Erik Erikson

German American psychologist, Erik Erikson, said that between the ages of two and five children go through a developmental crisis that he called initiative versus guilt. If parents consistently encourage a little boy or girl to explore new areas, talk with strangers and solve problems, the children are likely to develop initiative. Parents encourage such behavior by mirroring emotions and behavior that involve initiative taking.

If on the other hand, parents show that the child’s exploring new places autonomously worries them or that talking with strangers makes them uncomfortable, the child will learn to feel guilty about such behaviors.

Girls socialized relationally

Interestingly, we socialize girls to read and relate to others’ emotions more. Because of this girls often see themselves in relation to others. This happens so often that girls’ brains are shown to have more development in the areas specifically connected with relating.

According to Dr. Joan Borysenko, author of A Woman’s Book of Life, if parents tell a small female child a handful of times that her bold behavior causes them fear or anger, she will feel guilt and most likely stop the behavior. Most boys are scientifically proven to have fewer neural pathways in the socially relational parts of the brain (but increased pathways in the spatial relation areas). They will not read their parents’ faces as well and therefore do not feel the guilt at the same level as most girls. Therefore, they are more free to act autonomously.

To be clear, both boys and girls have the same level of interest in independence and outgoing behavior; it is just that girls have been socialized to be more responsive to others and will feel discomfort from their caregivers more strongly.

Highly sensitive people more prone to guilt?

I am going to hypothesize that highly sensitive people have a more developed ability to sense other’s emotions therefore making us more likely to avoid or minimize behavior that does not agree with our important people.

The ultimate fear

Making our parents feel anger, fear or sadness makes us limit our “upsetting behavior”. Ultimately, we do not want our caregivers or ourselves to feel shame. We do not want our parents to abandon us — the ultimate death to most people.


When we keep ourselves small to avoid upsetting our primary caregivers, we grow up believing we are helpless and unable to bring about change in the world and our lives. This breeds passivity, depression and pessimism. Stress is more common in those who follow the guilt path versus the initiative one.

I was a colicky baby and stressed my mother out from the very beginning. I cried a lot, so I am told. I was always very in tune with my parent’s emotions. If my mom seemed overwhelmed or upset, I felt a dire need to soothe her. If my dad raised his voice, tears sprang to my eyes. I definitely felt a need to keep in the good graces of my parents.

My sister was the second child, and in my opinion, received a looser, more initiative encouraging upbringing. She was praised for being outspoken and for ‘always getting into things.’

Of the two of us, I would say I have the more neuroses. 😉

Notice what you are teaching

If you are a parent of young children, notice where you put your praise and acknowledgment. If you have a daughter, take extra effort to appreciate her exploring and initiative taking. Teach her that bold behavior is admirable.

Were you raised to take initiative or to feel guilt? How do you act now? 


Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash