The fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.
Such an ugly word.
I spoke with a friend recently during the recent holidays. He’s very devoted in his faith. Conscientious. As far as I can tell in every way he strives to live upright as a good father, husband, employee, and caring person. He said this to me: “Every night when I lay my head on my pillow I feel like a piece of shit because I haven’t done enough with the day. I always feel like a failure”.
Are you kidding me? This guy works hard, is assiduous about his personal responsibilities. Lives debt free, cares for the needs of others, and yet ends each day feeling guilty. I think that’s terrible. Sadly, I shared with him my won experience that is virtually the same. Only slightly different. Each night as I go to bed I am filled with gratitude. I sincerely thank God for my multitude of blessings; I truly live with an attitude of gratitude. I love my wife, My family, my community, etc…. My blessings are ten fold. I go to sleep thankful and praying blessing on others who have needs.
Virtually always at peace.
Then I begin my daily struggle with another evening of insomnia. As a counselor I’ve treated hundreds with chronic insomnia. It is truly an epidemic in America. I understand about medications (I’ve tried plenty. I understand about natural supplements. I endorse them. I understand about prayer, mediation, etc…
I understand about mindfulness. I just have a busy mind and have worked for my whole lifetime to manage my issues there. I’m fine. Each night is a varying degree of battle but overall it’s not horrible. Just a regular annoyance. The more horrible part is finally awakening each morning.
Similar to my aforementioned friend.
He goes to bed feeling shitty, I wake up that way.
I’m not good enough. I haven’t accomplished enough.
I don’t pray enough.
I’m not disciplined enough. (No argument there.)
I should do more.
Whatever I do isn’t enough.
Not all that bad.
Not necessarily shitty, and trust me I even feel guilty writing that bad word twice knowing I have friends and family reading this already quoting Ephesians 4:29 in their heads.
Feeling this pervasive sense of guilt is always crazy to me because in my public/vocational life I have been blessed to receive more grace than almost anyone I know. People are always very kind to me. Regularly if not daily, offering me kind words of thanks and compliments for some contact we’ve had either in ministry or public speaking or writing etc.
I get lots of Kudos.
And I sincerely appreciate them.
Sadly though, kind words from others don’t assuage my sense of guilt.
I have guilt over my bad thought life. From any “sin” either via commission or omission.
I was raised Southern Baptist. My religious childhood experience was functionally fundamentalist. There was much preaching about the second coming or the rapture of the church and emphasis on behavior and holiness. I was told many many times if you were in an “R” rated movie when Jesus comes back he will leave you right there.
In that sordid worldly Hollywood movie theater.
I was told if you go over the speed limit the Holy Ghost would leave you in the car because you weren’t obeying the laws of the land and if you died in a car crash while being disobedient you might not have the chance to confess and repent of your sins before death- therefore you might just be going straight to HELL.
Great theology huh?
I went to a Christian school that had daily Bible classes and chapel services. I rebelled against it for five long years. I then had a remarkable conversion experience that changed my life in what I still believe was a positive manner. The problem is, some of that old school guilt laden theology still tries to hang on and condemn me.
Maybe that’s the issue.
But maybe not.
I’m not really sure that’s all there is too it.
I had a very difficult childhood. Pretty much daily punishment via my Father’s leather belt. Called whippings back then. Today we’d call them beatings and they would surely qualify as rampant child abuse. Sometimes the bruises lasted for weeks, sometimes months.
The verbal messages may have been even more damaging.
I received never ending daily messages of not being good enough.
I was absurdly obedient, terrified of more beatings.
My days were spent in great efforts to avoid the daily beatings, which were unavoidable.
There was always some reason to inflict punishment and pain.
So I had this painfully abusive childhood… that functionally ended well over 40 years ago when my parents divorced and we moved away from the daily violence.
You’d think I’d be past most of that by now.
I generally think I am.
I’ve done my fair share of therapy to work on healing these old wounds.
Because of my life experience I became a student of all things that can help us have the best life now. In the earliest part of my academic life I studied Christian theology with during four years of Bible College. I followed that with and Masters Degree from Seminary.
During my early graduate work at Seminary a professor in my first Marriage Counseling class said “as a pastor you will counsel others, the only question is how well trained you will be.” That became the impetus for my counseling and psychology studies. Once I completed Seminary I began post- graduate work in counseling and psychology to become and Licensed Counselor at Texas A& M in Commerce Texas.
During part of that training some of my professors argued than all guilt was just a negative emotion, it could never be useful. They argued from a Freudian perspective that that we build defense mechanisms to protect us from the guilt we naturally experience if we knew just how awful our awful secret internal desires are. This of course reminded me a bit of my early theological training which spoke long and hard about our base sinful nature. Lots of verses are still quoted by many about how we are born into sin and since that is our base nature of course we of course just naturally feel bad all the time. Some old hymns actually endorse what is called “worm theology” as exhibited in Isaac Watts hymn that many of us grew up hearing with these words:
Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For sinners such a worm as I?
I personally have great struggle with this line of thinking. There are an abundance of verses that speak of how we are created in God’s image, we are the apple of his eye, we are his children, and we have a new nature. I made the decision years ago to emphasize this unmerited favor in which we stand rather than something that seems to produce a negative sense of guilt and shame.
While still in Graduate school I was exposed to John Bradhsaw’s work on family systems and his book Healing the Shame that Binds you. In those pages he shares many wonderful concepts that positively impacted my life including inner child work, freedom from toxic shame, and the negative power of secrets.
At about the same time I was also introduced to Christian Counselor Dr. Richard Dobbins who shares the idea that there are two types of guilt: True guilt and False guilt. He argues that True Guilt is when we have actually done something wrong. We have violated our conscience, our own internal belief systems. He argues that we struggle with guilt when we live in-congruently with what we believe.
If I believe I should be kind and I am unkind I feel bad.
If I believe in being generous and I act greedy I feel bad.
This guilty feeling is my internal sense of self, encouraging me to live up to my values.
None of us want to live as a pretender/falsely, as hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another.
So true guilt is easy.
We feel badly about doing something truly wrong.
I think that’s ok. That helps keep us civil.
But what about False Guilt?
Dobbins says that False Guilt occurs when we feel bad about a perceived wrong. We THINK we may have done something wrong. We may be innocent. Example: Someone falsely accuses you saying “you don’t care about me” or “you are so mean!”. Truth is we really are caring and we truly aren’t mean, but the very power of their accusation touches us emotionally and we FEEL guilty.
That’s false guilt.
You feel bad when in fact you are innocent.
Manuel Smith wrote a book years ago entitled When I Say No I feel Guilty.
That kind of guilt arises from living as a people pleasers all the time, (which is actually just trying to get people to like us- to win their approval).
I love that quote by Ed Sheeran. In our family system I have often witnessed conflicts arise because we are all trying to be pliable, trying to please each other. Sometimes when this occurs nobody is happy! Crazy huh?
In the most recent years, I have learned much from Brene’ Brown who has expressed wonderful ideas about vulnerability, authenticity, and shame in her Ted Talk which has been viewed over 28 million times online. It’s very worthy.
So, after decades of therapy, study, living life, working to help others how is it that my friend goes to bed each night and I awaken up each morning, each with our own sense of pervasive guilt?
I’ve spoken with many about this and I have lots who tell me that’s not their experience.
However, I’ve spoken with many who have shared similar experiences.
I’ve looked at PTSD and how trauma can cause changes in brain chemistry and space and I think that appears to be a logical physiological explanation.
I’ve listened to countless songs over the years, many singers and songwriters apparently riddled with angst at all life stages, not just adolescence. In my era Janis Ian penned her seminal song At Seventeen with these powerful words:
I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say – come dance with me
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen
A brown eyed girl in hand me downs
Whose name I never could pronounce
Said – pity please the ones who serve
They only get what they deserve
The rich relationed hometown queen
Marries into what she needs
With a guarantee of company
And haven for the elderly
So remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debentures of quality and dubious integrity
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due
Exceeds accounts received at seventeen
To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me
We all play the game, and when we dare
We cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
That call and say – come on, dance with me
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen
Perhaps just a shade different than guilt and shame.
So the struggle is we all feel guilty sometimes.
I have a lifelong friend and we often talk about what we’ve accomplished lately.
What are we doing with our lives? If my week or month hasn’t been very productive, by the end of our conversation I can again have this vague sense of guilt. His intent is to encourage and motivate. Sometimes that backfires.
The struggle is real and never ending.
As I’ve studied the past few years about mindfulness and learning to live fully present in each precious present moment my guilt has lessened a bit. I believe we are all strugglers. Once again, I choose to believe most of us are trying to live congruently. We are trying to live up to our internal self image of our best selves.
Each day is a new day. We may or we may not accomplish all that perhaps we can or should. But we will live this day. I believe in the midst of our struggles we can choose to be happy. We can be at peace.
There will always be overachievers out there like Tim Ferris or Tony Robbins or Fill in the Blank who are setting the world on fire. We can either be motivated by them or discouraged. Some folks flames burn brighter. That’s O.K. It’s just up to each of us to share what light we have in the dark corners of this world.
You have inner light.
Share it with those in need.
Sometimes it comes through the cracks in our armor.
Let it shine.
In so doing we can get a bit of relief from our sense of guilt whether it be True or False.
We all have our broken/fragile/shattered moments. By grace we are being put back together.
We can be kind and caring, not as an act, but because it’s real.
We do care. We are kind. We love with the best of ‘em.
When we go to bed and when we awaken.
Realizing each day is a gift, ours to make with it what we will.
Hopefully – not guilty.