Scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning, this article caught my eye.
It had me, so I clicked the link and read on.
In a nutshell, it said this,
In addition, this research provides neurological evidence for what researchers have been starting to suspect: Guilt in early childhood has negative effects on children and may cause later life depression and anxiety. (Article by Jenny Chen, published 1/5/15 in The Atlantic)
I sat there a moment staring at the screen and then I thought, YES.
Now, first of all, this isn’t a post to find concrete answers or any type of blame for the depression that I have long struggled with. It’s a post that recognizes the truth about who I am today and who I’ve always been.
I have been a bearer of constant guilt and shame. It’s seems to be my forever shadow.
For so many years, guilt had dominated my decisions and state of mind. Drew is always reminding me how when we first met, I apologized about everything. Every thing I did, anything that happened to me or others, most thoughts I had- all driven by guilt.
Should I have cleaned up that wet spot on the floor? Could it be my fault they slipped? I knew I should have asked a grocery store employee to clean up that mess. If anything happens, my fault. I didn’t do it, but now I’m responsible. Turn the car around, go back. I can’t believe you didn’t take the time to deal with this. You are so selfish. You aren’t a good person. God is so disappointed in you.
Now in essence, there is nothing wrong with the desire to make sure a mess I came upon in an aisle was cleaned up. People do slip! It could cause harm. But that nagging guilty feeling that would climb onto my back and into my head was torturous. I would think and rethink every decision I made. And if I felt like I didn’t handle it right or I ignored something I shouldn’t have, I would dissolve into a puddle of never ending guilt.
It happened everywhere I was. On the road. In the store. In class. At a meeting. Dinner with friends. At work. You name it, I had guilty feelings about it.
In my life, so many of those guilty feelings (for so many years) felt like they were nudges from God. That is what I understood them to be. I should have witnessed to this person. What if they aren’t saved? I should have given up my seat for them, Jesus would have. I never should have bought that, I could have fed a hungry person with that money. I can’t believe I threw away that plastic bag, now I’m going straight to hell. You think I’m kidding?! Not at all. And because I understood them to be from God, my vision of God grew more and more distorted. God wouldn’t answer my prayers until I welcomed that new neighbor. God wouldn’t bless my life until I returned something I shouldn’t have bought. God would turn his back on me until I confessed that to someone. God was never going to welcome me into the kingdom with the nice house we had bought. LIES.
Guilt had become God. Now God felt like a weight around my neck and I sunk deeper into sadness. Deeper, deeper, and deeper.
I’m sure you know how that works. Your guilt turns to shame. The shame disables you. The darkness closes in. You are alone.
Now, I don’t think that guilt is the single cause for my struggle with depression. But, the way I had let guilt be my guide for so long, it had let me astray. And, as a way to cope with it, I had to begin shelving my faith. It was a survival technique. And guess what, it really helped! The more I decided that I didn’t buy into this guilt being the voice of God, the more free I became. My idea of who God was began to crumble. As unsettling as that was, I was free. Shelving faith equaled a sigh of relief. No one should live under a faith like that. We were not created to survive constant guilt.
The process of rebuilding is life long. I still find that guilt is leading me on many occasions. When I fail to recycle something, I still see God on judgement day, pointing me away from him. Now, recycling is really good. Recycling is really important. But if God exists, I cannot imagine that Love would just send me away for my humanity. There must be more to this.
Guilt can be good. It can. Brene Brown, a well known researcher on shame and vulnerability says she is “pro-guilt.”
I’m just going to say it: I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done – or failed to do – with our personal values.
I do think that guilt in it’s proper form is good for us. It makes us think about our actions and about the world around us. It is tied to conviction and staying true to what we believe and who we are. But I don’t think guilt that immediately leads to self berating and shame is meant for us. It’s not there to help us consider others. It’s there to destroy our very selves. It’s not there to transform our life. We don’t all handle guilt well. And that’s me. Hand is up, I don’t handle it well.
Here’s what I know-
God is not a being who is out in the universe, sending guilty thoughts in order for us to be good people. God isn’t a source of shame that somehow is going to save our souls. If God loves as a parent loves their child, God hasn’t turned our backs on us, reserving Love for only the people with the right formula. Or theology. Or whatever.
It’s a daily discipline, letting go of guilt and shame. I make mistakes. I say the wrong things to my kids. I ignore someone I should be relating to. I throw away a plastic bag. But, that weight that hangs on as I evaluate my personal values doesn’t have to say mean things in my head. It doesn’t have to keep me from trying again. It needs to stop saying I’ll just never be enough. It needs to be set free.
So again today I set down the nagging, bullying guilt and I listen for a Loving voice. The voice that tells me I’m human and that my choices matter. But no matter what, I am loved and I’ll always be enough.