The summer that I was nine, I begged my parents to let me attend our church’s residential camp. The requirement for a discounted rate was to read The New Testament by a certain date, so I committed to do it. I procrastinated for weeks and then had to cram the final night, staying up past my bedtime, struggling to stay awake, reading like crazy.
I realized I wasn’t going to make it. So I began to glean the message, sometimes reading only the first few lines of verses. I was straining to get to the end. And what nine-year-old can make sense of The Book of the Revelation?!
Fortunately, there wasn’t going to be a quiz. I only had to stand before the altar the next day during the Sunday Service and say to the congregation that I had completed the assignment.
I kept begging God to forgive me as I kept skipping lines, first only verses and then whole chapters. I’d never felt guiltier, as I raced toward the end. I finally fell asleep convinced that God disliked me for cheating and wouldn’t want me at his camp anyway.
The next day at church, I couldn’t lie. I admitted that I hadn’t read the whole thing. In the end, I suffered through the day, beating myself up for failing and for not being a “good person.” And to top it all off, my parents had to pay full-price.
Why in the world do we teach children about a God like this? And maybe even more peculiar: Why do we, as a society, believe that guilt has the ability to make someone better?
As kids, some of us learned to believe that we were good or bad depending on whether we did what our parents and care-givers wanted us to do. And that the way to be forgiven was to feel guilty and show remorse. And that punishment was the best response to misbehavior because it could cause us to feel guilty the fastest. None of these are true, but we were small, so we bought into all of it. And the biggest misbelief: If we feel guilty enough, long enough, we’ll be better people.
Childhood can be a tough obstacle course. And we can lose track of our intrinsic worth, which says, “I’m all right because I’m alive, not because of something I’ve done or not done.”
That’s why it works best to separate people from their actions, especially children. Address the actions with clarity and explain why they didn’t work. And praise the people for who they are, no matter what they’ve done.
Instead of saying, “Good boy” or “Bad girl,” say: “You’re a wonderful person, and you’ve done this thing that’s not working in your best interest, and this is why.” Otherwise, children learn to believe, “I’m good or bad based on what I accomplish. I’m a success or a failure based on what I do. And who I am doesn’t count.”
One of my friends grew up with a dad who angered easily. Over time, she developed a belief that what she did was unacceptable, and she learned to hide whatever she thought and did.
As an adult, she still believes that what she does might be wrong and feels guilty for it. So she hides a lot of her actions, such as whether she watches trash-TV, or whether she missed out on a career opportunity, or whether she forgot to buy dog food. It can be anything because there’s no logic involved. She’s just always in duck-and-run mode.
Of course, the person she hides most from is her partner. It’s the most destructive thing my friend does to herself: believing that what she’s about to do is inappropriate, unacceptable or wrong – and doing it anyway.
If she would give herself permission to do whatever she chooses without fear or guilt, she could be free.
Guilt results from insecurity. And insecurity says, “ I need people and conditions to be a certain way before I can feel OK, which means I can never feel OK.”
Feeling guilty is a decision we make based on what we believe about our worth. And these are the results:
- Guilt undermines our self-respect, effectiveness and joy.
- Answers remain out of our reach because guilt keeps us focused on what’s wrong.
- When we feel guilty and unworthy, people notice it and relate to us as if we’re guilty and unworthy.
- Instead of making us better, guilt makes us weaker, especially in our ability to say No to whatever we’ve been focusing on.
- The more guilt we feel, the more likely we are to repeat what we’re feeling guilty about – and feeling guilty long enough buys us the excuse we need.
The opposite of feeling guilty is trusting that we’re doing our best and that our best is sufficient and valuable. When we decide to practice that kind of self-belief, there’s no space for guilt.
What’s happened is finished. The only time that matters is right now, because this is the moment where we can say and mean it, “I’m all right just as I am, there’s no debt I have to pay or lesson I have to learn. And I deserve the best from life, at all times!”
And each time we affirm our intrinsic worth and deservability, we prove that it’s the lack of guilt that makes us better!