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J Am Psychoanal Assoc. 2003 Spring;51(2):547-78.

Guilt about being born and debt concerning the gift of life.

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Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, USA.


A very powerful form of preoedipal guilt stems from a sense of having damaged the life-giving parent with one's most basic needs. A related phenomenon is the child's sense that another subjectivity has deliberately chosen to give and sustain the child's life. This experience gives rise to a compelling mixture of awe, reverence, and obligation, a sense of guilt about being born, of debt concerning the gift of life. This sense of guilt and debt are part of every child's development. Depending on how conflicts surrounding them are negotiated, the child can come to feel either an appetite for living or a crushing sense of selfishness and unworthiness. Such forms of guilt and debt may lead not only to masochism generally, but to a particularly pernicious form of negative therapeutic reaction that can sabotage psychoanalytic work. A patient may feel, for instance, that a successful psychoanalysis is a selfish indulgence and an immoral betrayal of a sacred duty to rescue his or her parents from their misery. Guilt about being born and the sense of debt concerning the gift of life are linked to various developmental, psychodynamic, interpersonal, and cultural phenomena.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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