Women and Happiness Part 2 — Guilt

I was planning to go somewhere else with this next post on why women are unhappy, but a recent conversation with a good friend convinced me that I should start here.

So let’s talk, shall we, about that familiar kill-joy for women everywhere: guilt.

In my previous post, I mentioned that I was struck by a paragraph in Captivating that said that almost every woman has a deep sense that she is failing — and not just failing at what she does, but failing at who she is: a fear that she is not good enough, not beautiful enough, not kind enough, not disciplined enough…or too emotional, too needy, too overbearing, too strong.

The result is guilt, a powerful, consuming emotion that drives us to alternating periods of frantic activity and despondent idleness.  We’ve all been there.  We’re frantic when it strikes, vowing to never eat processed sugars again, or deep clean the house in a single afternoon, or catch up on all the tasks we’ve been procrastinating for weeks; and then when we run out of steam, which we inevitably do, we slump into the couch, bitter and exhausted, and say, “Screw it.  It doesn’t matter anyway.”

Until the next time guilt rears its ugly head and we do it all over again.

I’m not sure why we’re so afflicted, though research has shown that women are much more prone to guilt than men.  Regardless of its social or inherent causes, I think at its core, guilt is a spiritual issue — or at least it has profound spiritual implications.

That’s because, like all the fear-based emotions we experience on a daily basis, guilt boils down to a fundamental lack of trust in God.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean that as an accusation.  If there’s one thing I struggle with, it’s trusting God.  But when we strip away the anxiety, the busy-ness, the quiet desperation that guilt produces, we’re left with this undeniable fact:

When we’re feeling guilty, we simply do not trust that who we are is “good enough” for God.

We do not believe that we can be loved…accepted…honored…just the way we are.   What’s more, we never even consider that who we are is precisely who God made us to be.

I’m not sure why, but it seems to me that women in particular fight desperately to “measure up” to some arbitrary standard of perfection, physically, socially, sexually, spiritually.   We envy those women who seem to have it “all together.”  We struggle to make our lives mirror theirs.

It never occurs to us that maybe God didn’t put us down here to conform to some unbending standard of “rightness” — but that perhaps our differences, our idiosyncrasies, our unique gifts (and yes, our unique weaknesses) — are precisely how He planned it.

That our diversity is a beautiful manifestation of His Infinite Majesty.

That in our individuality, we express Him much more fully than when we try to bend our spirit to some preconceived notion of what we’re “supposed” to be.

What would it do to our guilt levels to be able to say: “I might not be a scholar or an athlete or a spiritual giant, but I am a gifted writer or cook or organizational genius…and that is all I need to be” — and then accept, really accept, that who we are IS enough, that we’re doing just fine in God’s eyes?

Wouldn’t that change everything?

One final thought.  Of course, I’m not suggesting that there is no right and wrong and that we will never be required to make course corrections along our way.  We’re human, after all.  But even in those moments when we feel compelled to repent, there is a profound difference between the Spirit’s agent of change, Godly Sorrow, and guilt, which is Satan’s counterfeit.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, so I put together a little chart outlining what I believe are the major differences between them.  I think understanding how God speaks vs. how guilt speaks is crucial to finding the path our Father has laid out for us.  Only then can we be empowered by His grace to become more and more who He wants us to be.

Guilt… Godly Sorrow…
Produces feelings of anxiety and fear Produces feelings of calmness and
Encourages shame, silence, and lies Leads to open, direct confession
Distorts the truth Reveals the truth
Is full of self-loathing Is full of mercy
Creates confusion, worry and
Shows a clear path to reconciliation
Is desperate and miserable Is full of hope for change

Anyway, I’d love to get some feedback on the thoughts I’ve shared here.  What do you think?  Why are women so influenced by guilt?  How do you tell the difference between guilt and Godly Sorrow?  Do you have any strategies or tips for overcoming guilt?  Anything else you’d like to add?

This post is one in a series.  Get the rest of the series here.

About Katie L

A doubter by nature, a believer by grace.

Posted on September 21, 2010, in Mental Health, Mormonism, Thoughts on God, Women and Happiness and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think if you feel as though you should hide in a corner and it will always ‘be this bad’, its a lie from the enemy. If you look at yourself/situation and think ‘this could be better’ its guidance from God, either way you need to pray for God’s intervention and believe in Him to move for you.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post and can see how every woman has at some point struggled with these very ideas. Women like men, have many roles to fulfill in life. Women however not only have the societal expectation to do it “all”, do it “well”, but to do it with a “smile” (as Social Psych teaches). This is a ridiculous notion and yet we all strive to meet it. Just like men try to achieve their roles of the ultimate provider, alpha male, and partner/parent/etc.
    I think the Lord works in mysterious ways and if we are open to mercy and self-acceptance we can travel many roads and take guilt by the horns. The trick I think is getting to the point where we can become honest with ourselves and say; There is the ‘idea of perfection’ and of course I would like to achieve that, however (the the realistic moment) perfection is a foolish man’s errand and the work of Satan’s hand, undoubtedly trying to drive even the purest of heart to some level of madness.
    Guilt is one of those essential parts of life’s journey that we must learn to recognize and embrace to some degree, it is then I think that we can grow to reach the higher level of Godly sorrow per your description.

  3. One of the best gifts my mother gave me was teaching me about math. She said ” I am a mathematician, and as a mathematician I can define this to be perfect.” Yep, my hair = perfect, my body = perfect, my life = perfect. My mom = perfect. This is not to say that she never made mistakes, she did, and then she did what she could to fix them, and that was perfect too.

  4. iameve, thanks for stopping by! Indeed, hiding and lying are NOT God’s way of handling things. I think we forget that sometimes. 🙂

    M, The trick I think is getting to the point where we can become honest with ourselves and say; There is the ‘idea of perfection’ and of course I would like to achieve that, however (the the realistic moment) perfection is a foolish man’s errand and the work of Satan’s hand,

    I’d take this a step further and say that the “idea of perfection” we have is completely flawed — so I don’t know what the value is in even saying we’d “like” to achieve it. My guess is that when we are perfected, we will look so much different than anything we could have imagined in mortality, that any attempts we make here will seem feeble and silly. At the same time, knowing that we are perfected in Christ, now, this moment, eliminates our need to be anything other than what we are moment by moment by moment — even as He leads us toward greater things.

    Jo, that is lovely. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  5. I’ve been thinking about the same thing recently, in trying to figure out who and what I want to be when I grow up, so that now I can work towards it.

    While I’ve been contemplating what will ultimately bring my satisfaction, it means I have to let go of other stuff that I don’t care that much about (even if I “should”), or care about but don’t have the time or the means to focus on along with other priorities.

    Realizing that I’m the kind of mom who loves my kids desperately, but occasionally uses the television as a babysitter, and that I totally let me kids watch Friends with me, is liberating. It’s different than what many people would consider okay, or appropriate, but it’s what works for me and for my kids, and I’m okay with it. And becoming okay with it (and not feeling guilty) was a big relief. My kids aren’t going to grow up into truants because they watched a sitcom for grown ups. (And, for the record, I didn’t watch “The One With All The Porn” with them.)

    And then, moving on to the difference between Guilt and Godly Sorrow, I think what you said makes a lot of sense. I’ve spent a lot of time with people who are addicts, during periods of addiction, and periods of recovery. And, when in the cycle of addiction, I’ve seen those qualities you listed for guilt.

    And when people are (successfully) recovering, I have seen the qualities of godly sorrow. And it’s so much healthier for them.

  6. While I’ve been contemplating what will ultimately bring my satisfaction, it means I have to let go of other stuff that I don’t care that much about (even if I “should”), or care about but don’t have the time or the means to focus on along with other priorities.

    I love this. I have a client who is a professional skating coach and she always says that balance is a myth. Champions, she says, recognize that they can’t do it all and don’t even try. They accept what they’re good at and spend their energy cultivating those gifts, while supplementing their weaknesses with a support system of people who are gifted in areas they lack. They are generous with other people’s complementary talents as opposed to envious, because a)–they are satisfied with the talents they possess; and b)–they have let go of the idea that someone else’s excellence somehow threatens them.

    I think something like this is what Paul was talking about when he talked about the Body of Christ having different parts, but each of them necessary. It’s not that way just in our faith communities, but in our personal lives as well.

    Regarding guilt and Godly Sorrow: that’s an interesting observation about addicts. Guilt is very seductive, but ultimately totally worthless in terms of helping us change or maximize the life we’re given.

  7. So I was talking to Kullervo this afternoon via IM, and he pointed out to me that there is a big difference between guilt and shame — and that I have conflated the two here.

    Specifically, “The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus” (source).

    In other words, guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done — a reasonable response, assuming that what you’ve done is actually wrong. Shame, on the other hand, is feeling bad about who you are — and that is not reasonable or healthy under almost any circumstance (unless, I suppose, you’re Jeffrey Dahmer, at which point you’d be a psychopath and have NO feelings of guilt or remorse anyway, by definition).

    I think much of what I’m calling “guilt” in this post could more appropriately be labeled “shame.” Just an FYI for folks.

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