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Let Go of the Guilt: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Take Back Your Joy
by Valorie Burton
Learn More | Meet Valorie Burton
What Are You Feeling Guilty About?
The First Step to Conquering Your Guilt Is Naming It
- What are the three truths of guilt?
- Do you have authentic guilt or false guilt?
- What’s on your guilt list?
I had just finished a keynote message to a group of three thousand women leaders from hundreds of top companies around the world, and I felt energized as I walked off the stage. I had talked about how successful women think differently, a topic at the core of my purpose. But the organization had also requested that I do a breakout session—a coaching workshop on something that wasn’t my typical topic. “Work-Life Balance for Working Parents,” they called it.
While I had written about time and busyness, I didn’t consider myself an expert on parenting or working parenthood. I was forty before I became a parent. I was still trying to navigate these waters, learning to write books and travel and run a business with young kids at home. It wasn’t easy. So as I began the breakout session, I decided to be totally transparent.
“Listen,” I began. “I’m a life coach. So I am going to share some powerful questions to coach you to find answers that will help you create some harmony between the demands of your work life and your personal life. But let me be honest,” I continued almost apologetically. “Even when I implement my own answers, I sometimes feel an underlying conflict: guilt. Anyone else here ever feel guilty?”
The reaction was immediate: Moans. Eye rolls. Heads nodding up and down. As the women looked around the room at each other and saw the collective reaction, hands began to fly up. I had struck a nerve, and they wanted to talk about it. Each woman I called on gave voice to her guilt. And the nods and groans of the other women around the room confirmed they were not alone in their feelings. Their dilemmas were varied, but the feeling of guilt was the same.
“Every month I travel one week for work,” a first-time mom explained. “I leave my nine-month-old baby. My husband takes good care of her, and I was doing fine with our arrangement at first, but all the questions and comments from other women constantly get to me. The little remarks are what get me—the passive-aggressive stuff like, ‘I don’t know how you’re away from home so much. I couldn’t do it.’ At work I keep my guilt to myself because I’m afraid it’ll jeopardize my opportunity for promotion.”
“I feel guilty I’m not there more for my parents,” another woman said, sounding both ashamed and exhausted. “They live about 150 miles away. They’re getting older, and I should visit them more, but I’m too busy. What kind of daughter is too busy to visit her aging parents?”
“I was the first in my family to graduate from college, so sometimes I feel guilty about my success,” a woman in her early thirties chimed in. “I’m the go-to person whenever anyone in my family has a problem, especially a financial one. And because I don’t have children, it’s like everyone thinks I should help all the time. I feel guilty because they’re struggling, but if I keep bailing them out, I will never make progress on my own goals.”
“I feel guilty that I didn’t prepare my kids to ‘launch,’ ” a fiftysomething executive said with a wistful chuckle, referring to her two adult children living at home. “I did too much for them. I think I felt guilty about them having to deal with being in a single-parent household, so I went easy on them. I am driven and responsible, but somehow I didn’t pass that on to my kids like I should have.”
As each woman shared her story, others nodded in understanding. I, too, struggled with guilt. Long before I ever had mom guilt, I had plain old guilt-guilt. My guilt list was long: Life coach guilt. Divorce guilt. Procrastination guilt. Could-have-done-it-better guilt. Spending guilt. Boss guilt. Ambition guilt.
I chose a profession in which my life is a laboratory for the work I do. So I told myself that if I was going to be coaching others and writing books, I shouldn’t have any struggles; I’m the one who helps others overcome theirs. From clutter and procrastination to relationship challenges and money, I was supposed to have all the answers—which meant that I didn’t allow myself much grace to be human.
Of course, this type of guilt isn’t unique to life coaching and psychology professionals; we see it in the nurse who doesn’t eat healthy, the accountant who messes up her own finances, or the stay-at-home mom who feels she never measures up to motherhood perfection. We can beat ourselves up even more when we don’t measure up to ideals.
Guilt robs you of your rights. As a life coach, I told myself I didn’t have the right to not know the answers to a challenge. I also felt I’d lost the right to have drive; I sometimes felt guilty about having big goals. Even though I felt my goals were purpose driven, there were days doubts crept in and I questioned whether the goals were selfish. So when these women started sharing their guilt lists, I nodded right along with them.
It wasn’t until that day, in that room, that I realized just how strongly other women seemed to feel similar feelings, and that we are dealing with a wide array of what I like to call guilt dilemmas—the situations in our lives that trigger feelings of guilt. To test whether the feedback at the workshop was just a fluke, I started mentioning guilt at speaking engagements and in coaching sessions and everyday conversations. Sure enough, each time I’d mention guilt, the response was a heavy sigh.
I wanted to hear more perspectives, so I surveyed more than five hundred women on the topic. What were they feeling guilty about exactly? Here is just a glimpse of what some had to say.
- People think I’m successful because I have a professional career with a good income. However, I feel like a complete failure because I abandoned everything that makes me smile to have a “secure” life. At forty, I now wish I’d had the courage to be fueled by faith and walk out the simple yet unique vision God trusted me with. It hurts to my core when people applaud my “success” because I don’t feel I’ve pleased the one who matters most—God.
- I carry the guilt of making it out of the projects, high school, and college, and not returning home. Buying a home and making it on my own, I feel guilty that I made it out and my family did not.
- Guilt ends up making me do a lot. It doesn’t keep me from others or from responsibilities, it keeps me from me. . . . I don’t rest, I don’t relax, I don’t exercise. I just give more of myself, my time, my work, my capacity to everyone else. I am capable and see more need and more opportunity, so I push harder.
- I’ve been on disability a few years due to an autoimmune condition that causes severe weakness. At times my husband has had to carry me upstairs and assist me with daily activities because the weakness was so debilitating. My husband is younger than I am, so at times I live with the guilt of being a burden to him and our son.
- Until I took your survey, I didn’t realize how much guilt I carried on so many topics! Maybe I need to go back and see if this is what’s holding me back, and learn to let go.
In fact, the survey showed that we feel guilty about a lot of different things, such as:
- Exercise habits (65 percent of participants)
- Past choices (64 percent)
- Eating habits (62 percent)
- Money habits (59 percent)
- Spiritual habits (not praying, trusting, studying, or meditating enough) (48 percent)
- Not practicing more self-care (48 percent)
- Not being more productive (48 percent)
- Parenting (42 percent)
- Not living up to expectations (41 percent)
- Work (37 percent)
Three Truths of Guilt
There are three basic truths about guilt. If you’ll come back to these concepts anytime you begin to feel guilty, you will understand better what is going on emotionally and how you should approach the issue. For now, read these three truths and commit them to memory:
Guilt is a debt.
Guilt is an opportunity.
I’ll break down each of these truths in a moment, but first, say them out loud: Guilt is a message. Guilt is a debt. Guilt is an opportunity.
1. Guilt Is a Message
Guilt is information. It is your conscience trying to tell you that either:
- you caused harm or did something wrong, or
- you are telling yourself you caused harm or did something wrong even though you haven’t.
Your job is to accurately read the message of guilt so you can take the right next step to address it appropriately.
Remember this: if you misread the message of guilt, you will react in ways that are unhealthy and counterproductive.
2. Guilt Is a Debt
Guilt means you owe something. Just as a defendant found guilty deserves a sentence, guilt tells you there is a consequence to your actions or lack of actions. Someone must be compensated. You must give up something—your rights, your freedom, your money, your voice. It might mean you do not deserve the good you might otherwise enjoy if you were not guilty.
Remember this: guilt costs you something, and that cost can drive the decisions you make when you feel guilty.
3. Guilt Is an Opportunity
Most powerfully, guilt is an opportunity to change something or accept something. It is up to you to decide which it will be. Rather than using guilt to beat yourself up and make decisions, intentionally choose your response to it. Be curious about guilt, and use it as a chance to
- clarify your values and expectations;
- forgive or be forgiven;
- set or strengthen your boundaries;
- have meaningful conversations;
- grow spiritually and strengthen your faith; or
- be a more courageous, authentic, better version of yourself.
Seeing guilt as an opportunity can bring you hope. Hope energizes you. It shifts your perspective. It helps you set new goals for what your life could be. It empowers you to see that all things can work together for good, that there is purpose in your pain.
Remember this: you have a choice in how you respond to guilt.
What Is Guilt?
Guilt, in the purest sense, is a feeling that indicates we’ve done something wrong and have caused harm in some way. The guilty party is the one who is at fault. Cambridge Dictionary describes guilt this way:
A feeling of anxiety or unhappiness that you have done something wrong or immoral.1
It’s not just an emotional feeling; it’s a physical one. You can feel guilt as your heart races, thoughts of consequences fluttering through your mind. You can feel it in your churning stomach, upset with regret about what you did or didn’t do. You can feel it in your tight shoulders as you dread that conversation with the person who is laying a guilt trip on you.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary makes two interesting distinctions about guilt in its definition:
- The state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
- Feelings of deserving blame, especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.2
So there is the guilt we experience when we do something wrong or commit “an offense.” An offense can be a predetermined, agreed-upon set of rules—whether actual laws or expectations within a family, society, institution, or any other social construct. Then there is the guilt that we feel even when we have not actually committed an offense. This is more subjective and is based on an individual’s values, strengths, and expectations.
In essence, guilt is anything you feel you need to apologize for, even if it doesn’t warrant an apology. This is particularly true of guilt trips. (We’ll spend a whole chapter on getting over those in a bit.)
Guilt as a Spiritual Concept
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word asam means “guilt” and also “guilt offering.”3 It points to the idea of guilt not as an act but as a relational concept. Guilt is about the relationship between parties. Whereas individual sin is seen as an act of personal failure, guilt is the indebtedness that results from the breach in relationship that such acts cause. Since my sin against you caused harm, there is a breach in the relationship, and I am indebted until I repair that breach, if repair is possible. The focus of guilt from this perspective is on the idea of indebtedness: when you do wrong, you must pay for that wrongdoing. Asam—used for both guilt and the offering to absolve it—reflects this concept. If you are guilty, you owe.
But according to biblical scholars, the word asam does not appear in the New Testament at all.4 Nor is there an equivalent word found in the New Testament. The ideas of restitution and indebtedness do not go away. Instead, if someone has sinned against us—or caused harm—we are to let it go. Forgive. And likewise, when we are guilty, God forgives us. In some versions of the Lord’s Prayer, “sins” are instead “debts” as we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 NIV). As a young child, I remember learning the prayer and praying the line, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”5 and asking my grandmother what that big word trespass meant. It sure sounded important. I didn’t realize at such a young age just how profound those words were and how they made my faith different from so many others. Forgiveness is a central theme of Christianity, and the New Testament directly deals with guilt through the once-and-for-all guilt offering of a guiltless Savior. The struggle ever since has been to get the rest of us on board with the idea that we are forgiven—that the lingering feeling of guilt is a self-imposed debt.
What did you learn about guilt in your upbringing? What spiritual messages did you hear, and how have they influenced your feelings of guilt? Your experiences of faith and guilt as a young person can influence how you feel today, for better or worse.
I grew up Catholic. I’ll never forget how worried I was when I started going to confession after I was confirmed in the church at eight years old. I was told I would go to confession on a regular basis to tell the priest all the stuff I’d done wrong so that we could say some prayers and then God would forgive me. But that seemed daunting. How on earth was I going to remember everything? Should I keep a running list? What if I forgot something? Granted, the guilt I felt was over third-grade level wrongdoing, like not finishing my homework or sliding a few pieces of steamed okra into my napkin at dinner.
I went to my mom with my concerns. “What happens if I don’t tell him everything?” I asked her. “Like what if I just have three sins on my list, but I really have five sins? What happens then? Am I going to be in big trouble with God?” My mom didn’t have any answers because deep down she didn’t really think it made sense that I needed to go to a priest to be forgiven rather than talking to God directly, but she didn’t say that at the time. So I dutifully kept track of my sins, hoping to be absolved of my guilt every few weeks.
Depending on the messages you’ve heard, either while growing up or well into adulthood, the guilt you feel may be more psychological in effect as you carry the weight of indebtedness for not living up to the rules and expectations of your faith.
Guilt Means “You Owe”
One underlying theme consistently predicts our behavior as it relates to guilt: guilt tells us we owe. Guilt is a debt; therefore it compels us to make an offering of some sort. Whether that offering is a simple apology or an obligation to do something we don’t really want to do or a willingness to excuse behavior we wouldn’t otherwise excuse, the actions we take when we feel guilty are our offering. If the word offering doesn’t speak to you, then consider some of these other words that convey a similar behavior:
- obligating yourself in some way
- excusing otherwise inexcusable behavior, attitudes, or relationship dynamics
- “making it up to someone” for the perceived problem you’ve caused
- accepting unfair treatment as deserved and acceptable
- being overresponsible while allowing others to be underresponsible
When the guilt we feel is false—meaning we didn’t actually do something wrong but feel as though we did—we still feel compelled to compensate in some way, and that can show up in our decisions, words, and actions on a daily basis.
“I owe” can also manifest as “I don’t deserve,” “I don’t belong,” and “I have not done enough.” And because of these refrains, issues such as perfectionism, insecurity, fear, and comparison begin to surface. It’s easy not to recognize it at first, but guilt is often the first domino in a multitude of emotionally toxic behaviors. And this is why we each must go on our own journey toward letting go.
If you think of guilt in the most traditional sense of the word, you might think of a courtroom where a person stands accused of a crime. Evidence is presented. A defense is made. A judgment is rendered. If found guilty, a sentence will be handed down.
Our culture has varying opinions about the roles women should play, how those roles should be carried out, and for whose benefit. Many of these opinions are steeped in family tradition and religion, some are derived from the women’s movement and images portrayed in media, and others play out right in our own neighborhoods, jobs, or places of worship. It is hard not to be affected by the role models and expectations all around us.
As women, we often unconsciously put ourselves on trial. What do we stand accused of? Exaggerated charges of failing to meet self-imposed expectations. And when we are found guilty, we are sentenced to punishment—often self-inflicted, sometimes indefinite.
When Kim started feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work and commitments she’d taken on, she kept her stress to herself out of guilt. These were the charges:
- As a licensed psychologist, she didn’t practice what she preached. Guilty.
- When her clients came in feeling overwhelmed, they expected someone who was not overwhelmed themselves. So she was a hypocrite. Guilty.
- Her job was helping people be happier. She wasn’t feeling happy when she should be happy. Guilty.
- Beating herself up.
- Not allowing herself to take breaks until she got through all the commitments she’d taken on.
- Not being able to enjoy other aspects of life until she straightened out her work life.
- Refusing or deflecting all compliments.
When Kari’s marriage ended after her husband’s addiction consumed his life, including his lucrative job, she put herself on trial. These were the charges:
- Making a poor choice of husband. Guilty.
- Failing to find another father for her children. Guilty.
- Hurting her children because now they’d grow up without a father due to her poor choice. Guilty.
- Working long hours in a demanding career to make as much money as possible in order to compensate for the damage she’d done.
- Relinquishing her right to be happy. She didn’t deserve happiness after the choice she made.
- Remarrying for the children, not for love.
Terrie spent her twenties finishing college and getting her career off the ground. She loved her work and was passionate about it when she met her future husband. One of the things he loved about her was her independence and passion for living with purpose. But even though she didn’t verbalize it, Terrie saw marriage and motherhood as confinement. So as soon as they married, she constantly put herself on trial in her head. The charges?
- Not keeping a clean enough house. Guilty.
- Desiring to pursue her work goals, not just family goals. Guilty.
- Doing anything for herself to rejuvenate and reenergize. Guilty.
- Always working around the house, staying busy cleaning, cooking, and child-rearing, especially when her husband arrived home after work.
- Suppressing her professional aspirations.
- Abandoning self-care altogether, saying it’s selfish.
For years, women’s roles were clearly and narrowly defined. In the last fifty years especially, those roles have been challenged and changed in multiple ways. As we have stepped into roles that do not fit within traditions of the past, conflicting opinions and messages leave much more room for doubt. Many women can relate to the feeling that they are doing things differently from their mothers or other matriarchs in their families. So even when they have previous generations’ full support, the knowledge that their choices are different can create a sense of self-judgment and self-evaluation that leads to guilt: Maybe I’m doing this wrong. Maybe the way they did it was better or right.
Consider what Terrie told me about her own mom when she described marriage and motherhood as “confinement.”
“My mom would say, ‘I don’t have friends. I spend my life with my kids.’ There were nine of us and I was the youngest,” she explained. “To this day, she still says, ‘I stayed home with my kids.’ She is prideful about it. And it was a subtle admonishment that that’s what her daughters were supposed to do too.”
Terrie said it almost feels as though she sometimes repeats it in order to feel better about the fact that she gave up so much. “She’s in her eighties now and doesn’t have many friends. I think she would have liked to pursue some personal interests, but she didn’t. I don’t want that for myself or my daughters.”
Terrie acknowledged that she often puts herself on trial. Perhaps it is the voice of her mother. Perhaps it is the echo of that message in her church. But even when others don’t put us on trial, we often put ourselves on trial. And, it seems, men simply don’t—or at least not as often as women.
False Guilt Versus Authentic Guilt
The kind of guilt that led me to write this book is not the guilt of actually doing something wrong. What compelled me is the consistent heavy sigh I get when I mention the subject of guilt to women. It is the sigh of what I call “false guilt,” the feeling of guilt even though you haven’t actually done something wrong.
It’s not that we don’t do things for which we genuinely need to make amends. We do. But the overwhelming amount of mental and emotional energy we spend feeling guilty about our everyday lives—about the real and legitimate choices we make in our families and our careers, about taking time for ourselves, about not living up to some societal standard of feminine perfection, and about the roles we are supposed to play in our relationships—that leads to false guilt. The pressure is real, and so are the draining feelings of guilt.
So when I use the word guilt in this book, I am referring, quite simply, to the feeling that you have done something wrong. I use the word feeling intentionally because, as we discussed, you can feel guilty without actually being guilty. And quite frankly, you can be guilty without feeling guilty. Feeling guilty without being guilty drives self-sabotaging behaviors, drives dysfunctional relationships, and creates the low-level anxiety that leaves you feeling you ought to know better, do better, and be better. It causes us to beat ourselves up for never quite getting it right, whatever we think “right” is. This feeling of guilt is what I call false guilt. So throughout the book, when I talk about guilt, assume that I am talking about false guilt unless I explicitly say authentic guilt.
Authentic guilt is real. It is the guilt we ought to feel when we do something wrong or cause harm. While we will talk about guilt for things we’ve actually done wrong and what to do in those instances, most of this book is about false guilt. It is about the nagging feeling that you should be doing better somehow. The operative word here is should—that berating word that tells us we don’t measure up and therefore need to make up for it somehow.
Authentic guilt isn’t so much a feeling but a fact. You yelled at your child out of frustration. You forgot to call your sister on her birthday. You messed up a project at work. You might feel false guilt about each of these events, but whether or not you are guilty of them isn’t up for question. You are. They happened. And the right thing to do is to own up to it and do what you can to make amends and keep it from happening again. But even in these instances where you’ve done something wrong, moving forward means letting go after you’ve paid your debt so you can be free.
False guilt, by contrast, shows up in the mundane of everyday life. It’s the constant “I’m sorry” even when there’s nothing to be sorry for. I recently watched a young woman trying to get down the narrow aisle to her seat on an airplane say “Sorry” to pretty much everyone she passed. Two hundred people on the plane with oversized bags trying to get to their seats, but she was the only one on the plane apologizing. What was she sorry for? Taking up space, I suppose. Subconsciously, when we apologize, we are saying that we’re causing a problem or causing harm, so each time you hear yourself saying it, be willing to ask, What problem did I cause here? If there is none, perhaps another phrase besides “I’m sorry” is in order.
What False Guilt Looks Like
I mentioned several examples earlier of women whose false guilt led to decisions with major consequences, and in each instance, the refrain of “I owe” was loud and clear, even if they did not consciously declare it. As Nicole went through counseling to recover from the aftermath of a divorce, part of her healing journey was to trace her steps in order to better understand how she ended up in a marriage that failed. She was reluctant at first to admit it, but she’d had reservations about the relationship both before and after her engagement, and she’d chosen to ignore her misgivings and get married anyway. In fact, she’d been engaged twice. The first time was a few years earlier. That time, she paid attention to the warning signs and broke off the engagement. Her boyfriend was so devastated, Nicole says, he refused to accept it, and the breakup dragged on for months as she explained in a multitude of ways that she did not see a future for them. She apologized. She felt horrible. He begged her to reconsider and asked what he could do to change her mind. Rather than set a clear boundary, she acquiesced to his pleas out of guilt rather than confirming what she’d already said. So it took months of emotional, back-and-forth conversations before she finally ended it. And after she did, she felt absolutely horrible. She and her boyfriend had become engaged within months of meeting, and she explained how it progressed too quickly. She felt too young and not ready to be married, but he appeared to genuinely not understand her perspective and seemed deeply wounded by her decision. She’d never intentionally hurt him or anyone like this, but she had to be true to herself.
As if Nicole didn’t feel badly enough already, her mother made comments that made her feel even guiltier about it—comments she repeated almost anytime the subject of that broken engagement came up. “Poor guy. You really broke his heart,” she’d say almost jokingly, but Nicole knew there was a hint of seriousness in the comments. His heart had been broken, even if it hadn’t been her intention.
A few years later, her former fiancé found his way back into her life. By this point, Nicole had begun to doubt her prospects for love, as she was now thirty and none of her relationships had led to marriage. In her mind, she should have been married by now. The operative word here is should. She’d begun beating herself up because “the one” had not come along. She’d started to believe comments from acquaintances and family members that she was “too picky” or “more interested in a career” than love. The comments stung. She had high standards, but she felt that was important if she was to consider being with someone for the rest of her life. She loved her career and she was good at it, but not to the detriment of her personal life. The comments had started to get to her, and she’d found herself even repeating them in conversations with friends. “Maybe I am too picky after all. Maybe I’m not being realistic with my expectations. Maybe I need to play down my career. I mean, I don’t think I talk about it too much, but maybe I do . . .” The refrain I am not enough began to echo in her thoughts.
She still had doubts that her former fiancé was the right one for her, but time can change people, and she hoped both of them had changed in the right ways. There must be a reason we’ve crossed paths again after all this time, she thought. So she decided to give him a second chance. That’s where guilt tripped her up.
During the healing process after the divorce, she looked back over the steps that led her to get married. That’s when she pinpointed a pivotal decision that was entirely driven by guilt. Still feeling guilty about the breakup years earlier, and sensing her former fiancé was still wounded by it, she basically made a pact with herself.
“We were on a dinner date,” Nicole remembered. “It was probably only the third time we’d seen each other since reconnecting. I still felt deeply guilty about the pain I’d caused him when I broke off the engagement back then. All those years later, I was hesitant to go out with him because I felt I could break his heart again. And if I was to be fair, I at least owed it to him not to get his hopes up. We had a conversation over dinner about the relationship and whether to give it another try. I agreed we could date again, but deep down I told myself I wasn’t just agreeing to date. I was agreeing to marry him. Since his feelings for me had not changed over the years, I knew that dating would lead to another proposal. So I felt it would be leading him on to agree to date, and then reject the proposal that would eventually come. My guilt left me feeling I owed him a relationship free of the risk of another breakup.”
Nicole was stunned by this admission. It was a silent agreement she made with herself when they decided to date again: You owe him for breaking his heart. You cannot do that again.
Being even more honest with herself, she admitted she entered into a relationship with someone who reinforced her guilt and used it to manipulate her. The marriage had been emotionally abusive, and even though she didn’t see it at the time, it had started that way. She made excuses for him in a way she didn’t for other people. She felt sorry for him, in part, because he always made a point of reminding her that her upbringing was easier than his, and this became an excuse for his narcissistic rage, emotional outbursts, and continuous harsh criticisms. And it all began when Nicole bought into the idea that she owed a debt, rather than forgiving herself for getting engaged too quickly and giving herself the grace to be human and learn from her mistakes. Had she done that, she would not have felt she owed anything, let alone agreed to a marriage she didn’t feel entirely at peace about.
When “I Owe” Turns into “I Don’t Deserve”
Sherri’s variation on “I owe” was “I don’t deserve.” She wouldn’t broach the topic of a raise with her boss, even though it had been three years since she’d gotten her last pay raise. She loved her job. The company was small, but the benefits were great, including the flexibility to arrange her schedule the way she wanted. But her responsibilities had significantly increased while her pay was stagnant. She seemed to feel that she owed the company for the opportunities they’d given her. She had flexibility and money in the bank—more than she’d ever had. She had also worked hard gaining the education and skills to get to the point where she could earn more, something she didn’t give herself a lot of credit for. She rationalized that she didn’t necessarily deserve more money just because she had taken on more responsibilities.
I know that others who contribute the way I do make more, she thought. Still, I make more than most people in my family, so I think I feel like I’m being greedy to ask for a raise. Besides, my boss is easy to work for. It’s a great company. So Sherri stayed quiet. She settled for less than she deserved.
The internal refrain of “I owe” in response to feelings of guilt can control your behavior and create consequences that leave you in situations that are unhealthy or unbalanced and take years to overcome. Nicole spent years in a marriage that failed. Sherri gave up thousands of dollars in income over the years, money that could have been used for her family, to eliminate debt, build up an emergency fund, or bless others.
“I Should Know Better / Do Better / Be Better” (or “I Don’t Measure Up”)
Let me take you back to a morning not that long ago, before I decided to stop beating myself up so much and reclaim my joy. Maybe you’ve had a day like this.
This is how the morning started: I’m in a deep sleep, dreaming about something I won’t remember in a few minutes. I must be outside in this dream because I hear a bird softly chirping and a breeze rustling the leaves in a forest. It sounds like the bird has a friend or two. Wait a minute. He’s got a whole family. And their chirping is getting louder and . . .
Dog-gone it! It’s my alarm.
I’d set it on that gentle forest sound because I hate to wake up in a state of shock, my slumber interrupted by sudden, blaring buzzers or loud music. So nature sounds it is. And this morning the birds have entered my dreams. Well, I’m half awake. Awake enough to know it’s time to get up. Awake enough to begrudgingly recall the ambitious morning workout I planned.
But I’m not ready yet. So, still half asleep, I have a conversation in my head.
This is the morning I’m supposed to get up early to work out before anyone else gets up. It’s still pitch black outside. I’ll get a head start on my day if I just sit up right now and swing my legs over the . . .
I take a deep breath and sigh. It’s a sigh of guilt because I know exactly what I am about to do. I pull my hand from under the covers and reach over and feel for my alarm clock. I know I shouldn’t, but I hit the snooze button. The negative emotions wash over me like an extra layer of sheets in my otherwise cozy bed.
Just seconds into my day and I am already feeling guilty.
But that’s just the beginning. I miss my workout. Guilt.
My mother calls. When I answer, she says, “Oh, I thought you’d be working by now.” She’s right. I thought I would too, but I’m late! Guilt.
I notice the date on my phone. Oh no. It is the day after my high school BFF’s birthday, and I forgot to call her yesterday. Guilt.
Later, while driving, I have a moment at a red light and don’t resist the urge to pick up my phone and check my latest social media post. Guilt.
I get to work and open an e-mail from my son’s teacher. I forgot to sign the field trip form and the trip is today. Guilt.
I see news of a similar business to mine launching something new. Rather than being intrigued, I immediately feel like I am not doing enough in my own business. Guilt.
You get the picture. These feelings of guilt were so automatic that I wasn’t really conscious of them. I just had a continuous feeling of not measuring up and a belief that I could do better if I just got my act together. It was a familiar narrative, a story I often told myself, until I became aware of my thoughts and began to change them. Guilt isn’t always about feeling indebted to another person. Often it is about feelings of not measuring up to our own expectations, including the expectations we believe God has of us.
Authentic Guilt Is a Spiritual Guide; False Guilt Is a Spiritual Detour
From a spiritual perspective, false guilt isn’t even “your” guilt. It is a weapon the Enemy uses to steal your joy, condemn the very essence of who you are, and even kill your dreams. If that sounds dramatic, it’s because it is. The very mission of the Enemy is to kill, steal, and destroy (John 10:10). And that is exactly what the lies of false guilt do. Unlike authentic guilt, false guilt is a feeling, not a fact. It is the condemnation that whispers, “You are not enough. You’re not doing enough. You never get it right. You should be ashamed. You need to pay.”
But even when you have made a mistake or done something wrong, authentic guilt changes nothing until it leads you to act differently. Conviction about your behavior and a sincere decision to change is what God is after. The Enemy knows that if you wallow in guilt, you will waste your precious time. If you believe your guilt makes you unworthy, the Enemy has won. You won’t glean wisdom from your experience or turn the pain into purpose. Instead, you’ll see guilt as proof that you have no purpose.
The Five Thought Patterns of Guilt
The good news is, cognitive behavioral research shows that if you change your thoughts, you can change your emotions.6 This is true of guilt as much as any other emotion. So when you become aware that you are inaccurately interpreting your actions as harmful to others, you can reframe your thinking and choose a more accurate view of the situation. By changing your thoughts, you can change how you feel—you can stop feeling guilty and even start feeling joy. We’ll talk about exactly how to do that in the coming chapters. For now, I want you to take note of the thoughts that lead to guilt.
To feel guilty, you must have a thought that causes you to feel that way. That thought is an interpretation of events. It is an allegation, an accusation, and, ultimately, the conclusion you draw about the dilemma you face. I have identified some thought patterns that lead to guilt. While you may word your thoughts differently, they likely fall under one of the following five thought patterns:
Thought Pattern 1: “I did something wrong.”
The most basic cause of guilt is feeling badly for wrongdoing. The concept of “wrong” is shaped by your personal values. Values are what you deem important and meaningful. These values are informed by a variety of sources—your upbringing, your faith, and your culture, to name a few. What you see as wrong, someone with different values may not. And what someone else sees as wrong, you may not. On a societal level, the concept of “wrong” is shaped by laws and institutional or organizational norms. Whether or not you personally think something is wrong, you may be deemed guilty because the larger entity has defined right and wrong. Others can declare you did something wrong, but if your values don’t align with theirs, you won’t feel guilty.
Thought Pattern 2: “I believe I caused harm to someone or something.”
Interpreting your behavior as harmful, even if it is not, generates feelings of guilt. This thought pattern is relational. You feel bad not only because you believe you did something wrong but also because what you did caused pain or a problem for someone else. The consequences are felt by others, not just by you.
Thought Pattern 3: “I didn’t do enough.”
When you think you haven’t done enough, you feel guilty. This can apply in situations where you believe you should help someone, such as an ill loved one, a down-on-their-luck coworker, or even your own child. It can also apply to the expectations you set about how hard you should work and the effort you should put into a project or task. These thoughts are driven by your judgment of how much is enough. So while one person may think they’ve done plenty, someone who has done more can feel they’ve not done enough.
Thought Pattern 4: “I have more than someone else.”
Guilt about good fortune emerges from the thought that others are suffering while you are prospering. The underlying thought is that perhaps you have an unfair advantage or have received blessings you do not deserve, or that others have experienced misfortune they do not deserve. These thoughts can occur even when you have made good choices that led to good fortune while someone else made poor choices that led to misfortune. The awareness that an element of divine favor has played a role in your good fortune can contribute to these thoughts that the way things have worked out is unfair, that you’re just lucky, and you’re enjoying more than your fair share of blessings while others have less. After all, why have you been blessed while someone else hasn’t?
Thought Pattern 5: “I didn’t do something, but I wanted to.”
You think about doing things that are wrong. You haven’t actually done anything, but the fact that you’ve daydreamed about it or considered it can cause you to feel guilty. Or maybe it wasn’t even a conscious act. You had a dream that you wanted something or did something that goes against your values, and when you woke up, you remembered your thoughts. This thought pattern also applies when you wanted to do something good but didn’t follow through. You feel guilty because you never got around to carrying out that good intention.
Don’t Let Guilt Make Decisions
Here’s the first thing I learned about guilt when I decided it was time to let it go: it was often harder to control the feelings of guilt than it was to control what I chose to do because of those feelings. So I realized I needed to learn to separate my feelings from my actions.
As you journey through life, you might not be able to control whether these thought patterns show up on any given day. Sometimes a thought just comes out of nowhere and tags along for the ride. But it is your decision whether you allow it to get in the driver’s seat and start controlling your choices.
By becoming aware of its presence, you can intentionally disarm guilt. Don’t ignore guilty feelings. Instead, talk to them—boldly: I see you there, but I choose not to listen to you. You don’t get to make any choices for me. I will actively work to get rid of you, but even if I don’t, know that you do not get to make decisions for me.
Label Your Guilt
Naming or “labeling” your emotions can be an extremely important step to taking control of them, according to researchers.7 Labeling an emotion when it rises within you creates distance between the emotion and your response to it in a matter of seconds.8 This is especially important when dealing with a negative emotion such as guilt, because of the tendency to want to react based on the emotion.
Imagine for a moment a decision you’ve made out of guilt. Now, imagine if you had simply stopped for five seconds before making that decision, said “That’s guilt,” and then followed your acknowledgment with a conscious pause and a deep breath.
UCLA researcher Matthew Leiberman calls this “affect labeling.”9 Affect is a psychological term for emotional state. He conducted fMRI brain research that showed that when individuals label an emotion, there is a decrease in activity in the brain’s emotion centers, including the amygdala. Your amygdala processes play a major role in regulating your emotions and behavior. The amygdala is best known for its role in “fight-or-flight” reactions. When you sense fear, the amygdala processes it and helps you move into survival mode. Feelings of guilt are often accompanied by fear—fear of negative consequences, such as rejection, blame, and disapproval, to name a few. Labeling guilt, and then pausing to notice it and take a deep breath, can give you an opportunity to slow down and process it differently, thereby interrupting the automatic fight-or-flight response.
By labeling your emotion, you raise your awareness of its presence and the danger of allowing it to take over your reactions. Labeling it creates an interruption, which is an opportunity to stop and regain control of your thinking in the present moment. In other words, say to yourself, Guilt just showed up and is trying to take charge. Stop and breathe.
I think about that morning with my son Alex after he asked, “Can I eat my cereal at the table?” Imagine if, in the few seconds between hearing the question and responding, I’d noticed my thoughts and said, “That’s guilt,” and then taken a deep breath so I could respond rather than simply react. Reactions are automatic and often driven by emotion and impulse. Responses are conscious and intentional.
This simple step of labeling matters in the little things we feel guilty about and is particularly powerful in the big things. Imagine if Nicole had labeled her false guilt about breaking up with her former fiancé and paused to take control of her decision to commit to a marriage she was not at peace about. Imagine if Sherri had labeled her false guilt about asking for a raise and refused to let it keep her from speaking up. Most importantly, imagine if you labeled your false guilt the next time it rises up in a conversation, and then paused before reacting. What would you do differently?
Take a moment now to identify the ways guilt shows up regularly in your life. This is the start of your guilt list. It’s an opportunity to get clear about the guilt you’d most like to conquer in your life—what you want to let go of, even if right now you are not quite sure how.
What to Do Next
WRITE YOUR GUILT LIST
As you sit down to write your list, ask yourself what guilt led you to this book at this time. Remember: the purpose of your guilt list is not to solve anything right now. Simply identify the most critical things that are making you feel guilty. Let’s call the items on this list your guilt triggers.
I know, I know. You might have a hundred things you could write down right now. You’re not alone in that. But for now, I’m inviting you to pick just three. What causes the most pain and anxiety? What’s stealing the most peace and joy? That’s where I want you to start. As we continue along this journey, you will be equipped with the knowledge and tools to work through your guilt list and find the freedom you long for.
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