As a baby or infant we are totally dependent on our parents for our needs - sustenance, security and very importantly, love. If we have any sense that these needs are not met, perhaps due to our parents emotional, health or own relationship problems, then we will feel that something is lacking. We can summarise this as the amount of bonding we experience in our early formative years - the lower the quality of bonding in our original family, the more likely we are to believe that love is scarce and even more critically that we lack love. The heartbreak and traumas around unmet needs in our original families can cause us to draw two very damaging conclusions:
1) My parents failed me
It is fairly easy to see that if our needs have not been met, we will feel let down. We end up feeling resentful towards our parents and may then blame them for their shortcomings and our problems in life.
2) I failed my parents
This second conclusion is much more surprising. The amount that we feel we have been let down in our relationship with our parents is balanced by the amount we believe we have failed them. This is one of the most important things we can ever learn about relationships. Even as children we take on a great responsibility for the quality of our relationships, particularly with our parents and siblings. If anything is going wrong in the family we will tend to blame ourselves.
Both these conclusions, usually held subconsciously create guilt and this can become accentuated later in life as we blame ourselves for letting other people down, say in romantic relationships or work situations. Not only do we fell guilty for not being good enough, but we also take on all our family's emotional pain and guilt that they have not been able to deal with in their lives. This causes us to sacrifice ourselves for other people rather than living our own life fully. We subconsciously decide that we can pay off our guilt by being in sacrifice to the people we love. You can see that guilt comes from a horrible tangle of misunderstanding about relationships!
The famous psychoanalyst Freud provided us with another concept - Oedipal guilt. Based on the Greek myth of Oedipus, where a son killed his father, and married his mother. Although such relationships are difficult to accept, given their societal taboos, most people are familiar with cases where a child is very closely attached to the parent of the opposite sex. When this happens the other parent feels excluded and that they have lost the love of their partner. This sets up a competitive triangle in which all parties have deep, suppressed guilt. This is felt strongly (for instance) where a son is guilty for having stolen his mother from his father. The same thing can happen between fathers and daughters. Many psychologists believe that the experience of being part of a triangle as children is replayed in our adult relationships in the form of affairs.
With such a potentially huge amount of guilt, it is not surprising that we move out into our world with low self-esteem - feeling we have been bad and don't deserve to receive life's riches - particularly love. These are very unpleasant sensations so we typically behave in ways that deny them and later we may hide them entirely from our conscious awareness. Unfortunately the low self-worth and guilt is still present in our unconscious memory and can easily sabotage our lives.
Although we made these choices about our self-worth many years ago, guilt acts as a backdrop to our adult lives. Guilt really is a terrible trap and one that most people are unaware they have. It manifests itself through a variety of thoughts, attitudes and negative behaviours that all try to compensate for the guilty feelings inside - essentially smokescreens to hide our guilt from the people around us and even ourselves. You will know you have layers of guilt, if your life is not full of success, loving relationships and a sense of peace and fulfillment. The dating and relationship issues that are contained in this site describe many of these compensations for guilt.
The key to healing guilt and low self-esteem is to understand what was happening in your original family, accept that you made mistaken choices about your self-worth and guilt. Above all you must find a way of forgiving yourself and the people around you for what happened all those years ago. To do this, try to accept that your parents were doing their very best for you given their own circumstances. They loved you dearly but there may have been times when they struggled to express this adequately or when life's challenges made things difficult for them. As you forgive and rediscover your innocence you will learn to love yourself - your life will take great leaps forward. This will automatically end your sacrifice because your guilt is no longer driving your behaviour.