When Emotions Become Dangerous: Working Through Guilt and Shame
Emotions add color and depth to our experiences, as well as acting like an inner navigational system. But what should we do when our emotions go astray?
Imagine a life without the capacity to feel anything. Emotions come from the God who created us. We know that because God Himself feels emotions and made us in His image (Genesis 1:26; Genesis 6:6; 1 John 4:16). He gave us a wide range of emotions that serve an important purpose. He did not give us both good and bad emotions. Bad emotions are the results of the misuse of the emotional capacity God gave us.
We can tend, however, to negatively dwell on certain emotions or ignore the warning signs that others bring us. This can lead to dangerous consequences. In this blog post we will explore the emotions of guilt and shame.
Good guilt: our conscience
Guilt is like a navigational beacon that tells us we have strayed off our moral course and need to change.Each of us is guided by an internal standard of right and wrong called a conscience. (As Christians, our goal is to educate our consciences to make sure they reflect God’s standards.) When we compromise that standard, we often feel the emotion of guilt.
This is a good thing! Our guilt is like a navigational beacon that tells us we have strayed off our moral course and need to change. How we respond to guilt is crucial. If we ignore the emotion—or worse begin to justify our behavior—it’s possible to move so far off course that we become morally lost.
The Bible records a group of people who experienced guilt and made a positive change. They were a church congregation that was allowing a terrible sin to take place in their midst. The apostle Paul had to bring the problem to their attention, because somehow their consciences were not working properly (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). When our consciences aren’t trained to work properly or we ignore them, we will tolerate worse and worse behavior.
The flip side of emotions
Sometimes though, our consciences are misguided. We can feel guilt for things that are unrealistic or unnecessary. For example, we may desire to make everyone happy and feel guilt when we have to say “no” to someone. Or maybe we are perfectionists to the extent that any little mistake or imperfection sends us into unreasonable guilt.
When we take on too much, feel guilt over things we have no control over or have a hard time forgiving ourselves long after we have received God’s forgiveness, we can be bombarded with emotions of self-doubt, negative self-worth and even self-loathing. This extreme sense of shame does not help us grow and can often become the source of even greater problems in our lives. Shame and guilt that do not lead to change and a forward focus on growth are destructive.
Working through destructive guilt
Here are three tips for working through destructive guilt:
Tip No. 1: Don’t ignore it!
Your conscience and guilt work in tandem. When your conscience convicts you of wrongdoing, guilt will follow. Pay attention. People often shove the feeling away and continue what they are doing. This makes our lives much worse! The conscience and the feeling of guilt are designed to work in tandem to produce action toward change—not to be buried and ignored.
Tip No. 2: Change what you can.
If your guilt is caused by your own negative behavior, then it is time to recognize the behavior for what it is and change it—in both your mind and your actions. Instead of burying it all inside you, go to God and confess your sins and seek His forgiveness (1 John 1:9). This is the first step in the process of repentance—the next step is taking concrete steps to change. Once we change, our goal must be to leave the wrong behavior and the guilt in the past and move forward.
If you are struggling with getting past guilt and moving forward, then it is time to seek help.
Tip No. 3: Recognize the unhealthy side of guilt.
When God forgives us of wrongdoing, He cleanses us. In other words, He removes those sins from us. They’re gone! When God forgives us, He expects us to have faith in that forgiveness and move forward. God does not want us to stay paralyzed by shame and self-hatred. This is often the path of self-destruction that leads us away from God.
There was a happy ending for the congregation that the apostle Paul wrote to in 1 Corinthians 5. Their response demonstrates the entire point of this blog post perfectly.
Their guilt, which was caused by wrongdoing on their part, led them to make necessary changes, both individually and as a group. Paul wrote to them again saying: “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. … What diligence it produced in you, … what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Corinthians 7:9-11).
This is God’s purpose for guilt! It should always lead to productive change in our lives.
Here are some resources for further insight into this important topic:
We have also prepared a series on dangerous emotions that you may find helpful: