A Few More Thoughts on Guilt

Saturday, I wrote about guilt and shame, but a few more things ought to be said because some people carry unwarranted guilt and shame. Consider the person abused as a child or caught in their parents’ divorce. Guilt in these scenarios is not warranted because they did nothing to contribute to the abuse or the divorce, yet it is common for those who live through such pain to carry a degree of guilt.

Perhaps this guilt is incomplete grief? The classic 5-stage model of grief tells us that as we mourn, we typical experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in some degree. It seems that guilt occurs when one becomes entrenched in the bargaining phase.

The bargaining phase is where we tend to play the, “If only…” game. In terms of a physical death, it is not a very constructive phase, and often leads to some feelings of guilt. I encourage people to try not to dwell on the “if onlys” since little can be done to change the facts at this point. Sometimes genuine confession and repentance is necessary.

In terms of an abuse or divorce situation, the “if onlys” can become “what ifs” as the situation is playing out. “What if I try to be really good and not make them angry any more?” and the like. The child is usually taking responsibility that does not belong to them and when their stratagem does not work, they feel guilt because they think they didn’t try hard enough.

This unresolved guilt can feed the depression often felt in a loss. It’s easy to see the loss in a divorce, but with abuse, a victim can often not recognize their own loss. The failed attempts to correct the situation combined with the shame of being abused can create a lasting depression.

How do we deal with this sort of guilt and shame? First, you have to understand that whatever you did that seemed to contribute to the abuse did not actually do so. Other children also misbehave, etc and are not abused. Your actions that seem to have fed into the cycle of abuse were not the cause of the abuse. The abuse was another person’s actions inflicted upon you.

Even the child who places themselves between a mother and a father in order to try to protect one of them and becomes themselves the target of abuse is not guilty of their own abuse. They were acting in hopes of defending and instead found themselves on the defensive.

Issues of guilt and shame in such situations can be difficult to resolve, especially since attempts to cope may have led to sinful behaviors. But with wise counsel, they can be overcome and the guilt can be placed where it belongs, with those whose actions caused the injury. Then subsequent guilt and shame from reactions can be addressed, confessed, and repented as necessary.

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