From Dr. Larry

Dr. Larry Gelman is fiercely devoted to each client, with a deep and profound respect for their own self-agency and self-determination.

Sin, Guilt and Psychopathology Revisited

O. Hobart Mowrer, the noted psychologist, reminds us of the inextricable interrelationship between sin, guilt and psychopathology. In brief, we commit sin; we feel guilt; we punish ourselves.

As I ponder Mowrer’s notion, it occurs to me that the commission of a sin does not, necessarily, need to occur first. Nothing prevents an individual who feels guilty, for example, to trigger the vicious circularity of Mowrer’s insidious triadic process.

The same applies to intropunitiveness as sometimes “it hurts so good,” to flagellate oneself so bad, in order to trick oneself into believing that one has atoned by some form of expiation, undoing or other punitive tactic of palpable self-denial or self-harm.

If I am correct in these assumptions, then to break the vicious cycle, one must interrupt the process at each and every twist and turn, or in other words, to cease and to desist from sin, guilt and psychopathology, in any order; in any way possible.

In psychological terms, the stain of sin is almost always an indelible mark, a kind of “scarlet letter,” emblazoned on the perpetrator by a sentencing judge, jury and executioner, whether such is a function of an external or internal attribution.

Sin may be defined in terms of whatever is defined as sinful by whoever is the definer. Consequently, sin may be an act of commission and/or, also, an act of omission, whether, in word or deed.

In truth, sin may even be construed of as a private fantasy, ideation or experiencing of that which the sinner either thinks or feels is, or could be, sinful. Consider former President Jimmy Carter’s alleged assertion that he sinned because “I had lust in my heart.”

I recall treating a clergyman who grappled mightily, on a daily basis, with homicidal urges which were directed at all those he perceived had ever, advertently or inadvertently, visited upon him a wrong.

It took a while for guilt to irradiate from his, otherwise, seemingly excellent moral compass, and for him to shut-down his urges to act-out these imaginings. Consider that the whole point of guilt is to accomplish one of two things: (1) punishment of sin or (2) internal self-regulatory control to prevent the sinner from sinning or from engaging in continued sinning.

The problem with guilt is that when confronted with a choice between behaving either “naughty or nice,” what is the psychological mechanism by which we evaluatively compare and contrast “naughty” with “nice” and then choose correctly without untoward guilt?

Perhaps it all depends upon what we believe the prognosticated odds are with respect to our “getting away” with “naughty,” as opposed to the prognosticated odds with respect to our “getting caught” if we don’t do “nice.”

Then again, maybe we opt for a sentient and willful choice-leading-to-action-with-consistency-and-appropriateness because we honestly value right over wrong, good over evil, positive over negative and deservedness over guilt.

When no one is looking, who amongst us is disinclined to occasionally let down their hair, kick-up their heels and cut-loose with wild abandon? Especially, when our naughtiness can be associated with Las Vegas-style anonymity?

Interestingly, human beings have an almost limitless capacity to adapt by habituating to almost anything. Recall that not all WWII concentration camp survivors were particularly happy to be set free by their Allied liberators.

When a baby cries incessantly, a caring, concerned and loving mother will eventually get used to, or habituate to, the subtle nuances of her infant’s cries, responding only when she can accurately discriminate a ’just noticeable difference’ in her baby’s cry.

Guilt is very similar insofar as the bearer of guilt, no matter how heavy it may be to bear the weight of their ’cross’ of guilt, will either succumb to the weight of the burden, or else, habituate to and, with a stiff upper lip, carry-on until the bitter end!

Thus, some individuals will habitually marinate in their guilt, almost luxuriatingly basking in it, and learning over time, place and perspective to “enjoy the beatings” as well as “to suffer the slings and arrows of their outrageous misfortune.”

The construct of psychopathology is a bit more vexing because, ironically, “the symptoms are the solution” or are often attempts at a solution.

Again, I am reminded of an autistic child who was referred to me earlier in my career by a very senior-level psychiatrist who informed me that the boy had been electively mute for years and, “oh, by the way, good luck.”

Remarkably, by removing my suit coat, loosening my tie and lying on the floor lower than where he was sitting on the floor, the child started to converse with me and within a few visits was deemed by all to have recovered to his pre-autistic status!

I insisted that his treatment follow-up occur within the context of family psychotherapy and was shocked and deeply saddened to learn that neither parent wished to participate because, from their stated point of view, “our kid’s the one with the problem, not us!”

The youngster’s symptoms quickly returned and the last thing he verbalized to me was “thank you for trying to help my mommy and daddy but as you can see, I am the only one who can help keep our family together by being sick.”

And just like that, he reverted to his previous autistic psychopathological adaptation, as his presumed symptomatic solution, by embracing the role, albeit sacrificially, of the “identified patient”, thus, ameliorating risk of parental schism or divorce!

How many disturbed people aggressively seek individual counseling or psychotherapy as they endeavor to navigate their way in a relationship or other relational system which is really sick, perverted or corrupt, when all along, in fact, it is not they who are sick but rather, another who the “identified patient” must adapt to in “pretzel-like” fashion?

The inextricable interrelationship between sin, guilt and psychopathology is often exceedingly onerous to unmask, to detangle and to fix, all-the-more, because it is simply not always what it appears to be at first glance and it can often be remarkably complicated with sky-high stakes!

I am reminded of a patient who attempted suicide and bemoaned the fact that his failure to successfully end his life meant that he had to endure the role of “the sick one” for the remainder of his life, meaning that “now my family will never deal directly with what is really wrong with them!”

Another client was convinced she had no choice but to submit to her husband’s incessant demands for her forced participation in his sexual gratification for more than a decade because “I made a vow to love, honor and obey in the house of my Lord.”

When she asked me in private “doctor, do I have a right to my body?”, I couldn’t resist invoking the rhetorical question, “WWJD?”, at which point, she burst into tears, proclaimed she knew exactly what she needed to do and promptly divorced her wealthy husband who left her penniless with several very young children.

Years later, she thanked me for reflecting back to her, years earlier, those truths which she knew to be true from the very first and reported that during the difficult times following her decision to end a sick and perverted marriage (which “never really was a marriage in any true sense but rather had always been a lie”), she proclaimed assertively, “I am saved because, now, I am free, at last.”

Unfortunate clinical anecdotes of this genre go on and on without end attesting to the innumerable ways in which the subjective experience and/or attribution of sin becomes normalized, whereby reactive and consequential guilt sets the stage for some form of punishment and the resultant psychopathological symptoms oftentimes represent the person’s sincere, albeit, maladaptive attempt to solve a problem which can never really ever be solved symptomatically.

To reiterate, if I am correct in these assumptions, then to break the cycle, one must interrupt the process at each and every twist and turn, or in other words, cease and desist from sin, guilt and psychopathology, in any order; in any way possible.

Since failure is always an option, it is especially imperative that failure is prevented or short-circuited from ever being an option, lest we sin, experience guilt and seek to assuage our guilt with psychopathological symptoms which, likely, will never really solve anything.

Author Note: Dr. Larry B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor

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