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Local Chapter—Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology:

Division 39 of the American Psychological Association

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Guilt|by Linda Sherby, Ph.D, ABPP

03/15/2019 6:02 PM | Anonymous

In "Guilt" a therapist meets with a young woman who desperately strives to please her parents, blaming herself for falling short and giving them problems.

“I feel so awful, I can’t believe that I had to disappoint my parents. I can’t believe I couldn’t handle college, that I had to come home. My parents have always been there for me, always wanted the best for and all I do is screw up.”

This is my first session with Tiffany, a slender, attractive young woman with blue eyes and long blonde hair. Her mother, sounding concerned, had called to make the appointment, saying that Tiffany was having difficulty at Duke and needed to come home.

“I hate myself!” Tiffany continues.

“Wow! That’s pretty strong. Can you say why you hate yourself?”

“All I’ve done is give my parents problems my whole life, even before I was born. My mother had to be in bed for two months before she had me! She’s a physician – so’s my father – she can’t just take two months off. But she had to because of me.”

“That hardly sounds like your fault, Tiffany. I assume it was some medical condition your mother had.”

“She never had that problem with my brother. My brother never gives them problems. He’s graduating from Yale and going on to medical school. Of course!”

Clearly hearing her sense of competition and failure in relationship to her brother, I decide, for the moment, to focus more on her current situation. “Can you tell me what was going on for you at college?”     

“All those science courses! I can’t handle them. I’m just not smart enough. I started crying at every little thing. And I think I pretty much stopped eating. And then I couldn’t even get myself out of bed to go to class. Especially Chemistry class.  I don’t understand it. It makes me feel stupider than I already feel.”

“Are there classes that you enjoy, that you do well in?”

“Oh yes,” she says, brightening. “I love anthropology and I’m…hmm…I’m a pretty good writer.”

“So you take science courses because…?”

“What do you mean? I have to take science courses to get into medical school.”

“And do you want to go to medical school?”

“I’ve always known I’d go to medical school.”

“That’s not the same thing as wanting to go.”

“Yes, I want to go to medical school. I put my parents through a lot when I was a kid. I got rheumatic fever and ended up in the hospital for quite a while. I could tell how scared they were.”

“You must have been pretty scared too.”

“I was, particularly when I was alone. But the doctors and nurses were great. And I kind of enjoyed watching all the machines and monitors. That’s the kind of doctor I want to be, a pediatrician, to help kids like me.”

“And do your parents want you to be a doctor?”

“Definitely. It’s like a given.”

“So what if it wasn’t a given? What if you could decide to do anything you wanted to do?”

“I’d go on archeological digs and write about them or even write made-up stuff about the digs, like mysteries. But that’s not at all practical. No way to make a living.”  

“Have you ever wondered, Tiffany, why you feel so guilty in relation to your parents?”

“I told you why, I’ve always given them problems.  Besides rheumatic fever I was a sickly kid. And I broke my arm doing gymnastics. They always had to worry about me.”

“It seems that a lot of the things you feel guilty about you had absolutely no control over, like your mother needing bed rest or your having rheumatic fever or breaking your arm.”

“I was fooling around on the bar, that’s how I broke my arm.”

“You sound determined to have things be your fault. Do you think, Tiffany, if you felt things weren’t your fault, you’d end up feeling powerless and scared?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

Too soon for that interpretation I tell myself. I decide to pursue a different path. “Do you ever feel angry at all the pressure you’re under?”

“Angry? I don’t think so. I feel mad at myself for not being able to keep up and, like I said, worrying my parents.”

“So, now that you’re home, do you think you’re going to be able to relax and take it easy for the rest of the semester?”

“Oh no. My parents are going to get me a chemistry tutor so I can go back to school more prepared.”

At this point I find myself feeling angry at Tiffany’s parents and wonder if I’m feeling Tiffany’s unacknowledged  anger. That could explain the tremendous guilt she feels – guilt for the anger she doesn’t even know she has. But those interpretations are also premature.  

“Our time is almost up for today. But I hope I’ll be able to get to know you more and I hope you’ll tell me more about your wishes and your dreams, even if they aren’t always practical.”

“I wish you could make me smarter.”

“I don’t know if I can do that, but perhaps I can help you to be more accepting of yourself.”


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