Guilt and its Relation to Individual and Group Conscience
Guilt is a feeling that can dramatically affect the quality of one’s life. The feelings of guilt have been known to cripple people’s ability to move on in their life after whatever event evoked the guilt. Guilt as a feeling can partly trace its triggers to safety and survival.
It is understood that a person must firstly satisfy one’s safety and security needs before being able to actualise further and then seek other pursuits around play and exploration. The insights of neuroscience into the nature of our social brains are helping us to understand this critical need for safety. We also know that this safety has a social herd instinct by which each of us seeks as a safety need, a need to belong to a wider group.
In our infancy our survival is predicated on our belonging to our parents and our family. These are the critical resources that nature intends us to have as protective resources to nurture and guide us as we develop and grow from complete dependency to later independence. Belonging equates to our security and so a child will forsake much to retain the bonds of belonging and being accepted by the larger groups and systems in which they belong and live.
We each experience anxiety and unease at the thought of being dispossessed by any of the groups we belong to and this unconsciously influences our actions. It can dominate our lives when the trauma of disconnection or the threat of this occurring, remains unhealed in an adult. It can act as unresolved trauma and then occupy our thinking, alter the perception of our wellbeing, challenge our confidence and our sense of leadership and authority.
Born out of this survival state is the trait we know as loyalty. Loyalty is our identification with the rules, values, beliefs, rituals and processes of the wider group and our voluntary free will choice to adhere to these constructs and rules. This free will choice may not always be so.
For instance we may as a child consciously join the scouts of our free will and devote our time to learning the rules, values, beliefs, rituals and processes they use. However at home we may unconsciously out of a need to belong choose not to rock the boat in a household that is criminal or abusive somehow. We belong but not through free will.
We confirm our membership to this family system out of need as seen by our compliance. We do not actually get a choice but instead compliance arises out of our love and identification with those who guarantee our survival and accept us as belonging to them.
We may find that the family system we belong to may compel us to act in ways that are limiting, self-destructive, abusive to others, and which may compromise our own integral self. We may need to give up personal values or a natural part of ourself to survive and win love in such a family. We may belong and be accepted on this basis which provides us with needed food in our belly, a roof over our head, and functional aspects of life such as education.
This compromise of the self is what Bert Hellinger spoke of as “blind loyalty” and “blind love”. In this space the essential nature of love is distorted to serve the wider group and is both an illusion of the essential nature of love, and a collusion with the group in order to survive.
The adult critical thinking mind goes missing in these spaces with its essential capacity for rational thought, clarity and reason. Children do not possess such minds and in some aspects neither do many adults who grew up compromised in this way in their childhoods.
Two classic ways in which children lose their ability to love others and to self love is where they grow up with either a physically or mentally ill parent(s) or Narcissistic parent(s). In both scenarios we have parents totally absorbed with themselves for totally different reasons.
In terms of systems theory we find that the ordering principle of families should be that the parents give time, attention, resources and direction to the children, and children take these without guilt or shame or compromise.
In the two family system types mentioned above we find the roles start to get reversed. In the family whose membership demands the attendance to the parental illness then an unavailability exists of one or both parents to the children. This may constellate various roles to create balance and equilibrium in such a family due to the dysfunction out of balance and out of order state the sick parent represents.
In a sick parent family we often find a previous generational unresolved issue compulsively signalling itself as illness in that parent who belongs to that family system. The children often react in various ways. One may become a caretaker of the parent, one may become the substitute parent, one may become an identifying child by also becoming sick as a loyal way of being. Another may become self destructive as an angry rebel, one may become an achieving hero, and one may become invisible and withdrawn with no needs and wants.
It will very much depend on other systemic issues and also the number of children present in the family as to how the family constellates itself. Sufficient to say it will be acts of blind love and blind loyalty that will see the family adjust and normalise such that the compromised truth becomes unconscious in all present and everyone gets on living according to the family rules, processes, beliefs, rituals and values.
In the adults who grew up as the children of such families we often find this self subjugation still taking place. In therapy I find that the first clue often arises when I ask for a description of childhood and the parents. In many cases I find that there is a blind loyalty to the parents, and an idealisation of the child’s past pain and sacrifice.
Often there is an issue once I ask them to enact a strategy or lifestyle change which puts themself first, perhaps for the first time in their life. I often notice they still collude with the unconscious rules of their family system. They sabotage any attempt to put themselves first even when consciously they can see the need and feel the want of doing so.
They feel they must maintain the status quo of their family system and to challenge it or question it can actually even become too much for some and cessation of therapy can result when the blind love is too strong to counter. Such people are torn by the original sense of wanting to belong and to not threaten that belonging.
They often exhibit much guilt when acting for healthy self interest and will often relapse into sickness, caretaking others, addictions or self-destructive behaviours when attempting to create healthy boundaries with others. It is more than just shame and a possible sense of worthlessness at play here.
The fear of exclusion from the family or tribe evokes primary survival level issues of fear. Some children raised in the two sample types of family systems mentioned above report being able to recall deeply these exact feelings. The children of the sick parent remember feeling dread at the recurrent thought of what will happen to me if the parent dies.
They feel exposed and vulnerable at a deep level and then devote themself out of love to caretaking the parents and making the family function at the expense of their own primary needs. They feel guilt for having needs, wants and feelings. They often become needless and wantless. They serve the family system.
The children of narcissistic and abusive parents often report that they were often threatened will excommunication from the family if they did not totally serve the narcissistic parent, make it all about that parent, and “performed” for that parent in order to become accepted and earn their place in the family system. The whole family system is geared to serve the narcissistic supplies of that parent(s).
The two family types deliver similar outcomes. Just like the sick parent family we find the children of the narcissistic family devoting themself out of fear and love to caretaking the parents and making the family function at the expense of their own primary needs. They also feel guilt for having needs, wants and feelings. They often become needless and wantless. They too serve the family system.
I remember one of my clients grew up in a narcissistic family where the highly sexualised mother dominated the weak and passive father, and made the children serve all her needs. One daughter became a narcissist in the image of the mother, another was attacked and humiliated as the scapegoat as her beauty threatened the mother, while the son rebelled and acted out with drugs and self destructive behaviours.
The client was bound in fear but also blind loyalty to the family system and normalised the sexually charged environment and narcissistic patterning that the family system embodied. When the client left home she still wanted the authority figure mother’s approval and so attracted narcissistic men who sexualised and betrayed her. She adopted her caretaker stance and became needless and wantless in these relationships.
The family system rules mean that she cannot have a life of self determination. She compulsively must caretake other wounded people and suppress her own desires and right to a destiny. If this is not challenged and broken then we say this person will live out an unconscious fate tied to those original family system rules and sense of belonging.
In the case of the sick parent we can also find the same caretaking outcome from a place of blind love from the child toward the parent. There is often a heavy sense of guilt felt by the child if the parent dies and they may then suppress their own right to live by staying mediocre, or even becoming sick themself and assuming the role of the sick parent out of blind loyalty.
Humans developed a sense of personal conscience in order to alert them and regulate our sense of secure belonging to family and/or whatever systems or group we align and belong to. We learn what is “right” and what is “wrong” for our membership to be guaranteed and our belonging made secure.
Most groups or systems, including families operate at two levels, that being the conscious with its rules and rituals and image setting, but also unconsciously via the unspoken, the hidden meanings, the real agendas below the social mask, the secrets, and the subtle body language which conveys far more loudly than the spoken word.
We learn from the reactions and responses of those in the system as to the deeper truths. We adjust accordingly and seek to secure our sense of belonging. A personal conscience is our compass for conforming as it informs us to how our personal values are congruent to the group values, and how our choices, actions, and intentions work for or against group conformity.
Bert Hellinger described the feeling we have when we are congruent and aligned to the group as being “innocent” and this means safe and secure in the belonging to the group. Our basic security and safety needs have been actualised. We relax and feel bonded to the group as we are safe. This state typically continues until either we transgress our personal values or that of the group and its norms.
Once we are out of order with ourself or the group we experience anxiety and guilt that comes from the sense that we have made ourself insecure in the group context through violation of values, rules, beliefs and behaviours. Human beings always seek to avoid suffering and so we will feel discomfort and fear at the perceived loss of security in our belonging. This sense of violation is what we term guilt.
Guilt serves to remind us what is out of order between ourself and the group or system that the guilt has context with. When we feel we have offended the group or family system our guilt activates to restore the balance, to make amends, to right the wrong, so our belonging is restored and we are safe again.
Our personal conscience is also designed to help us grow through assisting in adult critical thinking when we need to move beyond the supplied values, ideas, rules and beliefs of the family and other systems. As we grow then we learn that we can have other values, ideas, beliefs, needs and wants at odds with our families and other groups we may be part of. We learn that a majority of alignment to these systems can be enough. We may have some guilt due to the lack of complete alignment that now exists between ourself and the family or other system but we feel OK.
This guilt is mild where we are safe and autonomous in our development and have a secure sense of self. Likewise where the family or other groups are secure within their own values and ideals then a member may hold or express divergent views or serve themself before the group from time to time without there being any threat of excommunication or loss of belonging for the individual.
Unfortunately many families are not so evolved and operate from insecure but rigid constructs that demand total loyalty for acceptance. Blind love and blind loyalty are the result that the individual suffers as a fate. In many families there are unresolved issues and secrets going back generations which have shaped the family dynamics and the conscious and unconscious rules that permeate the way in which acceptance and belonging operate.
Most of you can think of your own family or of someone you know where the family does not talk about some secret, some scandal, some past family member, or some now missing member such as the aborted child, the dead sibling, the runaway, or the divorced first husband and father. These no-go zones form part of the unspoken rules that dictate how such families operate out of their pain but also out of balance.
In systems theory we find that every system is constantly seeking to operate in truth and in harmony and balance within itself. Nature expresses itself in the most beautiful and mathematical patterns of expression. Family and group systems are not outside these universal principles in the way organising principles inform and shape life.
What families tend to evolve over time and across generations are family systems out of order, out of balance, not in truth, and carrying the baggage of disowned pain, shame and guilt seen as disowned members of that family, or of unacknowledged persons, events and secrets. Our blind loyalty and the need to belong means that we typically morph into belonging to such “sick” systems even when our own personal values and conscience feel violated by the unacknowledged aspects of that system.
Every family or group system that is distorted and out of truth with itself is always trying to reassert its balance and truth. In human beings we say that unresolved traumas force us to individually and unconsciously try and resolve the issue through a process of “repetition compulsion”. In this we are liable to unconsciously fall into dynamics that recreate the original wounding dynamic and so attempt to “get it right this time”. This is a compulsive aspect of that individual person.
In family systems and groups the same compulsion is seen to operate at the systemic level. Whatever is the unacknowledged person, secret, scandal, or shame and guilt, will show up in subsequent generations in those members to be “acted out” and compulsively represented to attempt to allow the system to “get it right this time”, and bring the system back into truth.
The family or group members are forced to carry these burdens and out of blind love and blond loyalty take on this burden of becoming a role, or becoming sick, or recreating the dynamics of what has previously remained a secret or suppressed. This causes the current members much pain and suffering and creates a fate for them unless the unconscious dynamics are made conscious, the secret or out of order person or event is acknowledged and reasserted within the system.
The most common manifestation of how family and group systems end up behaving is that where the individuals do not feel supported to individuate and become a healthy whole outside the family or group concerned. Many remain dependent and weak, or become abusive and enforce the dependency and weakness on others, all of which often relates to the unconscious systemic repletion playing out through the current generation.
Individuals remain enmeshed in such families and groups, feel guilt and shame at moving forward to a singular destiny that they would create for themself, and instead remain obedient to the requirements of the group. They feel unable to move forward to create true autonomy and remain dependent on the “parents” or leaders of that group or family. In a sense they are bonded to the abuser as the loyalty is not reciprocated in any healthy way.
In such families or groups we find that the parents or leaders cannot support any member who has a desire for independence and separation, and will often exert guilt, shame, pressure and coercion to reign in the member and evoke their personal conscience to bind them back into the group. Members end up stuck and victims to the confines of the family or group culture and requirements of belonging, and find themself in a stagnant, rigid and dis-ease inducing energy and context.
Given we have a biological instinct to form social and family bonds for both survival and growth then it is not surprising that the nature of our initial bonding experience to our parents and family will leave its imprint on us. It is likely that later belonging to groups and partners will echo that pattern and issues of that early life bonding.
According to Stephen Porges in his Polyvagal theory we must transcend safety or survival issues to have proper social bonding capability. If the early attachments and bonds which include the sense of belonging in the family were compromised then the later adult life attachments will also be unstable, insecure, chaotic or dramatic. There may also be a withdrawal from bonding as it is perceived as unsafe.
These disruptive relationships and attempts at group belonging can also evoke feelings of guilt and shame in the midst of the person feeling insecure in the relationship or belonging. Such persons often feel a need to prove their loyalty and feel they have offended or transgressed when this may not be true.
If the parents clung to the children or needed them to stay part of the family then leaving the family becomes a guilt laden experience. Parents are often torn between wanting to keep their children in their life whilst also acknowledging that letting them go with love is the only path to growth for the child. If the parent worries needlessly then safety becomes a primary concern for both the parent and also the child who wonders what there is to fear. Their loyalty means they will trust that they need to fear.
Another problem is where different elements of the family or group demand blind loyalty or blind love against the other parts or person in the group or family. We see this in some families where parents are effectively at war with each other and are competing for the loyalty of the child. The child is not safe with any choice it makes as it will become offside and disloyal to the person or parties it does not align to. This is common in the Narcissistic parental family.
The child faces a dilemma of who to belong to. It is a win-lose choice. When one aligns to one parent or one party then one will suffer the consequence of the other parent or party. In such a family or group there is no secure belonging at all. Children and members often feel manipulated and compromised for they are pawns in the dynamics of that family or group. They often suffer guilt at having to choose their loyalties.
This problem is more serious than may be first thought. The key psychological writings about personality disorders and the issues now treated by psychiatrists reveal that serious emotional and mental personality disorders often arise where a child cannot reconcile the tensions and dilemmas of split loyalties with parents. What is irreconcilable can literally drive us mad.
In a sense we find that adults also develop the same issues when they struggle with the conflict between their own personal conscience and values, and that of the groups they belong to. Many groups and some families have a set of group values, rules, rituals and beliefs which have very black and white criteria for members.
In effect one must disown one’s own personal values and completely replace them with the group equivalent. We find this in families which organise themselves like cults, and in groups who really would be classified as cults. Some organisations would also classify as being cult like.
Groups like this enforce a set of values and rules at the expense of the individuals in the group. In many cases we find a Narcissist who is the “head” of the family or group, and who enforces the group conscience which enshrines the group values.
The group conscience is the collective conscience of the group and not only acts to overturn individual conscience in areas of interest to the group, but also acts to ensure that individuals feel guilt when they threaten or violate group values and rules, or when the individual starts to form beliefs counter to the group or family.
The black and white rigid system which develops is clear to members. The values and views of the group are required to be those of its members, and the evolution of these ideas and views typically is a downward movement from the head or the elite, and the members must simply follow orders.
The Nazi party in WW2 is a classic example of this system and group in operation. Many thousands of “good” Nazis gave up their adult critical thinking, gave up their personal conscience, and their individual values, and adopted the Nazi party equivalents.
The Nuremburg war crimes tribunals after the end of WW2 showed how effectively this group conscience operated. We saw school teachers, doctors, nurses and professionals becoming mass murderers. They ran concentration camps, developed more effective killing methods, created and executed policies of looting, genocide and inhumane treatment of prisoners, Jews, traitors and anyone “who did not believe” or “who were a threat”.
The most chilling thing was these people operated as mass killers during the day and then went home at night, played with their children, doted on their parents, and loved their partners. They appeared to function normally outside the group roles they lived during the day. They slit throats by day and sipped wine and listened to Wagner and Bach by night.
They actually had lost their personal conscience as they adopted completely the group conscience. There was no guilt at a personal level for their inhumane actions, moral outrages, ethical violations, and crimes against humanity.
When captured and brought to trial they felt no guilt and instead mounted a collective, cult like chant response that “they were only following orders”. This was the blind loyalty that overrode all other sensible responsibilities and considerations. They rationalised their actions and showed no remorse.
Hitler himself, the ultimate Narcissist who shaped much of the collective conscience of the Nazis with Goebbels the propaganda minister, increasingly justified his actions and blamed the Jews and outsiders for looming loss of the war. He rode in special trains through German cities with curtained windows so he could not see the bombed out and ruined cities his group had created from their actions.
Hitler then blamed his own people for being weak, and that everyone, including himself and all the members had to be annihilated as their weakness and betrayal had brought Germany defeat. The Narcissist is never wrong, lives in denial, and must have scapegoats for which to blame any failure. Their rage is often taken out on the loyal “sidekicks” around them who are part of the collective conscience of that Narcissists group or family.
Bert Hellinger, who created family constellations theory and practice, worked with many Nazi, German, Jewish, and Dutch family survivors of WW2 in his German and Holland practice areas. He described the Nazi Genocide in terms of the group blind loyalty and the group conscience as
“Genocide …… is committed with a good conscience for the benefit of one’s own group. From the outside we say they are murderers but for themselves, they feel they are serving their own group… they acted in good conscience. It’s not our good conscience; its theirs”.
In this sense it can be true that doing good can create guilt as that action may violate the group rules and conduct that promotes inclusion and belonging. A form of this is survivor guilt. It is good when a person survives a tragedy or a massacre but this act can separate them from the group they belong to who are now dead.
Survivor guilt was also a feature of WW2 in general, and of Nazi concentration camp sufferers in particular. Those who found themself incarcerated within the confines of a Nazi concentration camp had all pretence stripped away about this being a resettlement or work camp.
All the inmates were bound into a group belonging that centred on the fact that they were there to die, either through gas chambers, hanging, bullets or being worked to death. They belonged to each other and fought to live and not die. When the war ended and those survivors were liberated out of those camps there was a noted outcome of survivor guilt.
The survivors in many cases felt guilty for having lived when many of their group and families had died. They then often struggled to live lives filled with joy and happiness as it evoked guilt. Others went the other way and were determined to live in a way that honoured their chance to live and to express this fully in place of the dead. The power of guilt binds the living even to the dead.
In some families we find generations of such guilt that affect current family members. In some families the children feel utterly disconnected to their family members and feel “I do not belong”. In some cases this is also a form of survivor guilt that either has its guilt origins in the current generation or in the ancestral generations.
They often will not be able to point to a conscious or concrete reason why this is so but yet this feeling or conclusion dominates their sense of self. These children often may think they have been adopted even when they are born into that family. They may feel either guilt or exclusion from the family.
In the area of disconnection we find the problem of exclusion. It is true in some families that there are events and people who become excluded and around which a conscious or unconscious rule exists that states “we do not discuss this”.
To discuss this person or this event would violate the rules of belonging to that family or group and so this suppression means the person or event becomes forgotten and unacknowledged over time. It may exist as a secret. Events such as abuse, abortions, murder and major theft become buried and people such as the aborted baby, the murder victim, the sibling or parent “frozen out” of the family all become excluded.
While we can behaviourally exclude someone and an event in this way, we cannot do so at the systemic level. What happens is that the family or group system becomes out of balance as it now has a dynamic of an “exclusion” in place where that entity has a right to exist and be acknowledged, and an order in which it fits into the system.
The group or family system also has a form of conscience that “remembers” all that which is consciously or unconsciously the subject or a group or family trying to “forget” or “exclude” a member. In a way this is a layer of conscience that is larger than the previously described group conscience that operates at a more or less conscious level, even when it is unspoken in some ways.
The whole family or group system becomes out of order when exclusions occur. What has been found to occur is that subsequent generations then start to carry a theme or a pattern in that family or group which forces one or more members to “remember” the excluded one, often through re-creating the trauma that first occurred, or through experiencing disease or illness or the effect that occurred to that excluded member.
Common examples are multi-generational themes or patterns of suicide, depression, addictive behaviours, sickness, grief, self destructive behaviours, loss of wealth, divorce, infant death, or members placed in dangerous of life threatening situations. Sometimes there are “anniversary events” which are members acting out similar events to that of the original excluded event on the same day or anniversary of the original event.
Bert Hellinger and the other Family Constellation theorists and therapists of his era coined the notion “systemic conscience” to describe a larger whole or larger system that operates over time in families and in groups, and may be described as multi-generational. This aspect has often been described as being like the “collective unconscious” that Carl Jung first outlined in his own psychological work.
The idea is that if every family or group has conscious rituals, processes, rules, beliefs and values then it also has a related unconscious set of the same. This has already been partially referred to before but this aspect includes the influence and contribution of the ancestors or predecessors to that family or system. This aspect places the system first and the individual member second.
In this ordering principle we find that over time individuals may be sacrificed in order to preserve group balance and integrity. The systemic conscience serves the group and the integrity of that system. This means that we find that an individual in present time may have been “sacrificed” by the system to keep the system in integrity and in balance.
When this occurs it acts out in a way where our individual conscience and the systemic conscience suffer tension due to mis-alignment. This conflict creates irreconcilable tensions in the person. We saw previously how if that tension is at the individual versus the group conscience level we may find a person develops emotional and mental personality disorders over time.
If the conflict is at the individual versus the systemic conscience level we find that the person typically starts to behave in a way that is in conflict with their own personal conscience in relation to that family or group.
When the family or group consciously acts to violate the systemic balance or values and rules of the group then there will be systemic in-balance. The systemic conscience will act towards maintaining the integrity of the system, and will address what the family or group has attempted to disown or exclude or act out of integrity with itself.
In many families and groups including organisations we often find that exclusion and disowning are primary issues that come from personal and group level traumas on the system, which remain unresolved, bound in secrets, and which are then persistently moved to press for acknowledgement, redress and completion.
As an unconscious and multi-generational principle one does not typically feel this level of energy and consciousness through our conscious feeling senses. We do not feel the “guilt” in the same way that the conflicts between our individual conscience and group conscience evoke.
The symptoms of systemic conscience playing out on individual members of a current generation family or group can vary according to the nature of the exclusion or prior violation of the system. The primary unconscious energy of the systemic conscience appears to be the same blind loyalty and blind love that we have previously discussed.
These are the drivers that promote sacrifice by the individual to redress the systemic in-balance. Individuals unconsciously sacrifice themselves to the system to act out the compulsive symptoms of a system out of balance. Individuals will even sacrifice their health and their lives in this way to serve the system.
In a sense we find that just like a human body sending out pain signals to alert the person something is out of order, we also find that the systemic bodies we all are part of in family groups and other systems, also force individuals to compulsively signal out the pain of the body of systemic consciousness.
The act of unconscious sacrifice by a later generation individual for the sake of an earlier member does not personally help the earlier person who is typically dead and maybe forgotten. The systemic balancing mechanism takes its toll on later generations for no good individual outcome. That is why it is important to deal with the cause and cause cessation to this balancing impulse that imposes a sentence on the current generation.
We use Family Constellations processes to uncover the unconscious systemic balancing impulses which affect current generation individuals and families. Not all clients have this issue but many families have a legacy issue which is creating this disturbing effect. Family constellations works to make conscious, acknowledge and find the order and the place for that which is out of order.
We run Family and Organisational Constellation sessions and workshops. We work in the individual and group context with these systemic issues. Guilt is a common individual symptom that can allude to some family or group belonging issue, or a wider multi-generational issue. Please contact us if you would like to know more about such hidden dynamics that may be at work in your own life.