Feeling Guilty for Feeling Guilty

I’ve heard the prayer of confession over a hundred times in my life. But as I sat in church this Christmas Eve watching the reverend at the altar lead the parish in reciting its words, I realized I’d never listened to it.

(For the record, I know exactly why I never listened: because I was a bored kid sitting in church, flipping through that Sunday’s handout to see how much longer it would be until the service was over (Ok, we’re on page four now, and there are nine total pages, so we’re almost halfway done).)

Maybe it was the new reverend’s presence that day – commanding and sure – or maybe it was the congregation, more engaged and earnest than usual on Christmas Eve. Or maybe I had finally made progress at “being present” in each moment (#mindfulness!!!). Whatever the reason, for the first time in the many hours of church services I’ve attended, I stopped to listen to the words of the prayer. I listened closely, following along line by line in my handout as we read together.

And in my mindful listening, or close reading, or whatever you want to call it — one part of the prayer stood out to me:

“Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.”

By what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

 


 

I’ve been asked, and asked myself, many times before: “What’s your biggest regret?” And for whatever reason – though this may seem obvious to others – in that moment I finally understood why I’ve never been able to answer that question: because I never regret things I have done, but instead the things I haven’t done. And, furthermore, “regret” probably isn’t the accurate word to describe how I feel: it’s guilt.

The concept of leaving things “undone” is usually associated with regret (“I regret not doing this” or “I regret not saying that”), but regret isn’t something I often experience. Instead of regretting something I didn’t do or didn’t say, I feel guilty for it. I feel guilty about the plans I cancelled with my friend because I was tired. I feel guilty about not traveling to see my grandmother and family more often. I feel guilty about not volunteering as much as I could, and about having so much privilege. I feel guilty that I don’t work harder and I feel guilty that I’m not as good or kind or selfless of a person as I could be.

It’s a guilt that is persistent and pervasive. It’s a guilt that sits heavy in my stomach and permeates everything I say and do. It’s an unending guilt about everything I could be doing but am not; about the person I could be but am not.

What’s the relationship between guilt and regret? Does it make sense that in my head I confound the two? Where does “shame” fit in? If I feel guilty about who I am, does that qualify instead as shame? Is it useful for me to feel guilty all the time? Does it make me feel worse, or is it motivating?

At the end of the day, I want to operate out of love and honesty, not guilt and fear. I’m afraid the latter is what I’ve been doing.

 


 

Obviously, the next logical step in this self-discovery process is to consult the interwebs, namely Psychologytoday.com.

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Ha. Interesting. Seems relevant.

I’m writing about this because I don’t have answers (Is my guilt warranted? Is it at all helpful? If not, how can find a more productive emotion? One that enables me to be simultaneously selfless and good and not paralyzingly guilt-ridden?). And, in a shocking turn of events, Psychologytoday.com did not provide me with much insight into my own psychological issues. It’s something I’ll have to think more about. This, my friends, is why I go to therapy!

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