Here is a topic that has been long overdue. Everyone has felt this emotion at some point in their life. It is that gnawing sensation in the pit of your stomach, with flashbacks flooding the #mind with a repeating slideshow of when you did something or said something that resulted in some form of injury. Despite the painful weight and burden of emotional expense, it is a valuable emotion all the same. Without guilt, actions would not have a governor to gauge the sense of “justice” from our independent self -serving motivations.
Guilt is an emotion we all experience from time to time. When properly employed, it brings on a sense of imbalance that modifies our behavior toward restoration of a relationship we have clearly violated in some way. As stated by Art Markman, Ph.D, a Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin:
” Guilt is a valuable emotion, because it helps to maintain your ties to the people in your community. It provides a painful consequence for actions that would weaken the groups that you belong to.” ( Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201205/what-does-guilt-do. [Accessed: 21/7/2015].)
However, as valuable as it is for strengthening relationships, it is often misidentified as the “unforgiving emotion” , which assumes a role of an angry parent, unappeased by any act of repenting.
“WHY DO I ALWAYS FEEL GUILTY?”
I have heard this concern from many clients through the years, but it seems to be expressed more often by those that have had a very conservative and religiously strict background. I wondered why this would be. I could address many aspects about this emotion in particular, but I am going to attack this topic from a religious arena. By taking this approach, we will be able to explore that sense of dread, that is completely out of place with a forgiving God. Allow me to unfold this matter and you, my reader, may begin to see more clearly where I am going with this.
The Altar Call
Raised in conservative, Christian home, as a boy we attended church regularly. A common practice was the altar call at the end of each service. I believe alter calls serve a very important place in the church. But I believe there is another side of “convictions” that deserves attention by sincere clergy. Here is the process:
After a particularly firm sermon, there was often a slow, heart tugging hymn that stirred uneasiness, which began to stir up memories of actions that I had previously done, maligned to what a repentant man “ought to have done” . Even though I knew I had repented earlier about this matter, I would begin to feel the same feelings of conviction as if I had committed the act anew.
Through the many years of attending church, I have heard many repentant people express that they felt a constant burden of guilt and concluded that “God did not forgive them” bent on “punishing them for sins anyway” . Even though I do not know what the “sins” were that such people committed, I can address what we know about what God says about this opinion.
Now that I have set the stage, we are ready to roll up our sleeves and address this matter more adequately. We can not really know what another person “feels” or their own standing to God. But Let us look at what we do know, based on what God says about himself through his Word.
Here is a promise that everyone who has ever been to church has probably heard.
So, according to this passage, it is possible to be guilt-free. But let us move the chair closer and consider the next passage.
Wow, so if one really repents, then God doesn’t even remember their prior sins before repentance.
So, if God, who can not lie, says he forgives and forgets, where does it leave us in this contrast of what we “feel in conviction” compared to the very promise of a forgiving God??
The Blurring Edges of Feelings
Let us look at the photo below. I changed this popular image to consider the relationship between these “common neighbors”
What is the difference between these two people in the photograph? I inserted the photos based on a particular topic search for these images. The woman’s face is representative of #anxiety and the man’s face typifies guilt.
Let us consider the definition of these two terms, guilt and anxiety.
So we see there is a close relationship between these emotions. The vital difference is the about the object attributed to anxiety. In other words anxiety lacks a clear object where guilt appears to have anxiety about an identified object. Could it be that what actually happens is that often we do not identify our emotional experience accurately? Is it possible that what we quickly mislable Guilt which is actually free floating anxiety?
Free Floating Anxiety requires a place to land
In other words, free floating anxiety is much like a plane in the airspace trying to find a place to land. Just as TV soap operas draw on an audience of regular viewers wanting to see “what is next” , we tend to seek closure in order to feel less “in the air” about our anxious thoughts. Our anxious minds begin to search desperately for a “place to land” ; a reason WHY we feel anxious.
In our example, it is far more likely that the “sense of overwhelming guilt” is only mislabeled anxiety. After All, if a forgiving God does forgive and forget, isn’t more reasonable that the replaying sense of conviction is not guilt at all?
To consider this further, I used some data from a Joel Robert Davitz, PHD. His research in “The Language of Emotions” , compared a variety of emotions and their often ascribed labels . I do not have the time to share the many valuable aspects of his findings but I was able to extract data regarding categorical themes and compared the characteristics of some neighboring emotions that may become blurred and confused with the feelings of guilt.
The data from Dr. Davitiz’s research presents some insights.
Notice the continuum from Fear, to Anxiety, to Guilt.
Even though this data was not specifically presented for the purposed context with which I am sharing here, it does hint at something interesting. Notice that feelings of inadequacy is greatest in a “Fear context” and drops lowest as it moves to the right, at “Guilt” . The same is also true with “Tension” . But inversely, as one could easily agree, are the feelings of “dissatisfaction” greatest in “Guilt” .
Putting this in another way, it seems likely that even though we may have “dissatisfied feelings” , we are more likely to feel less tense (or less stress) by identifying a “cause” of our anxiety. Free floating anxiety, seems less tangible and tends to generate inadequacy over our situation. If we have a reason for feeling guilty, it probably imparts a sense of “remaining in control” of our situation. That is what this data seems to indicate.
I am inclined to believe that those who feel burdened by guilt are really wrestling with Generalized Anxiety. Instead of facing the source that drives this anxiety, they may try to quickly dismiss this “feeling” and seek a “quick fix” by mislabeling what they feel as Guilt. By avoiding why they feel anxious, they may determine that they have wronged someone, in order to box up this emotion temporarily and file it away; feeling less tension and more in control of the experience. Unfortunately, as in all anxious thoughts, the anxiety will seep out again in a situation similar to that which stirred it up previously. Then the cycle repeats, over and over again. Unless the true cause of our anxiety is confronted, there will never be an end to this life stealing experience. In fact, the longer the cause of our fears is not confronted, the more frequent and more intense will be the cycle.
Take some time for self reflection when your Guilt seems to be most evident. If necessary, restore your broken relationships as much as is within your hands to do so. But if the guilt remains, it is probably a neighbor of guilt, e.g., anxiety just dressed in similar clothes. Consider those windows of time when such feelings occur. Often the pattern of episodes will clue you in. Face your fears. See a counselor if necessary.You will be better off in the long run.
I will include a 3D model of Emotions, based on data I have extracted from Dr. Davitz’s Book, Language of Emotions. It is a fascinating way to see what neighbors our emotions tend to have with each other.
By the way, if you did not read all of this article, Don’t feel Guilty. 🙂