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

stain glass representation of jesus washing disciples feet

Unlock Your Leadership Trait-Humility/Spiritual Meditations

Modern science endorses the virtues underscored by scripture as beneficial; spiritually, emotionally and financially.

The Bible suggests we develop in ourselves the characteristics of gratitude, patience, humility and others. It tells us that these are traits through which we express love for our fellow man and for ourselves. Modern psychology backs this up with more specific details on how and why our lives are improved by cultivating these attributes, thus showing that the inspired biblical texts written thousands of years ago are relevant today.

Jesus’ most notable lessons in humility and serving others were his acts and words when he washed the disciples’ feet before he was arrested. “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

So, I ask myself “Am I that humble?” Our self-evaluation is rarely what the world sees, so how would I know? And then I wonder if it is possible for people who are striving for excellence, or have reached excellence, to be humble. What do you think? Here is what the experts say.

What Humility Isn’t

Karl Albrecht Ph.D. in his Jan 2015 article in Psychology Today tells us what humility isn’t.

  • It’s not letting others “push you around.”
  • It’s not being a doormat, a sucker, or letting people “walk all over you.”
  • It’s not constantly sacrificing your interests to those of others (and then feeling like a victim or a martyr).
  • It’s not avoiding conflict or confrontation – not of your making, anyway – for the sake of “being nice.”
  • It’s not about hiding your feelings or suppressing your views to avoid alienating others.

What Humility Is

True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less”- C. S. Lewis

Psychologically speaking, it is defined as a psycho-social orientation characterized by 1) a sense of emotional autonomy, and 2) freedom from the control by the “competitive reflex.” Sounds healthy.

It is about emotional neutrality. It involves an experience of growth in which you no longer need to put yourself above others, but you don’t put yourself below them, either. Everyone is your peer – from the most “important” person to the least. You’re just as valuable as every other human being on the planet, no more and no less. It’s about behaving and reacting from purposefulness, not emotions. You learn to simply disconnect or de-program the “competitive reflex” because it is not productive.

Therefore, humility is both a matter of self-restraint and a matter of self-esteem. The greater your sense of self-worth, the easier it is to appreciate others, to praise them, and to encourage them.  It is also easier to be understanding and overlook minor infractions.

Competitive Reflex Self Diagnostic Test Questions

So how do we tell if we are humble? How often do we let our competitive reflex take over? Dr. Albrecht proposes some questions you can ask yourself to determine your level of humility.

  • Do you offer unsolicited advice to others about how to live their lives better?
  • Do you “damn with faint praise” when somebody shares their new idea or new discovery about life?
  • If someone tells a joke, do you feel compelled to top it with a better one? Or, do you hold back on laughing, so the joke falls flat?
  • Do you always have a better story, a better example, a better suggestion, or a better solution?
  • Do you feel compelled to demonstrate how smart you are, or how much you know?
  • Are you a back-seat driver?
  • Do you like to tell people how to raise their kids better?
  • Do you lecture or preach to others?
  • When someone says something that’s mistaken or misinformed, how do you react?
  • If you have a different opinion, do you precipitate a win-lose debate, or do you show respect for the other person’s view as you’re sharing your own?
  • Are you angry when receiving criticism from others?
  • Are you skeptical of others and convinced that you know better than everybody else what needs to be done?

How did you do? If not too well, here are some reasons to consider taking on a remodeling project to increase your humility.

Advantages of Humility

A recent set of studies show that humility is a consistent predictor of generosity. People who are humble tend to be more generous with both their time and their money and are, therefore, generally considered to be more valuable members of society. People see humble individuals as well-adjusted and kind. Humble people have better social relationships, avoid deception in their social interactions, and they tend to be forgiving, grateful, and cooperative. 

Humility has been linked with better academic performance, job performance, and excellence in leadership said Michael W. Austin Ph.D. in a Jun 2012 article in Psychology Today.

Empirical evidence seems to show that humility can advance one’s fortune in the world, as it is a distinguishing trait of CEO’s of successful organizations. Humble leaders are honest about both their strengths and limitations. They are confident without being conceited; open-minded without being obstinate; and supportive without being submissive.

As leaders, we often regard admitting mistakes as a sign of weakness. In truth, it’s an admirable act of grace, generosity and gumption.

Accepting that you did something wrong or that you don’t know everything, relinquishes ego for the sake of personal development and business growth. Asking for help not only displays a willingness to learn but empowers others to shine. Moreover, it builds trust. Acknowledging a slipup today prevents it from swelling into an insurmountable challenge tomorrow.

As the great Jim Collins said, “The X-factor of great leadership is not personality, it is humility.”

Can You Strive for Excellence and Still be Humble?

Is it wrong to try to win at bridge, or improve your tennis game, or work to get ahead in your workplace? Of course not – those are parts of a separate dimension of your life where your talents and abilities become evident. Humility is a matter of social intelligence and building relationships, which involve inviting people to move with and toward you, instead of away and against you.

The Apostle Paul was a great example of a leader with humility. He was unwavering in his efforts to spread Christ’s message, yet encouraged Christ’s followers to be as humble as he was.

Regarding his work he wrote:

Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.(Phil 3:13-14)

And about humility, he wrote:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, (Phil 2:1-3)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Col 3:12)

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Eph 4:2)

 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited. (Rom 12:16)

Mark Leary Ph.D. (in a December 2019 article in Psychology Today) gives a modern day example of success with humility: A renowned actor may know that he is exceptionally skilled, have a highly successful career, receive many awards, and be adored by millions of fans but not believe that he should be treated special overall, as a person, because of his exceptional ability and accomplishments.

The phrase “as a person” is critical here. In certain areas of life, people who perform at a high level or who have exceptionally positive characteristics deserve special attention, respect, deference, rewards, and privileges — in the domain in which their accomplishments or characteristics are relevant. For example, the best athletes should be given more playing time than less skilled players, accomplished scientists may deserve higher grant funding, the best actors and authors are entitled to more recognition, and the best employees are entitled to higher salaries, better offices, or other perks.

In Leary’s study he found that “humble people didn’t downplay their accomplishments or characteristics; they simply didn’t think they should be treated special because of them.”

How to Increase Your Humility

If you find yourself expressing more “competitive reflexes” than you’d like, or if you are successful in one area of your life, and therefore believe you are an expert in everything, here are some observations made by Frank Sonnenberg that you may find helpful.

Success is temporary. Success is a journey, not a destination. When you become successful, don’t rest on your laurels. As soon as you take your eye off the ball, you risk losing your edge.

Stop feeding your ego. Don’t isolate yourself from reality by building relationships with people who stroke your ego. Surrounding yourself with “yes people” is just like talking to yourself.

Compete against yourself. When you compete against others, it’s easy to emphasize winning over self-improvement. However, when you compete against yourself, you both win.

Even experts have room to learn. Never stop growing. Know your limitations and admit when you don’t know something. It’ll help to keep you grounded.

Listen up. Discover what others have to offer and ask for their opinions before opening your mouth. It shows that you value their opinions as well as their insight.

No one’s perfect. Don’t let success go to your head. Be quick to apologize for your mistakes. You’ll never learn anything or impress anyone by making excuses and diverting blame. To err is human. To admit that you erred is humility.

Share your success. You may be successful, but there’s a good chance that others helped you along the way. Find creative ways to share the credit and pull people up the ladder of success along with you.

Remember your roots. Remember where you came from and what you’ve learned along the way. Help others by mentoring them.

Get off your high horse. Treat everyone with dignity and respect. You may be successful, but that doesn’t make you better than anyone else.

Bragging is ugly. There’s a difference between excitement and bragging. We know you’re thrilled about your new “toy,” but others may be cutting back on their basic needs — be sensitive.

Trust me. Money and success can’t buy a person’s trust or guarantee a good reputation. You earn these through your words and actions. There’s nothing more valuable in life than integrity.

Conclusion

A humble person is not one who allows themselves to be pushed around. He or she is one who may distinguish, or strive to distinguish, themselves in a particular area based on their skills and talents.   However, they recognize that their exceptionality does not extend beyond their area of expertise.

To the extent we become humbler, we improve our relationships with others and advance our goals.

As John Wooden said, “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful. ”So, what did I decide? Am I humble? I confess, I still have a little remodeling to do.

Relevant Scripture

Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor. (Prov 18:12)

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. (Prov 11:2)

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matt 23:12)

For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory. (Psalm 149:4)