Dr. Gary G. Taylor
When You Feel Shame or Guilt
Missionaries tend to experience more guilt during their period of service than at any other time in their life. Why? In part, no doubt due to the higher standard that they have committed to live. Obviously, the higher the standard, the more things there are to feel guilty about; and the more likely it is that one’s best effort will fall short. This leads to another question. Is increased guilt a good thing or a bad thing? It’s true, guilt and shame can motivate repentance and lead to increased motivation to improve oneself. The Apostle Paul, who calls guilt “Godly sorrow”, points out that it “worketh repentance to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Also, guilt is an essential part of our conscience; which we know to be part of the Light of Christ given to everyone by a loving Heavenly Father (D & C 84:46; Moroni 7). This is certainly a good thing; and much needed as we make our way through life.
On the other hand, experience teaches us that under some circumstances, guilt and shame can lead to decreased motivation, depression, anxiety, and lowered self-confidence--not a good thing at all. This is particularly true of shame. Although shame and guilt are similar, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably; our brains react differently to these two emotions and their impact is different. With guilt we recognize that we have made a mistake and/or have failed to live up to our potential. With shame, there is a sense that we are a mistake. We are a failure. Guilt is about what we have done or didn’t do. Shame is more about who we fundamentally are. As a result, guilt will more often lead to accepting responsibility for our mistakes and shortcomings and taking steps to make correction and improvement. Shame is more likely to result in giving up; and it can lead to escape behavior such as social withdrawal or drugs.
All of this suggests that we would be better off not experiencing shame--ever. Guilt though, has its place and is a God-given, healthy emotion; but it can cause problems if taken to extreme. Following are several suggestions that hopefully can help us avoid shame altogether; and manage guilt so that it works for and not against us.
To avoid shame as defined above, we need to understand, and remember, who we really are; and the opportunity to be forgiven of our past mistakes that is available to all of us through the grace of Christ. This is especially important at those times when we feel the most worthless. If in fact we are a son or daughter of God with a divine heritage and infinite potential; which is true of everyone on the planet; we simply cannot at the same time be worthless and fundamentally flawed. Our thoughts and actions may be worthless and fundamentally flawed; but those thoughts and actions can be changed and need not define us. It’s also true that unless we give up and quit trying, it’s never too late to make needed changes. Quoting Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “however late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard”, April General Conference, 2012). Of course, these truths apply to everyone in every situation; but perhaps especially to missionaries who have decided that they are failures as missionaries and/or unworthy to be in the Lord's service and have given up.
Shame centers in our judgment of ourselves; but also involves unhealthy concern about what others think of us. To combat the natural tendency to worry about what others will think of us when we make mistakes, it helps to remember that most people are focused on themselves and those close to them. What we have or haven’t done is not something they pay a lot of attention to. Memories are also short. Generally, others won’t remember or care for long about even major mistakes we make. For those close to us who will care; it’s important to remember that most of them will be much more forgiving and understanding than we imagine. And for those few who make and persist in harsh judgements, it should be possible to keep a distance. These are not the people we want to be close to anyway. Lastly, it helps to remember that the great majority of us are impressed when people admit their mistakes and overcome them. There is always the opportunity here for the transgressor to become the hero.
As suggested above, experiencing shame is generally not helpful; but guilt is a different matter. Guilt can be an important help in becoming our best selves; but only if kept within certain bounds. Following are a few guidelines that can help determine when it is and is not helpful to feel guilty. Underlying these guidelines is the truth that we can manage guilt by choices in how we think. Saying this a different way, with persistence, we can talk ourselves out of feeling guilty. We just need to be sure that we are acting in our best interest when we do so.
1. An Elder is working hard but feels guilty about not teaching or baptizing as many as expected. As a result, he feels unfulfilled in his mission service; and he is putting unreasonable pressure on himself to do better. This missionary might ask himself, am I doing something that will disqualify me for a temple recommend? Does what I’m doing make me unworthy to partake of the Sacrament? If the missionary asking these questions of himself is thinking clearly; he will recognize that he need not feel guilty when he is doing his best; even if the outcome of his efforts is falling short. He just needs to continue doing his best and leave the results in the hands of the Lord. No matter the situation, asking ourselves these two questions will often reveal that feeling guilt in that particular situation is not necessary and could be harmful.
2. A sister has a serious boyfriend who is serving in a different mission. She is working hard as a missionary; but she thinks about her boyfriend a lot and misses him dearly, which has led her to have a guilty feeling that she is not properly focused on her mission. When she discussed her concern with her Mission President, he assured her that he saw no problem with what she was experiencing. Generally, when someone who’s opinion we trust tells us that they see no problem with something we have done, that is a good indication that guilt is not necessary.
3. A missionary was driving normally, but a child ran out in front of the car he was driving and was killed. This missionary felt enormous guilt following this incident. Generally, guilt is not necessary or helpful when we make an innocent mistake; or when something happens that we didn’t intend and couldn’t reasonably control. In hindsight, we can always see a way that whatever happened might have been avoided; but in real life we don’t have the luxury of hindsight. The truth is that this kind of thing can happen to any of us; and such events are not our fault. Concern about the victim of an incident we are involved in is important and helpful; but guilt will only cause problems.
When Guilt is Justified
Following are a few ideas important when you determine that the guilt you are feeling is justified. Following guidelines like these can help ensure that the guilt we feel will move us toward repentance and self-forgiveness; not shame, self-loathing, and giving up.
1. Pray for guidance and help in identifying and then making changes in your thinking, lifestyle, and behavior that will help you avoid similar mistakes or actions in the future. Take action to make things better.
2. Atone or make meaningful reparations. Pray for direction and help in doing whatever possible to make things right.
3. Apologize to those offended effectively. That means to fully accept responsibility (no blaming the victim, circumstance, or others). Effective apology also means doing whatever possible to make things right; and fully committing to not let it happen again.
4. Remember that we don’t become perfect in an instant. If you slip up on a commitment; recommit and get back on track. Don’t let the failure derail you or cause you to think it’s impossible.
5. Do what you reasonably can to apologize and make things right; then formally decide to move on; even if it seems like those offended have not forgiven you; or if you are not yet the perfect person you intend to become. At that point, don’t focus on the mistake. Forgive yourself and reengage in life to the fullest.