Feeling Guilty?

Feelings of guilt of things we cannot control are the devil's device for stealing our joy. http://wp.me/p2UZoK-GEIf there’s one thing I’ve learned from cancer, it’s that guilt won’t cure it. I’ve also realized that there’s nothing like a pregnancy or a bad illness to bring out the loads of advice from well-meaning friends, family and strangers. The important thing is to understand where the guilt comes from and know what to do with it.

Guilt comes in two flavors—justified (as in you do something wrong or hurt someone and your conscience alerts you to the fact that you’ve done wrong) and unjustified. The unjustified guilt unreasonably pokes and prods you and prevents you from finding peace.

Unreasonable guilt can pop up at any time. For example, I feel badly if I refuse a fitness tip from my Wii fitness cartoon when I’m in a hurry and want to skip straight to the exercising. Unreasonable, I know. The cartoon doesn’t really care if I follow through with its advice.

Of course, when disaster strikes, real people come out of the woodwork to offer their solutions. That’s what happened to me when my husband had cancer. I wanted to please everyone. The trauma of the situation set up an internal dialogue system whereby I would suppress my initial reaction—yet feel guilty if I didn’t take the advice. After all, those who gave the advice had good intentions.

Looking back, I see that I let everyone’s shoulds and coulds practically squash the life out of me.

“Pedro should seek treatment in Cuba, there’s an amazing shark cartilage cure that they’re doing there that I saw on 60 Minutes.”

Well, I wouldn’t mind visiting Cuba, but Pedro has no desire to hang out there as long as there’s a Castro on the throne. But I felt badly about turning down well-meaning advice and researched an article or two about Cuba’s cancer treatment programs.

“I recommend the all-raw diet. Juice everything, cook nothing, and he’ll be fit as can be in just two months.”

Um, he might be dead in two months. He has stage IV non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—it grows rather quickly! But I couldn’t help promising to check out juicers.

“Pedro needs to get admitted to the local hospital in Dallas. They have an excellent cancer center, and we’d be able to help him out when he’s not in the hospital. You could stay in Montana and not worry about a thing.”

Not worry? When I’m separated by thousands of miles from my husband? We need to be close to each other in order to survive this. I don’t care if your hospital made U.S. News and World Reports’ top ten list. That’s just too far away. But I did research that hospital.

“My aunt’s ex-husband’s sister-in-law’s neighbor found a cancer cure in Baja, Mexico. Pedro should go down there.”

I’m happy for your aunt’s ex-husband’s sister-in-law’s neighbor. But, no. Of course, I couldn’t help looking at the website, though.

“Why did you let THAT person visit Pedro? Pedro’s neutropenic!”

THAT person happens to be a friend who traveled thousands of miles just to let us know that he cared. Wait a minute! Whose cancer is this? But I did start wasting Pedro’s valuable energy consulting him about visitors.

“You know, the nurses don’t like you. They say you’re pushy and rude and don’t let them do their jobs. Why don’t you just chill?”

Really? And here I thought I sat quietly in the corner, only asking the occasional question when I didn’t understand what they were doing. I keeping Pedro’s spirits up and walking with him and helping him eat will help with his recovery. I must be living a double life. But of course I turned my internal behavior monitor up a notch—eager to prove that I could act as the model family-member-in-the-room.

I’m sure you’ve suffered like this, too, with a litany of ‘you should’ and ‘you ought’ aimed your way. They pile up and threaten to drown you, because you probably already have a fair amount of self-imposed guilt weighing you down.

But I discovered something important. Just like there are two flavors of guilt, there are two places that guilt comes from. Justified guilt comes from the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and the intent is always to bring us back into a right relationship with God.

Unjustified guilt comes from the devil and he uses it to burden us and take our focus off the One who offers peace. (tweet this)

Both types of guilt require work, though—but we don’t have to work alone in either situation. For the justifiable guilt, God wants us to come before him in faith with a repentant, sincere heart. Not only will he forgive us (1 John 1:9), but he’ll cleanse our guilty conscience as well (Heb. 10:22).

The second kind of guilt—that feeling of regret, remorse or inadequacy—requires a different kind of work. First, we need to recognize it for what it is—an attack by the deceiver. Second, we need to put the devil in his place in the name of Jesus. (Mark 8:33). Third, we need to train our minds to remember that the ‘you shoulds’ and the ‘you ought tos’ are merely suggestions.

In retrospect, I can see that my guilt and consequent actions were misplaced. Those should statements* made me feel inadequate and guilty because I worried that if I didn’t do what someone suggested, I might mess things up and Pedro would never get better. See how tricky satan is? At no point in Pedro’s cancer journey was his prognosis or healing in my hands. It never depended on me. I am not God.

When someone makes a suggestion prefaced by ‘you should’ or ‘you ought to’ or ‘you could’, simply ask yourself, “Do I want to do this?” If the answer is, “Yes, it sounds wonderful!” smile and ask the person for more information.

If the answer is, “No! Are you kidding me?” smile and politely reply, “Thank you for the suggestion.” By calling it a suggestion, you subtly remind the person that what they are offering is simply a suggestion and you have no obligation to follow through or actually do what they suggest.

God doesn’t want our view of him fouled by false humility and misplaced guilt. When we’re justifiably guilty, we need to make it right with him. When we’re unjustifiably guilty, we need to ask for God’s help to banish the insinuations of the devil and train ourselves to tackle the shoulds and oughts in an appropriate manner.

Remember that feelings of guilt over things we cannot control are the devil’s device for stealing our joy. tweet this

*Dr. David D. Burns, in his excellent book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy points out that should statements are cognitive distortions. He offers excellent suggestions for dealing with the debilitating habit of should statements.

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a ‘recovering cancer caregiver’ who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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  • Wise words Anita. I can relate with other circumstances. I love how you ended this with suggestions on how to reply. Great ideas, friend.
    Jolene Underwood recently posted…When you need a different kind of restMy Profile

  • GREAT post.

    Though, when I read the “nurses don’t like you” thing…if someone would say that to me, I’d end up with reason to feel guilty, because they’d be on a liquid diet for a couple of months.

    On second though, I would actually feel pretty good about that.

    In dealing with my “terminality” (cool word, eh?) no one’s really offering advice, aside from “why don’t you just spare yourself the pain and give up?”. Thanks, but I know that part of their desire is that watching suffering is hard and they’re TIRED of it, and too bad for their sensibilities. I am not partial to hemlock.

    Right now, I do feel guilty, because my beloved old lab, Bernard, died of bloat a couple of days ago. He hid until he was beyond help.

    What galls me is that I had changed the way I was feeding the ‘big dogs’, soaking their kibble for at least an hour before feeding…and I was considering going to a twice-a-day schedule.

    Yeah, well, should have. But I really, really SHOULD have.

    I can use sophistry to dismiss the guilt (he was old, had a predisposition, and so on) but the fact is that I failed.

    the guilt, and regret, will always be with me, and that is only right, because they will make me that much more aware in the future.

    Well, for me, future, :”So to speak”. Ha!
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser recently posted…LOVE-U: E for EmpathizeMy Profile

    • I’m so very sorry for your loss, Andrew. I know how painful it can be to lose a family member who depended on you. May the Holy Spirit comfort you as you grieve.

      You are the epitome of bravery, my friend. I’m glad you don’t do hemlock, and that you put yourself out there day after day. Your words do make a difference and each beat of your heart counts.
      Anita Ojeda recently posted…Six Tips for Finding Financial Aid for Cancer PatientsMy Profile

  • Oh, this hurts my heart about all the advice you were given for Pedro. 🙁 I know people mean well, but it does put too much on a person! I see it happen over and over, regardless of the illness or the severity of it. It’s to the point where you hate to mention you’re sick because you’ll get bombarded with advice–and if you don’t take that advice, you’re often blamed for still being sick. We need to stop doing this to each other.

    This, instead, is truth!
    “At no point in Pedro’s cancer journey was his prognosis or healing in my hands. It never depended on me. I am not God.”
    Amen, Anita. I’ll be sharing this post!
    Lisa notes… recently posted…Books I’m reading – January ’15My Profile

    • I know, right? I’ve really dialed it down on my ‘advice giving’, and now I ask people if they want advice or if they’d like to hear what we did. A lot of times, I think it’s just difficult for people to know what to say, so the let loose with the first ‘encouraging’ thing they can think of. Thank you for sharing!
      Anita Ojeda recently posted…Six Tips for Finding Financial Aid for Cancer PatientsMy Profile

  • I’m sorry to hear about your struggles. But I fully understand. When my mother got sick we also got a lot of “advice” on how to help “heal” her. Long story short by taking on some of the advice she received she actually got worse and ended up back in the hospital. Thankfully she looked inside herself and decided she needed to see what it was she wanted and needed to get back to herself. Almost 20 years later and she’s in better health than me :D.
    We no longer are guilty when we say “we appreciate your advise or suggestions but it doesn’t flow with what we’re already doing”.
    Emily recently posted…Blog With Love {Join Us}My Profile

    • I’m so glad your mother’s health is improved! It can be a sticky, painful situation when well-meaning loved ones get upset when their advice isn’t taken :(. I’m glad you’ve found the strength to turn down advice in a kind way!
      Anita Ojeda recently posted…Six Tips for Finding Financial Aid for Cancer PatientsMy Profile

  • You are a wise woman to see that people need to say something that makes them feel they have helped you so they don’t feel helpless themselves. Cancer is scary. You faced your guilt and are dealing with your fear. The people who try to push off theirs to you did not. Bravo to you. Great post. Kudos.

    Now, I know a great place in …….Just kidding.
    Keep doing what you know is right in your heart.
    Snarky Momma With (@SnarkyMommaWith) recently posted…Top Ten List of Spousal LoveMy Profile

  • Anita- This is spot on. Thank you for sharing your experience with unjustified guilt… I am a sufferer of that internal monologue, and you’re right- it sucks the life right out of us. This is a great reminder of how to minister to those who are suffering… to put away the should and could and love simply. I love this line: “God doesn’t want our view of him fouled by false humility and misplaced guilt. ” Amen! Your writing gift is such a blessing!
    Karen Brown recently posted…Heaven Off Highway EMy Profile

    • Thank you for your kind, encouraging words, my friend! I often wonder if some of my guilt comes because I get a God complex and think my children should turn out a certain way–and when they don’t, I’m all over myself for their failures or shortcomings. Hmmm, something to think about!
      Anita Ojeda recently posted…Six Tips for Finding Financial Aid for Cancer PatientsMy Profile

  • And this is when I find myself leaning into grace. Not letting myself be bogged down by my own guilt or those who are trying to impose it on to me but walking in His grace. Thanks for these words!
    Rachel Quigley recently posted…I’m finally getting this texting thing downMy Profile

  • This is so good!! I am sure your words are going to help so many people because it’s such a common issue. I know first hand from my daughters diagnosis that well meaning people do have suggestions for everything! Even sometimes on a spiritual level like going to a certain prayer meeting for healing. Your advice is simple and easy to follow. I will be putting that in my back pocket for when I need it!
    Messy Mom recently posted…Pinned It Spinned ItMy Profile

  • Anita, Thank you for sharing these wise words. People have good intentions, but we need to remember we love better when we listen with compassion than when we push unsolicited advice. What we don’t realize is that we’re actually discouraging each other from talking about their struggles. I’m so sorry about your experience. Blessings and hugs!
    Deb Wolf recently posted…You Can Trust God’s Unlimited LoveMy Profile

  • This is such a great reminder, friend! For those hearing advice, as well as those giving it! Great post!
    ~Karrilee~ recently posted…When Fog Looks Like Glory and It Helps You Remember…My Profile

  • I’m asking the Lord which type I’m carrying around today. Life is hard. And satan’s a bastard. (Am I allowed to say that here?)
    Wendy recently posted…when brothers have different love languagesMy Profile

    • Sure! You’re calling a spade a spade ;). Maybe a test would be: If it’s something we need to ask forgiveness for from God or man (or both), than it’s justifiable. If there’s no one to ask forgiveness from, it’s unjustifiable.
      Anita Ojeda recently posted…Six Tips for Finding Financial Aid for Cancer PatientsMy Profile

  • Thanks for the reminder – I do struggle with this
    Debra Alexander recently posted…Day 23 – Fear NotMy Profile

  • Yes, Anita, just yes! While your circumstances are much different that mine and my, how you have handled them with such grace here, I can totally relate. I’ve battled guilt a lot in my life – it holds hands with that perfectionist streak. Mom guilt, wife guilt, career guilt – oh yes – joy stealing lies and a false gospel from a treacherous enemy! Thank you for the wise and practical counsel.
    Tiffany recently posted…How God Made MeMy Profile

  • Great post Anita. I have had alot of “helpful” misguided “advice” from loved ones and friends during our infertility journey as well. And it has taught me a valuable lesson…just ask people “how can I pray for you today?” That is so much more comforting than pieces of advice that may hurt more than help, even if well intentioned!
    Nicki Schroeder recently posted…Worship While You’re WaitingMy Profile

    • I’m so sorry that you’ve had to suffer through good intentions. I love your solution. Coming alongside of someone is so much better than offering ‘good advice.’
      Anita Ojeda recently posted…Losing My FocusMy Profile

  • Oh those well meaning suggestions…..I take things to heart too and it can feel devastating and isolating when you are dealing with the guilt on top of everything else. My husband can shake things off or forget them so fast. Wish I could do that easier!
    Sarah Donegan recently posted…Flip Negative Self TalkMy Profile

    • Crazy how well-meaning words affects each of us differently. My husband can shake things off a lot easier, too.
      Anita Ojeda recently posted…Losing My FocusMy Profile

  • There is always a reason, I am late returning some blog love to my precious five for five ladies, but it came at just the right time, I have been able to share almost every post tonight with specific people that were on my heart and that I prayed with at church today! Thank you for sharing this journey with me with us!
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