2 small boys, one has caused the 2nd to cry, ball solic background

Are You Creating Your Own Guilt? / Spiritual Meditations

I’m still regretting a couple of things I said / did while in high school. I’m sure you can think of a couple as well. It is surprising how often we have feelings of guilt. Some say that the moments of guilt add up to about 5 hours a week. With our constant striving for perfection, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslin, Buddhist, or Hindu, it is no wonder we don’t always live up to our own standards and moral codes. The guilt can be beneficial or unhealthy depending on the situation.

Just to be clear on what’s being discussed here, let me point out the difference between guilt and shame. They are frequently used interchangeably, but there is a difference.

How are Guilt and Shame Different?

Shame involves feelings about yourself, generally reflecting early psychological damage that impedes positive personality growth. It could be your feelings about who you are or who you aren’t, projected by society, which can become ingrained into your own self-evaluation, whether they are legitimate or not.

Guilt is a common feeling of emotional distress that tells us when our actions or inactions have caused, might cause or we imagine will cause harm to another person—physical, emotional, or otherwise. Because guilt hinges on empathy for others, the capacity to feel guilt could be seen as emotional progress.

When is Guilt a Good Thing?

Healthy feelings of guilt motivate you to live according to your authentic values, which, in turn, can improve your relationships with others, since you are more likely to treat them with respect and do your fair share. Guilt protects our relationships.

In small doses, guilt can benefit us. But when it runs free, it can cause havoc.

When is Guilt Harmful?

Unnecessary or excessive feelings of guilt, even mild guilt, can be a psychological burden that interferes with your emotions and quality of life.

If you feel guilty too easily your guilt alarm goes off when it shouldn’t. As a result, you end up feeling guilty about impacting others adversely, when you haven’t. This is no minor issue; by over-interpreting people’s disapproval when it’s not there, you’re exposing yourself to constant and unnecessary stress and impacting your own quality of life.

On the more serious end of the spectrum, excessive or inappropriate guilt can be a symptom of clinical depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Unwarranted guilt has also been associated with a history of childhood trauma with critical, neglecting, or abusive parents. These feelings of guilt can instill a sense of unworthiness and can result in self-punishment.

Unresolved guilt is like having a snooze alarm in your head that won’t shut off. Your attention is constantly monopolized by bursts of guilty feelings which compete for your attention to work, school, and life in general. Guilt usually wins. Studies have found that concentration, productivity, creativity, and efficiency are all significantly lower when you’re feeling actively guilty.

What are Some Causes of Guilt?

Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. suggests that guilt may occur when “a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.” This would include stealing, lying or cheating and much more.

Yet much of the unhappiness we experience is due to our own irrational thoughts about situations. We know that our memory of past events is highly unreliable. It’s possible for you to have done nothing wrong at all but misremember and think that you did, particularly when there are highly charged feelings involved.

One typical mental source of guilt is the magical belief that you can jinx people by thinking about them in a negative or hurtful way. Perhaps you’ve wished that a romantic rival would experience some evil twist of fate. Should that evil twist of fate happen, you may, at some level, believe that it was due to your own vengeful wish.  At some level you “know” that you’re being illogical, but it’s hard to rid yourself completely of this belief.

Then there are the accidental social blunders. Perhaps you didn’t realize how much you hurt your friend’s feelings with what you thought was a humorous remark. You wonder how many other people you have offended unintentionally. Beware; it is possible to unwittingly make matters worse by distancing yourself from the person who is the focus of your guilt.

People with eating disorders often feel excessive guilt about eating, putting on weight, or not exercising enough. This guilt often co-exists with a distorted, negative body image.

Women, in particular, are prone to feeling guilty, according to research. A 2009 study by Etxebarria, published in the Spanish Journal of Psychology, surveyed women and men from three age groups (156 teenagers, 96 young adults, and 108 older adults) about which situations most often caused them to feel guilt. The researchers found that habitual guilt was higher for women than men in all three age groups, with the biggest gap in the 40 to 50 year-old range. This age corresponds to the “sandwich generation” years, in which many people juggle taking care of teenagers as well as aging parents.

Especially during those stressful years, you may feel you haven’t done enough to help someone. You’ve given hours of your free time to them, but now you have other obligations or are getting burnt out. You feel guilty because you are pursuing your own life when they are suffering, dysfunctional, or need a lot of emotional care. Adding to the overall emotional drain of the situation, your guilt overlaid on the fatigue, ultimately makes you a less effective helper.

Another study found that women report more guilt than men, overall, when they take work calls or answer work emails in the evening. Finally, research shows that millennial women—and millennials in general—feel guilty about taking vacations.

A more deeply disturbing experience is that of survivor guilt which is addressed by professionals who work with combat veterans who outlive their fellow troops. Survivor guilt also occurs when people who lose families, friends, or neighbors in disasters while remaining untouched, or at least alive, themselves.

Additionally, this kind of guilt characterizes those who make a better life for themselves than do their family or friends. First-generation college students, for example, may feel guilty that they are getting opportunities that their parents or siblings did not. To “protect” their family members, they might engage in self-destructive behaviors that ensure they won’t make it in school.  Logic would dictate that the family truly wants the student to succeed (and thus bring honor to the family), but this logic is lost on the student.

How do I Deal With My Guilt?

Before you start accusing yourself of wrongdoing, make sure that the wrongdoing took place. If you’re distorting your recollection of events to make yourself seem more at fault than you are, it’s time for a reality check. “We assume that others place far more importance on our thoughts and actions than they actually do”, Dr. Whitbourne adds

In the case of excessive guilt, it is important to realize that everyone errs and that occasionally behaving in a hurtful way doesn’t make someone a bad person; it just makes them human.

But if truly at fault, some people may attempt to stave off guilt by rationalizing or minimizing the harmful effect that their actions had on others. More helpful, however, is an acknowledgment of the offense, accompanied by an apology if appropriate.

In the case of survivor’s guilt, or a person who tends to blame themselves for circumstances that are beyond their control, help often involves the person letting go of a false sense of responsibility for what happened, refraining from negative self-talk, and developing greater self-compassion. If you change your thoughts, you can change your emotions

When guilt surfaces because you are doing better than those around you, remind yourself of how proud, glad, and invested those who care for you are. As hard as it might be, your own failure will not make others who love you feel better about themselves. You need to gain your inspiration from the knowledge that your efforts are a tribute to them. And don’t get down on yourself if you can’t reach your loftiest goals (or the ones they have or had for you) but at least know that you’re giving yourself the shot at success that they would want you to have.

If you are prone to feeling the unhealthy kind of guilt—in which you are always beating yourself up for not doing enough—use the tips and tools below, develop by Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., to set yourself free. It takes a lot of practice and deliberate re-thinking to change an entrenched pattern of guilt, so be patient.

    1. Look for the evidence.

If you feel guilty because you’re “not doing enough” for your kids, partner, or family, list all the things that you regularly do for them. Then, keep the list in your purse or wallet to pull out when guilt rears its head.

    1. Be direct and get more information.

Ask the people you think you’re neglecting whether they feel neglected. Consider whether they have a tendency to expect too much and not take enough responsibility for themselves (e.g., teenagers who expect you to pick up after them). Then, think about how an outside observer would view the situation. If you conclude that you really aren’t doing enough, then come up with some solutions or compromises that balance everybody’s needs.

    1. Appreciate yourself and all that you do.

Write a “self-gratitude” diary at the end of every day, noting at least three things you did that day that furthered your goals or helped someone you care about. At the end of the week, read what you’ve written. Guilt and perfectionism have a negative bias. They make you pay attention to what you’re not doing right. By writing down what you did, you can overcome this bias and force yourself to focus on your accomplishments.

    1. Think how you would see things if the roles were reversed.

Would you think your friend or partner wasn’t doing enough, given all they had going on? We often find it easy to be compassionate and understanding with others but are too harsh on ourselves. By deliberately taking the other person’s perspective, you’ll likely see your situation in a more objective light

    1. Curb the “black and white” thinking.

Are you thinking about the situation in all-or-nothing terms? Do you think that if you’re not the perfect partner (or daughter, or parent) you must be the worst one on the planet? Try to find the gray amid all that black and white. Consider other ways of seeing the situation. Try to judge your efforts in context, rather than always expecting perfection.

    1. Look for the emotions underneath the guilt.

Might the guilt be masking other feelings like anger, intimidation, or resentment? If you’re in a relationship with a very needy person or a narcissist, you or your partner may convince you that you’re being selfish by setting limits and saying no. Over time, your guilt and inner conflict may be masking resentment.

    1. Decide how much you’re willing and able to do.

If you honestly feel that you haven’t done enough for your partner or family member, then make an authentic commitment to take specific caring or helpful actions going forward. If you can’t do all the housework in the evening, decide which pieces you can commit to doing. Then, communicate this willingness to your partner in a proactive way.

    1. Realize it’s okay to take care of your own needs.

Some of us were the family peacemakers who took care of others all the time. Perhaps you had an alcoholic parent who was incapable of properly taking care of you. As an adult, you may still silence your own needs or feel they are less valid than those of your partner, child, or friend. But you don’t have to let this reaction to past trauma shape your relationships in the present.

Guilt is a useless emotion—useless because we don’t need to feel bad about ourselves to take corrective actions. Guilt is useless for three basic reasons:

  1. You can’t change the past, no matter how long or how often you practice feeling guilty.
  2. Rehashing guilt-arousing thoughts in your mind keeps you locked in the past, rather than focused on the present.
  3. Feeling guilty does not help you correct troubling behavior because you expend your mental energies putting yourself down rather than learning to change your behavior.

In cases where guilt is driven by a mental health issue, it is important to seek professional help. Sometimes treating the underlying concern can alleviate strong feelings of guilt or shame.

The Spiritual Person Attempts a Greater Goal

Each person is at a different place in their spiritual journey and this can be seen in how seriously they attempt to fulfill the teachings of Jesus or their spiritual mentor.

The Ten Commandments alone are a challenge. How often do we hear someone exclaim “Oh my God”, or work on Sunday or wish we had a house as nice as so-and-so?

Additionally Jesus asked much more of us; to be humble, generous and merciful, to love our enemies and not resist insult, to not worry ourselves or judge others, and much more – traits we should strive for and the basis for the thinking that we are all sinners. But only Christ and spiritual icons can surpass this threshold.

So these values increase the number of things to possibly feel guilty about. Fortunately, with the help of the Holy Spirit (and possibly some of the helpful hints above) we can reduce our offenses and be forgiven for those for which we feel regret or remorse.

What Did Jesus Say About Guilt?

 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore, if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,  leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.  Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. (Mat 5:23-25)

Here Jesus shifts from the external meaning of the law against murder (6th commandments) to the inner attitude of the heart. Hatred and insult toward another are as serious violations of God’s will as the act of murder. It is God’s intention that people become reconciled. To support this, he introduces a parable indicating the wisdom of ingratiating oneself with one’s accuser while they are on their way to court. This could also be a metaphor suggesting how much more a follower should be reconciled with others before their time of judgement.

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.  The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”  They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.  But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Again, He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.  Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (John 8:1-11)

In this passage the Pharisees are attempting to trap Jesus into putting himself in conflict with either the Romans (who said only they could carry out a death sentence) or the Jews (because the law of Moses required stoning in this situation). Jesus’ answer avoids the trap by turning the question into a moral challenge to those who are willing to play politics with this woman’s sin and misery.

Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, not to condemn them but to offer God’s forgiveness and acceptance. The story certainly does not mean that Jesus condoned sin. His clemency and compassion indicated his concern for the motives of the woman’s accusers.

Conclusion

We can imagine ourselves in the role of the woman and in the role of the Pharisees. As the woman we have received forgiveness but are told to “sin no more”. As the Pharisees we are reminded that we are no more perfect than the woman and should treat others as we would wish to be treated.

References:

Guy Winch in Psychology Today

Adapted from The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity by Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D.

“The Definitive Guide to Guilt” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Psychology Today

Understanding the New Testament by F.F. Bruce

cross crown sky clouds metaphor for Soul Ascend

God’s Touch and A Soul Ascended | Spiritual Meditations

It seems that when someone we care about dies, we often regret something we said, or didn’t say, something we did or didn’t do.  We think we could have done more to make their life, or their end-of-life, better.  Guilt can sometimes be overwhelming.  How fortunate, that the greater our connection with God, the greater is His support of us during those times.  My friend, Tim, is going to tell you about an experience he had, as a young chaplain, that involves healing, the presence of God and his afterlife connection with a cancer patient.

The following was written by Rev. Dr. Tim Ehrlich

Context

As a first semester seminarian at Duke I was hired as Student Associate Pastor of Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church. I loved working at Trinity Avenue for my boss Rev. Doctor Bennett, but after two years at Trinity I quit to take care of my newborn baby son Shaun and to enroll in the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) program at Duke Medical Center. CPE required 35 hours a week and counted as two elective classes towards graduation from the Divinity School. My acceptance into the program made me a chaplain intern at Duke Hospital. As such I was assigned to an area that required a lot of pastoral care: the burn and amputation unit. I also rotated as Chaplain on call once every 10 days, which required me to stay at the hospital for 24 hours during my rotation.

The burn & amputation unit was a regional burn unit so it was busy with patients from all over the state. My job was to do pastoral visits with those who requested pastoral visits and with those whom the nursing staff had identified as most in need. Usually I visited everyone about to have an amputation and everyone who was having complications following their amputation. I also visited those who had been burned badly enough to require hospitalization.

I saw some very sad cases, people who had to have multiple amputations, or repeated amputations on the same limb, industrial accidents, and terrible burn cases. I visited with and tried to bring hope and light to people in the darkest depths of depression, and I visited with others facing similar circumstances, who were so filled with the joy and love of the Lord that they ministered to me instead of the other way around.

A Special Cancer Patient

As the Chaplain On Call for the thousand bed hospital I was given a pager and had to respond to every code blue (person is dying) situation, to provide immediate pastoral support to the family, if any. I also had to respond to pastoral assignment given by any staff doctor. One day when I was on call, I was paged by a doctor to visit with a young man who was very sick with cancer and had just been told he had a very short time to live – a month or so at most. His name was Patrick, I really liked him and felt so sorry for him because he was a really nice guy, a Christian, happily married and had an 8 year old daughter, and he was about to leave them without a husband and daddy.

Healing Hands

Having had the experience of seeing people I had prayed for miraculously healed, I asked him if I could hold my hands over him and pray for his healing and he said ‘yes’. This became a daily thing: at some point during my daily time at work I would stop by his room and do this laying on of hands and pray. There was no huge miraculous response, but each time I prayed he seemed a little better: he seemed a little stronger and certainly it lifted his spirits. His month stretched out into two months. I truly felt like I was in a battle with his cancer, my prayers would lift him up during the week, but I was gone over the weekends, and cancer would tear him down such that by Mondays he was back to where he was at the beginning of the week. So it was an even battle, neither side was winning, but that felt like a victory to me because he was getting some extra time with his family.

But then we had Thanksgiving break, and I was off for 10 days. I was busy with family and didn’t get into the hospital. I was pretty sure that without a daily prayer with me he would likely die. Sure enough at the end of break I got word that Patrick had died. I was feeling confused and sad: why had my prayers for healing other young people been so effective, but my prayers for this man could not defeat the cancer, just slow it down for a few weeks? Why did God let a simple soul like Patrick die, when he had so much to live for? With questions like this shaking my faith, how could I survive the emotional toll of being a pastor and working with good people who were dying?

God’s Touch

So I did what I do in situations like that, I prayed. “God,” I said, “Father, I am really in pain right now. I am confused, I am doubting my calling. I need you to give me a touch. I am asking you to give me a touch. I going to hold out my hand, and would you please touch my hand and let me know you are there?” I really don’t know where that request came from. Gideon put out a fleece: I put out my palm. I had never asked anything like that of God before. It was just the cry of a broken heart, reacting with emotion and not intellect. So I lay face down on my bed with my right hand held open; and as I lay there I felt a firm touch on my palm. It was such a strong physical sensation of someone pressing a finger into my palm that I opened my eyes somewhat startled and looked around. I thought my wife might have come into the room and touched my hand, but I was alone.

That touch did two things to me: first it lifted me up emotionally – because I had been in such agony of the soul over Patrick’s passing. Secondly, my questions and doubts about why God let a good man like Patrick die were gone. That touch was like a spiritual defibrillator, it jolted me back to faith: I had just asked God to touch my palm, and he did! What do you do with something like that? How do you categorize it? There is a certain amount of shock that sets in; its good, a good thing happened, but it was surprising.

A Soul Ascending

A few hours later, I again walked into my room and lay face down on the bed to pray. Despite the experience of being touched I was still feeling deeply sorry for his widow and daughter. I was not in agony of the soul any more but I was also feeling a bit guilty because I had not been there daily to pray and to keep him going during the holiday. So I prayed for his family and for my guilt. While I was praying, I suddenly heard his voice, as if coming from above me. He said, “Timmy, its me Patrick.” There was a moment of silence, I responded “Hi Patrick, what is up with you?” He replied, “I don’t know where I am; do you know where I am?” I rolled over onto my back, I said, “I don’t know where you are but I know where you are going, and you need to go there now!” That was it; I heard nothing more from him ever again.

Conclusion

That experience caused me to understand that sometimes souls are so attached to this world that they are not ready to cross over and they can linger for a time. This and other similar incidents I’ve experienced also speak to me of the reality of the soul as an intelligent entity that survives the death of the physical body.

If you would like to share your spiritual experience, I would like to hear it.  Please use the ‘Contact Me’ form.

Relevant scripture verses:

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

4 Now God gives us many kinds of special abilities, but it is the same Holy Spirit who is the source of them all. 5 There are different kinds of service to God, but it is the same Lord we are serving. 6 There are many ways in which God works in our lives, but it is the same God who does the work in and through all of us who are his. 7 The Holy Spirit displays God’s power through each of us as a means of helping the entire church.

8 To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; someone else may be especially good at studying and teaching, and this is his gift from the same Spirit. 9 He gives special faith to another, and to someone else the power to heal the sick. 10 He gives power for doing miracles to some, and to others power to prophesy and preach. He gives someone else the power to know whether evil spirits are speaking through those who claim to be giving God’s messages—or whether it is really the Spirit of God who is speaking. Still another person is able to speak in languages he never learned; and others, who do not know the language either, are given power to understand what he is saying. 11 It is the same and only Holy Spirit who gives all these gifts and powers, deciding which each one of us should have.

John 1:49-51 New International Version (NIV)

49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”