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When You Can't Forgive Yourself ... Part II

"Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."1

Yesterday we discussed how to overcome real guilt by confessing what we have done wrong both to God and to at least one trusted person and, where possible, to the one whom we have hurt or wronged. When we do this, real guilt goes.

However, if having done the above and I still feel guilty, the feeling is false guilt. With false guilt I can confess it all day long, but the "guilty" feeling will never go away because it isn't guilt.

False guilt is a conditioned response that is more often than not learned in childhood. If, for example, I had super-strict parents and lived up to their every expectation, did everything the way they wanted it done, and even believed the same as they believed and so on, they would give me their love and approval. If, on the other hand, I didn't conform to their every expectation (be they realistic or not), they would withdraw their love and approval, and would make me feel guilty. That's false guilt. In other words, this kind of parental love is conditional, but conditional love isn't love at all. It's a means of controlling others.

Immature parents aren't the only ones that use false guilt to control others. Legalistic churches and religious groups are notorious for doing this. This keeps their followers in bondage, hinders their growth in maturity, and stops their depending on God's Spirit to direct them.

False guilt can also be the result of being a perfectionist or having perfectionistic tendencies. When one doesn't live up to his unrealistic expectations of himself, like his parents of old, he sends himself on a false guilt trip.

So how do we overcome false guilt? I wish I had a simple answer, but I don't. Nor do I have a magic wand to make the problem vanish. Resolving false guilt requires a reprogramming of one's thinking as well as his/her emotional responses. One's "guilty self-image" in large part was programmed in the past by failing to conform to and living up to somebody else's unrealistic expectations of him or her.

Reprogramming is achieved over time by developing a guilt-free healthy self-image based on who one IS—and NOT on what he/she did or didn't do. As I let a trusted friend or counselor see the real me—warts and all—and as he/she loves and accepts me as I am, little by little I learn to love and accept myself in the same way that God loves and accepts me. This takes courageous honesty, a commitment to recovery, and perseverance. God's Word, the Bible, provides the essential key for this healing: "Therefore confess your sins [and faults] one to another and pray for one another so that you may be healed."

Suggested prayer: "Dear God, please help me to see when I am experiencing false guilt; help me to understand the root cause of it; and please help me to find a safe, accepting friend or counselor to whom I can confess my struggles, and who will help me on the pathway to recovery. And when my guilt is real, please give me the courage to admit and confess the cause of this guilt, not only to you, but also to a trusted friend or counselor—and where needed to the one I may have sinned against. Thank you for your forgiveness, and for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully in Jesus' name, amen."

1. James 5:16 (NIV).


All articles on this website are written by
Richard (Dick) Innes unless otherwise stated.