A few weeks ago I wrote that having anxiety is a gift even though it can feel like quite the opposite. Another one of these gifts that is often considered a burden is guilt, but guilt is a wonderful thing because it is a powerful teacher and accountability partner. Guilt teaches us when something was a bad choice and it can keep us from doing that thing over again. One of the hardest challenges for good people is dealing with unnecessary guilt. This is guilt for something that shouldn’t leave us feeling guilty or it is an exaggeration of the guilt we should actually feel for what we did. For instance, it’d be like a guy feeling bad for forgetting to wish his friend a happy birthday, but then the birthday boy feels guilty for being a source of guilt for the other guy. If the first person should feel a little bad for forgetting, but it’s not a life or death situation. Forgetting to call the friend on his deathbed would be a different story. If the birthday boy feels any guilt for the other person’s mistake that would be unnecessary guilt. Why do you feel bad for this? The problem is good people have this desire to beat themselves up. They exaggerate their guilt and find things to feel guilty about even when there’s no reason. This is discussed in more detail in my book Emotional Sex: Making Good Relationships Great, but for this article, I’d like to illustrate this with a story… an amusing story… an amusing story that’s also quite horrible… you’ll see.
Two years ago I had the privilege of staying overnight at the hospital. The accommodations were… you know… gross. Sharing a room with four people with two using bedpans… not the choice I would make on vacation. The main problem, however, was I ended up in a room with a moaner. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but in the hospital there is often someone who likes to vocalize how they feel by going “Uhhhhh”. It’s not a nice sound and this particular guy had endurance; it’s like he had practiced. He was doing this nonstop for several hours… awesome. The only break came when he needed a breath “Uhhhhhh,” (breath) “uhhhhhhh.” On the plus side, he taught me that moaning isn’t like ocean sounds that help you sleep; it’s quite the opposite. It would be great motivational sounds for football teams trying to get pumped before the big game: (Recorded moaner) “Uhhhh!” (Angry football player) “That noise makes me want to kill somebody!” After several hours of this “Uhhhh,” (breath) “uhhhh,” lying in my bed grinding my teeth I quietly said: “Dear God make it stop.” Can you guess where this is going? You know in movies where they have the heart monitor that goes beep, beep, beep, and when somebody dies it goes beeeeeeee… now I bet you know where this is going. While the moaner was a moan’n he took a breath, and ceased to continue moaning. It was delightful. I figured he was taking a break or maybe he fell asleep because he remained silent. The presenting problem, however, was that his machine was not silent; it started going beeeeeee. My first thought was: “Hey cool; that’s the beep noise you hear in movies.” I was excited like I had met someone famous: (Fan) “I know him!” Suddenly, it dawned on me, “That’s the noise you hear in movies when somebody… oh no.” My next thought was “Oh no, I’ve killed him. My prayer killed him… I have super powers.” I was then really confused; should I feel bad for killing him or excited that I’ve discovered I have super powers? Not knowing how to answer that question I started thinking, “Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. I’m turning into a super villain… or maybe I’m actually a Jedi. Maybe I killed him with my mind.” It was all very scary and exciting at the same time. I always wanted to be a Jedi. At that moment my thoughts were interrupted by a group of doctors who ran to his bed. One of them pulled the curtain around them for privacy… privacy from eyesight; not from sound. I could definitely hear what they were saying. Did you know doctors swear? They definitely do, but they use bigger words to surround the not so big words used for swearing. As they worked I wanted to yell, “I’m sorry; it’s all my fault… I’m a Jedi,” but they were busy… and it was so peaceful. Unlike moaning, the beep noise is like soothing oceans sounds for sleeping. I had a great sleep. Don’t worry; it’s okay; I know I’m a horrible person. When I woke up the bed and its contents were no longer there, which was a sign that the doctors were not successful. At least they were not as successful at reviving him as I was at putting an end to the moaning.
Ultimately, I know I didn’t cause this person to die. I don’t have superpowers… sadly… but the stupid thing is I still felt guilty for what had happened. Should I feel guilty for being angry at his moaning? No. Should I feel guilty for wishing it would stop? No. Should I feel guilty if I had of used a pillow to choke him out so he’d stop moaning? Yes, but that’d be a whole other story. In the moment I had a right to be angry about the moaning and I didn’t do anything mean to hurt this person emotionally or physically. Thus, I shouldn’t feel bad like I had done something wrong because I didn’t. Do you know the answer to fixing this problem? It’s so simple it’s annoying: tell myself not to feel guilty and then distract myself. That’s it. Tell myself to be nice to me and not beat myself up because I didn’t do anything wrong even though it feels that way (remember: feelings are liars). And yet despite knowing we need to say no to feeling unnecessary guilt, many of us will still have a hard time with following through with this. I know because I’ve been trying to do this for several years. It gets easier the more we do it, but when you care about people it can be difficult to not feel bad when they are hurting. At the same time, however, it’s time we treated ourselves with the same kind of love. It’s time we protected ourselves from unnecessary and exaggerated guilt. Just say no and then distract yourself.
Rev Chad David, Emotional Sex, emotional tune up