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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.

There are other times when our actions are intended to hurt or offend, and we hit our target. Chances are, if you have a family (hint: we all do) then you have been on the giving or receiving end. While there are no hard and fast rules on when to apologize, if you are the offender, generally speaking now’s a good time. The concept of Living Free means that we do everything in our power to live at peace with everyone.[2] Yes, even your mother-in-law. We probably all know families where members have been in a 10-year stand-off. Don’t allow this to be your family. These untenable situations require someone to break the cycle of offense. We all know how that works: You offend me so I offend you. Now you are doubly offended and strike back at me, and the cycle perpetuates itself. These are situations where no body wins and everyone loses.

Every now and again, you will run into a situation where you have done your level best to break the cycle and resolve the situation (even if it’s not your doing), but the other side will not budge. Regardless of your effort to apologize and work through the conflict, the other party refuses to engage. As distressing as this can be, please remember: you and I are NOT responsible for how our words are interpreted, we are only responsible for how they are intended. If you act out of pure motives, such as care or concern for the individual, but they twist your words or actions, there is nothing you can do. The best advice I can give? Let it go. Forget about it.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You wouldn’t worry about what someone else thinks about you if you realized how seldom they do.” [3]

3. Change my behavior, or change my beliefs

As mentioned at the top of this post, guilt occurs when our actions don’t align with our belief system. This can work in both directions: we can believe that our actions are justified when they are not, or we could believe that, because of our insatiable desire to be perfect, our actions are inexcusable when they are actually within acceptable limits.

When to Change my Behavior

As human beings, we have a built-in, God-given sensor to alert us to trouble… also known as our conscious. Some of us have a highly developed, very sensitive conscious. I remember the first (and only time) my younger brother tried smoking when he was in middle school. He felt so guilty about it that he immediately went home and told mom. Even though we weren’t always this forthcoming about our missteps, the kids in my family knew expectations for our behavior inside and outside of the home.

This ability to know right from wrong is more often caught than taught. And the more we listen to our conscious, the stronger it becomes. But even when our conscience is alive and well, this doesn’t always mean that we follow it. We can encourage those around us - children, employees, friends – by modeling the commitment to morality, but the ultimate responsibility falls on each “independent contractor.”

Even for those of us who should know better, if we intentionally ignore our conscience repeatedly, we will no longer feel guilty when we violate our moral values. This happens often in extra-marital affairs. Even though the cheating party initially felt guilty, he or she eventually rejects or denies the feelings of guilt so often that their conscience “breaks,” similar to how our car breaks down if we repeatedly ignore the “check engine” warning signal.

This is a very dangerous place to be. Do your best to always protect your conscience. It’s well established that the clear majority of people who commit heinous crimes or acts of terror have either broken their conscience or adopted belief systems that support – not reject – their behavior. Experts believe that the actions of the terrorists that flew jet liners into the World Trade towers aligned with their belief system. In short, they may have sincerely thought that it was the right thing to do. Their conscious was broken.

Occasionally, however, feelings of guilt can be very productive. They alert us that our behavior is not aligning with the goals that we’ve set for ourselves. If my goal is to run a marathon, the nagging feeling of guilt when I don’t complete the 10-mile run on my training schedule is going to help keep me on track. Or, my guilty conscious for eating two pieces of cake at that party should motivate me to seriously limit my carb intake starting Monday morning. The more determined I am to reach my objectives, the stronger the sense of guilt will be when I deviate from my plan. This is one of the reasons that high achievers very commonly struggle with performance anxiety. Our guilt reflex is in overdrive.

When to Change my Beliefs

There are other times, however, when our behavior is within acceptable limits, but our belief system is out of whack. Even when I follow the diet, or exercise plan, or reading schedule, I’m still haunted by the feeling that I’m not doing enough. Sometimes it’s a false sense of modesty that makes us feel guilty for taking credit for something we’ve worked very hard towards. I’ve talked to a lot of men who feel guilty for not being better providers for their families. There’s no issue with wanting to take care of your family, in fact this is very noble and the sign of a good husband and father. The problem comes when working 50 hours a week, owning a four-bedroom home in the suburbs, sending your children to private school, and having two late model cars parked in the driveway still isn’t enough. Instead of picking up a side job so that we can go on more vacations, we may need to adjust our thought patterns (i.e. beliefs) that dictate our priorities.

We have this nagging sense that there was more that we could have done, should have done, could have anticipated, must have known, and on and on. There can be a lot of different causes for this, but the most common one is our deep-seated need to be perfect, all of the time. This can take on a lot of different forms and shapes, but the root cause remains the same.

When conducting my own research on this subject, I reached out to some of my younger friends to ask what it is that makes them feel guilty. One particular response stuck out to me because she said what many of us women are thinking:

I am a guilt queen... I always feel bad about everything. Mostly I’d say I always feel like everything needs to be perfect and if it’s not it’s the worst thing in the world. I feel guilty when I do things for myself, like reading and studying. Then I feel guilty that I should be doing some “stay at home busy work” that no one else has time to do. I feel guilty if I don’t have enough time to do all the things I felt that needed done or people I need to visit. Guilt is a hard one. Good luck writing about it, haha!

We could change a couple details to match our story, but the message would be the same: I feel guilty because I’m not perfect.

This very common, but very faulty believe that we should act, think, talk, walk, eat, sleep, work, play, perform, parent, etc. perfectly all of the time is the primary culprit to many of our anxiety-related issues. The more we identify ourselves as high achievers, the more we struggle with this. If like me, you rank high on the “Type A” personality scale, you know exactly what I am talking about. We all know intellectually that perfection is impossible, and yet we think we need to hold ourselves to that standard anyway. This is such an important topic that we will discuss it in detail next time.

Back to the story at the beginning of the post… my friend Sally was able to wisely assess the situation. After taking some time to listen to her story, Sally stopped her to ask what share of the responsibility in his death belonged to her father. Wow, she was stunned because she had never considered that. Sally pointed out that he must have run past half a dozen emergency responders on his way to the hand-off point. He had to have been in very serious pain – possibly even for days – leading up to a heart event of that magnitude. (I know from my husband’s experience that he had warning signs for a minimum of three days that he ignored.) It’s possible that her father made a conscious decision to run the marathon anyway, even though he knew something wasn’t right. Even if this wasn’t the case, his daughter’s request to change his schedule didn’t cause the heart attack, a blockage in his artery did.

The guilt that this poor woman had experienced for the last three decades (!) was the result of a faulty belief system that concluded that her event planning was somehow 100% responsible for her father’s death. Just 45 minutes after walking into Sally’s office for the first time, the woman replied, “where were you 30 years ago?”

The Wrap Up

Guilt specifically, and pain in general, are not the enemy. Emotional and physical pain are warning signs to alert us to a problem. God put mechanisms in place to protect us, not harm us. In the same way that we maintain our vehicles and other complex systems, we need to pay carefully attention to our conscious to prevent it from breaking down.

Remember… your mind is the battlespace you are sworn to protect, and this is war. God has given you a sound mind to be able to discern what is true, and what is false. You don’t have to internalize every impulse of guilt that comes your way. Take it out, look at it, determine if this is a warning signal to change your behavior or your beliefs.

We don’t have to wear all this unhealthy guilt like it’s just another part of our wardrobe. Get rid of it. Don’t over accessorize.

[1] Americans to receive cellphone alert from Trump in first national test. (2018). Retrieved from

[2] Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14

[3] 2007, Stress Management for Life: A Research-based Experiential Approach by Michael Olpin and Margie Hesson, (Quotation in a sidebar box), Quote Page 127, Published by Thomson/Wadsworth, Belmont, California.

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