's, she adopted his equation of guilt with dangerous wishes. This view of guilt is maintained in the major variants of Kleinian theory, such as Kernberg's blend of ego psychology and Klein's object relations theory (Kernberg, 1976). Winnicott (1960) adapted Klein's concept of the depressive position to his developmental theory of dependency phases, while adopting her view of guilt as injurious desires toward the loved object. Thus, in both the Freudian and Kleinian conceptualizations, guilt is the result of conflict between intent and moral stricture.

For this reason, ego psychologists, who emphasize intrapsychic conflict


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Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1996)

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