Recently I was in an airport bookstore and accidentally spilled some of my hot tea on the floor. Since I did not have anything to wipe spill, I told the two clerks what I had done. “Thank you for telling us,” one clerk said, as she phoned for a cleaning person.
The other clerk nodded. “You don’t know how many people do that and don’t say anything to us. Then someone slips on it and maybe gets hurt. We really appreciate your telling us.”
I understand why people walk away. When I first realized I could not clean it up, I wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. No one else was standing near me. But concealing it would have only left me with more guilt (true guilt in this case) to get rid of later.
Are you feeling guilt or shame about anything? If so, the first step is to determine if your feelings are true or false guilt.
True or false guilt—or both?
We experience authentic guilt and shame when we have done something that does not meet God’s standards or our own. True shame could be related to a lapse in standards you’ve set for yourself. If you had stopped smoking, for instance, but have started again, you probably feel ashamed. That guilt and shame can help motivate you to change your behavior.
False shame and false guilt, on the other hand, can be the result of what was done to you, not by you. It doesn’t motivate you to do anything other than beat yourself up. It’s common for victims of abuse to feel deep shame even though they did nothing wrong.
Sometimes the true and false versions of shame and guilt overlap. Several months ago, I was staying overnight in a friend’s lovely home. I accidentally spilled some deep fuchsia nail polish on the floral bedspread in my room. I was frantic! I tried to remove the polish. No luck! Since it was late and my friend had long since gone to bed, I decided to wait until morning to give her the bad news.
But what a night I had! While I felt true shame and guilt for being so careless, I also was hounded by old voices of false shame and guilt. The voices said:
You are bad and this shows it. Your friend was nice enough to share her home with you and now you ruined her lovely bedspread. You don’t even deserve to live!”
Pay attention to your strong reactions.
I’ve learned to pay special attention and examine myself whenever I have strong reactions like this. First, I recorded in my journal the lies I believed: “I’m bad. I’m a disappointment to God. I don’t deserve to be treated with respect after what I did. I deserve to die.” Second, I put a big X over the lies and wrote “LIE” over them. Third, I wrote what was true: “I make mistakes, but I will take responsibility for the messes I create. I’ll offer to buy my friend a new bedspread. God does care for me even when I do stupid things.”
As I was writing, I turned the page of my journal and there was a handwritten verse. It was Psalm 14:2:
An honest life shows respect for God.”
I praised God for his foreknowledge—that the friend who gave me the journal had written those words at the exact place I would need them.
Are you feeling guilty? Is it true guilt or not?
Here are three things you can do whenever you feel guilt or shame:
- Acknowledge what you are trying to hide, are afraid of, or feel bad about.
- Share your feelings with someone safe, someone who is trustworthy and who will be quick to remind you that you can come boldly to the throne of God’s grace and receive his mercy in time of need. (See Hebrews 4:16.)
- Recognize that Jesus’ love and redemption covers your shame.… He accepts you in your brokenness. Thank him for that love and forgiveness.
* Adapted from “Taking Out Your Emotional Trash: Face Your Feelings and Build Healthy Relationships”