Many women struggle with overcoming constant feelings of guilt. The lingering voice of guilt can feel like an ever-present companion:
- You’re not giving your kids enough attention.
- You’re late. Now, your colleague will have to pick up your slack.
- You’re neglecting your friends.
- What about your mom? Dad? Sister? Grandparent? They need you.
Overcoming guilt can feel impossible. But, here’s the secret to overcoming guilt that most people don’t know:
The presence of guilty feelings does not mean you have done something wrong. In fact, it might mean you have done something right.
Guilt is an emotion, not necessarily a direct message from God. Therefore, overcoming guilt involves getting curious about it, just as you would any other feeling such as sadness, anger, or envy. Guilt has important information for you, but it does not always have the full story. It needs to be brought into relationship with awareness, prayer, and curiosity.
However, instead of overcoming guilt in healthy ways, we tend to do one of two things:
1.) We let guilt drive our lives; or
2.) We deny guilt and become defensive.
Neither of these methods leads to the joy of loving others freely. You weren’t designed to live in a constant state of feeling guilty. That’s not the Gospel message. And, you weren’t designed to deny all guilt whatsoever and pretend like you never do anything wrong. That’s not the Gospel message, either!
So, what’s the key to overcoming guilt, no matter how it shows up? Start by following these 3 steps.
How to Say “Yes” to Overcoming Guilt
1). Become Aware of Guilty Feelings
Overcoming guilt starts with understanding 3 common ways it shows up:
• True Guilt: The feeling of true guilt shows up after you, in fact, did something wrong. You’ll know it’s true guilt if you can name the thing you did wrong. It involves a clear prick of the conscience, followed by clarity about the offense. It may be that you told a lie, yelled at your child, or stood by while others told cruel jokes. Or, it may be that you become aware of ways you mistreated people in the past. Because the offense is clear, you can create an action plan to change the behavior and make amends when necessary. True guilt is a gift from God.
• False Guilt: The feeling of false guilt shows up after you did something right. For example, women often feel a sense of guilt after setting a healthy boundary, saying “No” to a toxic situation, or speaking up about an issue that needs addressing. False guilt tends to show up when you make changes in how you are with other people. For example, you might notice false guilt as you stop pleasing others, re-prioritize your commitments, stand up to a bully, or say “Yes” to caring better for yourself.
• Chronic Guilt: Women who feel chronic guilt are constantly aware of all the ways they fall short. And, most of these women are actually doing so many things right! Chronic guilt is often related to childhood wounds or systemic traumas. Maybe your parents raised you to feel more responsible for other people’s feelings than you should, or maybe you were frequently criticized. As a result, you have a hard time setting healthy expectations of yourself. Sometime women who are highly empathic or sensitive to the needs of others struggle with chronic guilt. These are great qualities, but they need your wise leadership. Just because you can sense a need, does not mean you are called to meet that need. Chronic guilt needs your understanding as you learn how to extend grace and compassion toward yourself.
Becoming more aware of the way guilt shows up in your life is the first step toward change.
2). Talk to God About Guilty Feelings
Ask God to help you shed light on the guilt you are feeling. Remind yourself that guilt does not always mean you did something wrong.
You might try praying on behalf of your guilt: “God, I feel like I’ve done something wrong, and I am not sure what to make of those feelings. Can you help me discern if there is anything that is mine to own in this situation?”
Ask God for wisdom. You may not get an immediate answer, but over time, you will grow in discernment. (James 1:5)
3). Get Curious about Guilty Feelings
Start by noticing how often you feel guilt through the day. Then, seek to understand where those feelings are coming from. Here are some questions to ask yourself or to process with a safe friend:
- Where do I experience guilt in my body? (It might be in your gut, or it might be in your mind. The way it shows up gives you cues to whether it is true guilt or not.)
- What are the things I feel guilty about? Make a list.
- Did I do something wrong? If you did, it should be clearly identifiable.
- Would an objective third party agree that I did something wrong? If you aren’t sure, ask a trusted, honest person.
- Did I hurt someone else as a result of cruelty, impatience, selfishness or anger? (If so, then you might be feeling “true guilt.”)
- Did I hurt someone else as a result of setting a healthy boundary or honoring my human limitations? (If so, then you might be feeling “false guilt”.)
- Are my feelings of guilt vague and hard to pin down? Am I working overtime to meet everyone’s needs, but it just never quite feels like enough? (If so, then you might be feeling “chronic guilt.”)
As you gain understanding about the feeling, you will also get clarity about overcoming guilt. For example, if you experience true guilt when you did something wrong, that is a sign of health! God doesn’t prick our consciences with shame-laden tirades. His conviction is clear, swift, and offers a clear path to compassion and forgiveness. That’s not to say you might not have to take time mending a rupture in a relationship. But, you can do that work with humble confidence, knowing you are forgiven.
If you experience false guilt or chronic guilt, the way forward is different. Whereas a guilty feeling that comes from God leads to confession, changed actions, and renewal, false guilt weighs you down and creates burdens you aren’t meant to carry. In this case, the solution is to learn how to re-frame your guilt-driven narrative. Here is how to get started:
Make a list of all the things you feel guilty about. Next to each item, write down one specific “Yes” you can say before God.
Here are some examples:
- “You’re not giving your kids enough attention” might become “I say ‘Yes’ to quality time with my kids each night before bed.”
- “You’re neglecting that friend” becomes “I say ‘Yes’ to calling her once a month.”
- “You never talk to your mom anymore” becomes “I say ‘Yes’ to praying for her when I think of her.”
- “You’re not involved enough in your church/community/cause,” becomes “I say ‘Yes’ to volunteering/supporting others in these ways.”
You don’t have to let guilty feelings drive you. Instead, you can identify clear, realistic objectives to anchor you when you feel guilt moving forward.
Emotional health is vital to living a clear, wholehearted life. It involves paying attention to your emotions with curiosity so you can lead yourself well. You can grow in emotional awareness by journaling out what you feel, paying attention as you move about your day, or processing with a friend.
If it feels scary or overwhelming to notice or “sit with” emotions, ask a counselor for help. If you’ve experienced pain, trauma or have a backlog of emotional heartache, a trusted adviser can help you learn to build safety within your heart, mind, and body.
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Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
How are you overcoming guilt in your life? Which of the 3 types of guilt do you struggle with most?
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Veronica Giamanco says
I had to learn this lesson when my health took a turn for the worse. I had to say no to so many people and opportunities. One organization even called me multiple times begging me to volunteer and offering solutions to accommodate my health. I had to say no for two years. Many nights I had to say no to quality time with my family. Now that my health is improving, I’m starting to say yes to the things that matter most – tickle fights, night swimming, video game challenge, paint by number, etc. I want my family to have a mom that is present. I often feel guilty for not adopting more children, so we set a healthy date in our lives when we would consider the possibility. Making a physical boundary on the calendar had released me from the daily nagging feeling of guilt that I’m not including enough children in our family.
Alison Cook says
This is a beautiful insight, Veronica. I really appreciate your sharing how you have worked through guilt in your life.
Thanks Alison! It was a good time for a reminder about false guilt. And it makes me think that I should reread that wonderful book of yours this year. It was so nourishing when I read it two years ago.
Alison Cook says
Thank you, Julie. I am so grateful to hear that the book was nourishing and helpful to you.
Wendy Cunningham says
Thank you for taking time to actually respond to folks. I love authors who make that extra effort, care and are authentic
Alison Cook says
Thank you, Wendy. This note made my day. ❤️
This is very helpful as I learn to set clear and healthy boundaries with my young adult son. Thank you.
Alison Cook says
I am grateful it helped. 🙏🏻