Self-punishment paranoia: 1916: Sigmund Freud

by Julia Evans on January 1, 1916

Quote from: Criminals from a Sense of Guilt[i]: Sigmund Freud: 1916

In telling me about their early youth, particularly before puberty, people who have afterwards often become very respectable have informed me of forbidden actions which they committed at that time – such as thefts, frauds and even arson. I was in the habit of dismissing these statements with the comment that we are familiar with the weakness of moral inhibitions at that period of life, and I made no attempt to find a place for them in any more significant context. But eventually I was led to make a more thorough study of such incidents by some glaring and more accessible cases in which the misdeeds were committed while the patients were actually under my treatment, and were no longer so youthful. Analytic work then brought the surprising discovery that such deeds were done principally because they were forbidden, and because their execution was accompanied by mental relief for their doer. He was suffering from an oppressive feeling of guilt, of which he did not know the origin, and after he had committed a misdeed this oppression was mitigated. His sense of guilt was at least attached to something.

Paradoxical as it may sound, I must maintain that the sense of guilt was present before the misdeed, that it did not arise from it, but conversely – the misdeed arose from the sense of guilt. These people might justly be described as criminals from a sense of guilt. The pre-existence of the guilty feeling had of course been demonstrated by a whole set of other manifestations and effects.

But scientific work is not satisfied with the establishment of a curious fact. There are two further questions to answer: what is the origin of this obscure sense of guilt before the deed, and is it probable that this kind of causation plays any considerable part in human crime?

An examination of the first question held out the promise of bringing us information about the source of mankind’s sense of guilt in general. The invariable outcome of analytic work was to show that this obscure sense of guilt derived from the Oedipus complex and was a reaction to the two great criminal intentions of killing the father and having sexual relations with the mother. In comparison with these two, the crimes committed in order to fix the sense of guilt to something came as a relief to the sufferers. We must remember in this connection that parricide and incest with the mother are the two great human crimes, the only ones which, as such, are pursued and abhorred in primitive communities. And we must remember, too, how close other investigations have brought us to the hypothesis that the conscience of mankind, which now appears as an inherited mental force, was acquired in connection with the Oedipus complex.


In order to answer the second question we must go beyond the scope of psycho-analytic work. With children it is easy to observe that they are often ‘naughty’ on purpose to provoke punishment, and are quiet and contented after they have been punished. Later analytic investigation can often put us on the track of the guilty feeling which induced them to seek punishment. Among adult criminals we must no doubt except those who commit crimes without any sense of guilt, who have either developed no moral inhibitions or who, in their conflict with society, consider themselves justified in their action. But as regards the majority of other criminals, those for whom punitive measures are really designed, such a motivation for crime might very well be taken into consideration; it might throw light on some obscure points in the psychology of the criminal, and furnish punishment with a new psychological basis.

A friend has since called my attention to the fact that the ‘criminal from a sense of guilt’ was known to Nietzsche too. The pre-existence of the feeling of guilt, and the utilization of a deed in order to rationalize this feeling, glimmer before us in Zarathustra’s sayings[ii] ‘On the Pale Criminal’. Let us leave it to future research to decide how many criminals are to be reckoned among these ‘pale’ ones.

[i] Quote from Chapter III of ‘Some Character-types met with in Psychoanalytic Work’ (1916): Standard Edition: published 1957 : v14: p309-333 or Penguin Freud Library v14 Art and Literature: p291-317. Chapter III is p317-319

[ii] In the editions before 1924, ‘obscure sayings’.

From James Strachey footnote:

–       A hint at the sense of guilt being a motive for misdeeds is already to be found in the case history of ‘Little Hans’ (1909b),

(Freud: Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy ‘Little Hans’ (1909b),: Standard Edition v10 p 1-149 or Penguin Freud Library v8: Case Histories I: p167-204 [p204 but he – Hans’ father – now recognized it as an expression of the little boy’s – Hans – hostile disposition towards him, and perhaps also as a manifestation of a need for getting punished for it.]) [Other texts with references to ‘Little Hans’ here]

as well as in that of the ‘Wolf Man’ (1918b):,

(Freud: From the History of an infantile neurosis (The ‘Wolf Man’) (1918[1914]) Standard Edition v17  p1-122 or Penguin Freud Library v9: Case Histories II: p227-345 [p257-258 When his father came home in the late summer or autumn, the patient’s fits of rage and scenes of fury were put to a new use. (They had served for active sadistic ends in relation to his Nanya;) in relation to his father their purpose was masochistic. By bringing his naughtiness forward, he was trying to force punishments and beatings out of his father, and in that way to obtain from him the masochistic sexual satisfaction that he desired. His screaming fits were therefore simply attempts at seduction. In accordance, moreover, with the motives which underlie masochism, this beating would also have satisfied his sense of guilt. He had preserved a memory of how, during one of these scenes of naughtiness, he had redoubled his screams as soon as his father came towards him. His father did not beat him, however, but tried to pacify him by playing ball in front of him with the pillows of his cot.

I do not know how often parents and educators, faced with inexplicable naughtiness on the part of a child, might not have occasion to bear this typical state of affairs in mind. A child who behaves in this unmanageable way is making a confession and trying to provoke punishment. He hopes for a beating as a simultaneous means of setting his sense of guilt at rest and of satisfying his masochistic sexual trend.])

Which, though published later than the present paper, was in fact mostly written in the year before it. In this latter passage the complicating factor of masochism is introduced.