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  • Amy Travis

Don't Over Accessorize: Keys to Overcoming Unproductive Guilt

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

The Key to Eliminating Unproductive Guilt. Do you even feel burdened down with guilt? If you are upright and breathing, I'm guessing that you do. Guilt is so common that many of us that is like another accessory, like a purse or a belt... we don't leave home without it. In this article we will discuss how to properly process guilt so that it serves it God-intended purpose, but doesn't steal our joy.


A woman walked into to Sally’s counseling office, took off her shoes and sat on the couch. This was unusual that a client would make herself that comfortable on the first visit. She proceeded to tell Sally about an event that happened when she was in her twenties. She was planning a birthday party for mother, which happened to be the same day that her father was scheduled to run a leg of the city’s marathon with a team of co-workers. At his daughter’s request, the father switched his section of the relay to earlier in the day so that he could make the party scheduled for later that afternoon. Her father had just completed a half-mile hill as he approached his daughter waiting for him at the relay point, when he dropped dead from a heart attack.


She conveyed to Sally that she believed her father would still be alive if she hadn’t asked him to change the leg of his relay. Now, over 30 years later, this woman was still holding on to guilt over her father’s death.


Guilt is so common that I compare it to just another accessory that we carry with us everywhere we go. For women, it’s like a purse or scarf; for men it’s like a belt around their waist. We just can’t leave home without it. We wear that guilt like it’s our job, and would feel naked without it. Sometimes, we have our guilt under control and we’re able to hide it in the form of a small handbag, or a tasteful belt buckle. There are other times when the guilt is so big, so loud that it overpowers us. We allow it to define us, as was the case with the woman mentioned above.


Unwarranted guilt can be a very destructive force in our lives because it steals our joy and diverts our attention from what is most important. If not properly understood and processed, guilt can render us helpless.


Not all Guilt is Bad

Whether we realize it or not, guilt – like most emotions - serves a purpose in the human experience. The pain that we experience when we “feel guilty” is a warning signal that something is off-balance. In the same way that physical pain is an indication of a problem in our body, guilt can be an indication of a threat to our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.


It is important to understand that pain is not the enemy. Pain of all types is designed to alert us to the potential problem. In 2012 my husband had a heartache at the age of 51. This was a very scary situation, but because of the quick and skilled reaction by the paramedics (and the Grace of God), he is still alive today. When I tell people about his heart attack, the most typical response is, “oh, how terrible!” … But it really wasn’t. The heart attack was the best thing that could have happened because it brought the problem to light so that he could get the help he needed. Only hours after the doctors implanted two stints in his artery, he felt worlds better.


I know it sounds like I’m splitting hairs, but the heart attack was not the problem, his blocked artery was the problem. The heart event, though precarious and painful, was the best thing that happened because it called attention to the true problem… before it was too late.

In the same way, guilt is a warning that something isn’t lining up with our belief system. Think of it as one of those annoying alerts that we get on our cell phone warning us of potentially destructive weather in our area. Sometimes the threat is real, and sometimes it’s not. In January of 2018, an emergency alert was accidentally sent out to over a million cellphones that a ballistic missile was headed toward one of the Hawaiian Islands.[1] Obviously (thank God!), that was a false alarm. The point is that we shouldn’t ignore guilt, we just need to process it properly.


In order to properly process guilt, there are times when we need to adjust our behavior, and then there are times when we need to adjust our belief system. There are three steps we should follow to properly assess which direction we should take.


1. Recognize what Causing the Feelings of Guilt

Did you ever have that nagging feeling that something is isn’t right? If you are alive and breathing, I’m guessing that you have. As mentioned above, most of us would think something is wrong if we didn’t feel that way. (Can you see the problem here?) When I sense that something is “off” I try to evaluate why. Sometimes that nagging feeling is a reminder that I haven’t eaten all day! Unfortunately, this scenario doesn’t happen as often as I would like. My point is that, because our mind, soul, and spirit are so closely connected, it can be difficult to isolate the problem.


But more often than not, the relentless nagging in my mind is because of something I said or did.


In my personal experience, there are several different sources of guilt:

· I did something, or considered doing something, intentionally that violated my conscience, such as cheat on my taxes

· I said something that I knew could be offensive and should have just let it go (but said it anyway), such as calling out a co-worker for not doing his job

· I said or did something that, even though my intensions were pure, was misconstrued or caused offense, such as offering help to someone who didn’t want it

· I disappointed someone that was counting on me, such as missing my son’s baseball game because I stayed late at work, or forgetting a commitment that I had previously made

· I did something - such as ate that chocolate cake last night - that didn’t align with my stated goal of losing weight and being healthy. (Or I binge watched episodes on Netflix instead of writing this blog)

· I failed to do something that someone, somewhere probably thought I should have done

· I breathed the wrong way


Ok, maybe not the last one but you get the idea.


The first step to productively processing guilt it to understand the source. It sounds like it should be simple to do, but it’s not.


2. Fix it or Forget it

After we have assessed the threat, we need to determine the proper course of action. Your first line of defense against guilt should be to ask yourself, “can I do anything to correct this situation?” Sometimes we can, and sometimes we can’t. There are times when the offense is so blatant and indefensible, that restitution is advised. When I was in grade school, I used to work on the weekends at my grandmother’s corner grocery store. This was a small, family-owned business and my grandma appreciated the company even if I wasn’t a lot of help to her. As I got older, she would allow my brothers and me to work the cash register. One day I “borrowed” money from the cash register. When my parents found out, they were livid! Not only did I need to apologize to my grandmother (who, of course, told my parents that she said I could take that money), I also needed to return the cash and offer to work extra hours at the store cleaning to compensate for my mistake. If there is a way to tangibly make up for our indiscretion that’s reasonable and advisable, we should do it. But sometimes all we can do is show remorse, apologize for our actions, and move on.


Often when I commit an offense, it’s because of an error in judgement and not because I intended to be malicious or cause harm. An example of this is an ill-advised comment. I don’t think I’m the only one that ever asked another woman if she was pregnant when she wasn’t. Oops. That’s the type of mistake that we typically only make once.