What’s The Difference Between True Guilt and False Guilt

Morning friends,

I so appreciate this community and the faithful participants who pray for one another and regularly respond with wisdom and compassion. Thanks also for your support in my desire to keep this blog open to fresh air and other people’s perspectives.

I told you a while back that I had a big life change coming up and asked for your prayers. The change is now official. I am moving to Arizona in November.

You all know how much I LOVE seeing my granddaughters. For the past two years we’ve been spending winters there to build those relationships. Last winter we realized that with them soon entering school full days during the week, it would be harder to get that quality time.

On our drive home from California, we stopped in Phoenix to check out the housing (much cheaper than California) and visit with my cousin. We found a house we liked near Surprise, AZ. and after several months of back and forth, were able to purchase it. We thought we’d go back there for this next winter and holidays so that the whole family – grandkids, daughter, son, could come and stay with us there. That would give us the quality time we longed for and a place for everyone to gather, as our apartment in California was tiny as is my daughter’s apartment.

The closing of the house was in July where everyone joined to celebrate. My son loved it so much he applied for and got a job right near our new home. In August he moved there, living in our new house while looking for his own place. We thought, “Wow, this is coming together much differently than we thought. Now both of our adult kids are on the West coast area and perhaps after this winter is over, we should put our Pennsylvania house up for sale and move out there full time.”

Someone from my husband’s circle of contacts saw a picture of our home and heard we were thinking of moving and asked if they could look at our house. They had just sold their house and thought our house might be perfect. They bought it – unplanned and unexpected. Last Friday, when all the inspections and papers were finalized, it became official.

What that means is we are selling our entire house contents (our house is furnished in Arizona) and moving November 18th. Please pray for me. This is an unexpected blessing and added stress to my already overflowing plate. I have my CONQUER conference coming in two weeks, plus other speaking engagements I had booked months ago when I had no idea I would be moving so soon.

Plus to de-clutter 25 years of “stuff”, sell everything, pack up the rest and move while working feels a bit overwhelming. So the blog will continue, I have lots to say, but I’m sorry if I don’t pop on as often as I would like. It seems like every extra minute is spent either throwing something away or putting it in a box. Prayers appreciated.

On another note, I am doing a free webinar next Tuesday, October 4th, on the topic: Are you in an Emotionally Destructive Marriage? If you know someone who might benefit from attending, click here to register.

Plus I’ll be doing a live FB event tonight (September 28) at 7:30 PM ET answering the question Is Indifference Considered Emotionally Abusive? Simply go to my Facebook Fan Page.

Hope to see you there.


Question: How do I discern true guilt from false guilt? I want to please God and serve others for Him, but I don't want to give in to manipulators, either in my family or my friends.

Answer: I thought this question was a fitting follow-up to our question from last week on whether or not a manipulator knows he or she is manipulating.

If a manipulator can make you feel guilty for saying no, he or she is much more likely to be successful in getting you to back down. Their strategy is to make you feel as if you are doing something wrong or you are being selfish when you won’t do what he or she wants. A manipulator’s thinking is simple. He believes, “If you love me, then you’ll always do what I want.” Therefore, if you say no, then you must not love me or you are selfish.

A two-year-old uses this tactic on his mother to get her to buy them something while standing in line at the grocery store. Most mothers are wise enough not to be manipulated by these tantrums. We know that a firm “no” to our child is the most loving thing we can do. The same is true for other relationships. Saying no to manipulation is actually taking a stand against someone else’s sin. This is a good thing.

However, when the manipulator is not our child, but our mother or husband or adult child, it’s much harder not to get sucked into his or her drama. It doesn’t help that they often accuse us of being unloving and selfish because we are not giving into their demands, and consequently, we’re tempted to feel guilty.

So what’s the way out? Let’s first look at Jesus. He never sinned, never was selfish yet he did say no. He didn’t always do what people expected or wanted him to do. Jesus took time out for friendship, rest, relaxation, and prayer (Mark 6:30-31,46). When you feel guilty because you’ve said no to someone, take a moment to read Mark 1:29-39.

In this passage, we learn that Jesus went to Simon Peter’s house for a relaxing dinner, but people brought the sick to Jesus and the whole town gathered at the door. Can you imagine the pressure Jesus felt with everyone pressing in on him to do something? That evening he healed many people, but he eventually said no more and went to sleep. Those who were left behind unhealed must have felt disappointed.

While it was still dark, Jesus woke up and went off by himself to pray. Peter eventually came looking for him. “Jesus, where have you been? Everyone back home is waiting for you.” Jesus answered Peter saying, “I’m not going back to your house. Let’s go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

Jesus knew he could not do everything everyone wanted him to do and still do what God wanted him to do. During that quiet time of prayer, Jesus asked the Father to help him discern between the good things and the best things. Just like we do, Jesus had to make some hard choices – to please God or to please others. He chose pleasing God. This priority regularly cost him the disapproval and disappointment of others, including his disciples, religious leaders, and his own family (see Matthew 26:8; Mark 3:21-22).

To break free from the guilt trip, we must all learn to distinguish between true guilt and false guilt. True guilt is a God-given warning signal that we are violating God’s moral law. False guilt arises when we or another human being judges our actions, ideas, or feelings as wrong, even if there is nothing sinful about them.

So next time you’re struggling with guilt, do these three things.

  1. Go to God’s word for clarity. Am I breaking God’s moral law or is it some other human being’s law such as “Thou shall never say no to me”?
  2. Invite the Holy Spirit to search you and see if there is any wicked way in you (Psalm 139:23-24). You may find you have more guilt over feeling angry and resentful that you said “yes” when you wanted to say “no” than you would have if you had just said “no” in the first place.
  3. Ask yourself this question. If I say “yes,” am I saying, “yes” because I want to or because God asks me to? Or do I feel I pressured to say “yes” because I’m afraid to say “no”?

Remember, you are a finite, limited human being. When you say “yes” to something, you also always say “no” to something else (Click to tweet).

When you repeatedly say “yes” to a manipulator, keep in mind that you are also saying “no” to your own needs, to perhaps your children’s needs, or to the greater good of what God wants for you. When you accept that you can’t always make everyone happy with you, (Jesus couldn't either) then the false guilt will dissipate.

Friends, how did you recognize the false guilt trip you gave yourself or someone put on you? And, how did you get rid of it?


  1. Allyson on September 28, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    Everytime I check this blog it’s always right on point. There is something I need to/want to say no too but like the last two times I drag my feet. When I say no the whirlwind of manipulation will take place. Phrases like “you don’t love me” “that’s so unfair” “I cannot believe you will do this to our family” “I have lost all the power and control, not that it’s about control” “you don’t care for me or the kids” ….the list goes on and on. I feel like I’m barely surviving and the thought of going into months of this is tourchurous to me. It’s toxic.

    But it’s manipulation and false guilt.

  2. Allyson on September 28, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Also Leslie what a crazy puzzle peice of events. The Lord is doing some amazing things, thanks for sharing and allowing us to lift you up in prayer.

    • Leslie Vernick on September 28, 2016 at 3:53 pm

      Thanks. IT is a bit crazy but trusting God for the strength to get it all done.

  3. Susan on September 28, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    Where do you see in the Scripture text that (1) Jesus said ‘no’ to some who came to be healed and (2) that He asked the Father to help Him discern between the good and the best things? It’s important to get God’s Word right.

    • Leslie Vernick on September 28, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      In verse 34 of Mark 1, it said he healed many – not all. Then it says in verse 35 rising very early in the morning – so we know he healed many, not all, and went to bed. He went to pray early in the morning while it was still dark. And Simon came looking for him because “Everyone is looking for you?” Who is the everyone? The one’s he did not heal from the night before. That makes sense in the context. Jesus said “Let’s go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” In other passages Jesus says, “I only do what the Father tells me to do.” So I conclude that during the time of prayer, Jesus must have asked, do I go back and heal the rest of the people or do I do something else?” Jesus gained clarity on what he was to say YES to. It was to go to Jerusalem, therefore he said No, to Peter’s comment “everyone is looking for you” and did not return to heal the rest he did not heal. Of course he didn’t say the word NO, but by saying Yes to going to the next town to preach, he said no to returning to Peter’s house by implication. It is important to get God’s word right and that’s the way I read it. There were two good things here. Healing and preaching. Jesus, although God, was limited by having a human body and could only be in one place at one time. Therefore he had to choose between a good thing (healing) and the best thing (preaching) in that scene. Paul also prayed that we would learn to discern what is “excellent” or best in Philippians 1:10. Hope that clarifies it for you.

      • Susan on September 28, 2016 at 4:57 pm

        Verse 24 states: ” And he healed many that were sick of divers diseases, and cast out many devils; and suffered not the devils to speak, because they knew him.”

        One cannot infer that because the word “many” is used that there were others there not healed.
        Even if there were, the inference in the article is then that because of this we too can say “no.”
        I think it’s important to establish boundaries and say “no” when necessary, but I wouldn’t use this verse and Jesus’ words as the defense to do so.

        Rising early n the morning does not mean that he didn’t heal all there and that the “everyone” is necessarily those unhealed. It could be His disciples or Peter’s family. It’s a leap to presume who the “everyone” in that text is.

        Concluding what Jesus asked the Father at that time based on other verses (such as “I only do what the Father tells me to do”) presumes a lot. We don’t know what Jesus asked at that time and should not speculate beyond what we are told in the text in proper context.

        There is no statement in Scripture that anyone unhealed was still hanging around Peter’s house in early morning.

        Your reference to Paul is from his letter to the saints at Philippi in which he prayed that their “love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment” and that they “may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” It’s eisegeting the text to force these words of Paul to the saints into a prayer of Jesus’ to the Father.

        • Leslie Vernick on September 29, 2016 at 2:14 pm

          I guess we won’t know for sure all the little in between nuances of every scripture verse. I think many means not all because it could just as easily read, he healed all who were sick there. But we can agree to disagree. And, that story is only one example in the short blog that I used. I could have used other biblical examples of saying no. I think the bigger point is that when we live to please people, we may often say yes when we should say no. Proverbs says the Fear of man is a snare and when we allow them to “tell us that we’re wrong for saying no” instead of listening to God’s Word, then we’re in trouble.

          • Nancy on September 29, 2016 at 2:27 pm

            Jesus operated out of obedience to the Father, not people’s needs. Because of his physical limitation ( being human) he wouldn’t have been able to meet every need.

            We should strive to do the same. If we operate out of need then we burn out. Obedience is what holds eternal value 🙂

  4. Belle on September 28, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    I am just beginning to realize that I often feel false guilt based on the feedback I get from someone. He might say something like, “Why are you being so snippy with me? You wouldn’t talk to your mom that way.”

    His tone would be that he is hurt. I will say I’m sorry and say I didn’t mean to be snippy. Then I am befuddled. My heart does not convict me of sin. I do pray God will show me my sin, but I was not being snippy as far as I know.

    For years the feedback was that I was angry. I would feel guilty. I was often angry, but he would tell me that even when I was mildly frustrated. I would feel guilty. Now I know that not all anger is wrong. (Besides, what I was frustrated about was not dealt with by him.)

    In my case, I am going to try to be more slow to speak so that I will have assurance before I speak that my words, motives and tones are right and I will have less false guilt based upon the regular negative feedback I get from this person.

  5. Aleea on September 28, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    “Friends, how did you recognize the false guilt trip you gave yourself or someone put on you? And, how did you get rid of it?”

    First, I hope and pray God blesses you and your family tremendously as you move to Arizona. How wonderful is that to be so much closer to your family!

    . . . .So, I think that when we respond to our trials correctly, God gives us hope in place of guilt (what we’ve done) and He gives us hope in place of shame (who we are). The more hope we have, I think, the more we are doing what God is encouraging us to do (repent/ unload the guilt/shame).

    Christ’s gospel has the purpose of bringing us to genuine feelings of guilt and should set us free from false guilt feelings. Unfortunately, the church learned very early on that it could utilize false guilt feelings to control people. So people have suffered dreadfully. Genuine feelings of guilt are enormously beneficial —the rest is control coming from a dominance hierarchy. Therefore, when we try to stand up to authority figures this guilt arises and paralyses us into inaction. This is how dictators, politicians, church leaders have been able to control masses of people by making them feel guilty.

    . . . . .Like all other problems, it seems generally easier to recognize false guilt then totally rid oneself of it. It is easy to see when you feel overly responsible for things you cannot realistically control. When I suffer false guilt, I fail to see myself as precious and deserving of God’s love. The focus becomes too much on others because at times I feel little sense of personal worth. So we blame ourselves for others problems, have few personal boundaries, and allow others to take advantage of us. We also critically attack ourselves, and work too hard to make others like us. In addition we avoid caring for ourselves for fear of being selfish. That total combination is a total mess and we have to get back to listening to God.

    “True guilt is a God-given warning signal that we are violating God’s moral law.” . . . .Yes it is. In my life, I have had to deal with violating God’s moral laws. A recent example, God made the observance of the Sabbath one of the Ten Commandments. That means logically it is just as much a violation of God’s moral law to work seven days a week as it is to kill, steal or commit adultery. It sure never seemed that way to me and I rejected that “logic”. . . . But when I started considering the severity of ignoring the Sabbath, I had to totally adjust my thinking about rest. Once I knew God’s truth about the issue, I was responsible to change my way of doing things. Just because I think I am too busy to not be traveling/ working on the Sabbath, I had to adjust according to God’s plan. I had to be honest about it: Violating God’s moral law is sin, and sin leads to a breakdown in communion with Him. . . . And it is not just about worship or work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let my life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of “private well-being.” I’ve had to try to apply this everywhere. . . . .When God says we are forgiven if we repent, we should all try to unload the guilt/shame. We are forgiven. And when He says we are valuable, let’s do our level best to believe Him. . . .When He says we’re provided for, let’s really stop worrying. It’s God’s problem not ours and God’s efforts are strongest when our efforts are weakest. I don’t have to DO to BE. I can accept the grace of doing nothing but I’ve had to stay with it until I stop jerking and squirming. All that busyness and haste just brings isolation and loneliness. The world is not on my shoulders and never was.

  6. Ann on September 28, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    It seems like I have grown a great deal when it comes to not feeling guilty when saying “no” to everyone……except my elderly mother! I live with her to help with needs around the house, meals, shopping etc. She is thick with the guilt trip even threatening to “die” and be sick. And what’s worse is she does it in front of her 4yo grandchild who just doesn’t understand. It results in arguments especially since I can’t leave. I often have to babysit my grandchild at my mothers house and that’s when my mom lays it on thick, as if she wants the attention rather than the child. So basically I’m “babysitting” two – a 4yo and an 82yo. And I struggle with that guilt feeling quite often thinking “but she’s 82, she’s old and “frail” but she’s done it all my life, it’s just her game.” I hate this battle.

    • Robin on October 2, 2016 at 1:12 am

      Ann, I had a mother like yours. No one ever was courageous enough, to speak truth to her for many years. She has passed away now and we’ve been relieved of her constant mind games. I have grown a great deal since her passing, and if I was to be in another relationship with an elderly manipulator- I would speak truth in love and gently, but enforce the truth that there will be consequences when she manipulates. I know it’s a struggle when you’re dealing with a elder frail woman, but it’s your way to freedom and no stress, to confront her when necessary. I will pray for you to have the strength you need!!!

  7. Free on September 28, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    When I read the heading about guilt. I thought the subject matter would be about us discerning when our abuser states they are guilty of their destructive behaviors. How to know if they are legitimate or claiming false guilt is an even tricker question. Yet, not one we can’t figure out. 🙂

    Thankfully, I don’t struggle with guilt. I could see his cons and weed out his attacks before I let them hit my heart.

    • Aleea on September 29, 2016 at 11:11 am

      Hello Free
      . . . So then, possibly, the question becomes how do we use your knowledge to create a DSM-5-FREE dating/friendship screen, because that would be exceedingly valuable!!! A screen with 80% plus explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility (―No predictions where the error bands are larger than the conclusions and that has CONTEXT control. . . Has statistical significance, et. al.) A valid theory has a non-deterministic optimization/ fundamental analysis that can survive peer-review, hypothesis, confidence interval and t-score testing. . . . . . I am so wrong about so much it even amazes me, but nothing that I can tell in our Christian thinking (thought leadership) on offer meets these criteria. So we are only left with making up stories based on rules of thumb, utilizing guessing, cold readings, gross generalizations, chainsaw-type profiling, engaging in context-free pattern seeking and especially story-telling (―I like stories too, by the way! ―but they are not rigorous.)??? Failed predictions mean false theories. ―And if you are not predicting anything meaningful, in a meaningful time frame . . . well, you know then we will continue to have precious people being duped left, right and center by interpersonally exploitative, psychotic, emotionally unavailable, devoid of empathy, et.al. persons. How do we minimize, in a rigorous, quantifiable way these head-on train wrecks before the fact???

  8. Nancy on September 29, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    I heard a podcast one time about dating, and the interviewee suggested a question to ask on a date.

    “When have you ever been broken?” If the person doesn’t get it, move on.

    That struck me. It’s not foolproof but might weed out some hard hearts.

    • Leslie Vernick on September 29, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      Interesting question. Also I think looking at past tax returns and credit history tells a lot about a person’s character and so if I were dating someone before I would marry him or her, those would be two “documents” I would like to look at.

      • Free on September 29, 2016 at 5:05 pm

        Free, I would add to the dating discussion, if the person had an “X”. Insist on meeting them before you proceed. There are two sides to every story.

      • Ann L on October 7, 2016 at 7:48 am

        WOW, Leslie. Another gem that lands right where I need it! I would never dream of asking a date to show me his credit history, but true — it’s fair game if I’m considering marriage materal.

        Second thought: If I were to look at my husband’s credit card history (we are separated/getting divorced) I would not see all the times he abused MY credit. But I would see re-fi’s and many open and closed accounts. I would hear him explain them away as reasonable passages of life. I don’t know if I would see the loan he has taken against his retirement fund.

        But suddenly I realize that no matter how many good-sounding explanations a person might provide, the fact is that a long, long history of credit cards and loans is itself a red flat.

        I know that I am growing in my CORE, because a year ago I could not have seen this. Thank you again!

    • Aleea on September 29, 2016 at 6:50 pm

      “When have you ever been broken?” If the person doesn’t get it, move on. . . . . I like that Nancy. That is a good question. Listen to God with a broken heart. He is not only the doctor who mends it, but also the father who wipes away our tears. There is no perfection, only some beautiful versions of brokenness.

      . . . Leslie, I never even thought about looking at tax returns and credit history —If you are going that route copy down license plate number; credit cards; full name, SSN, etc. . . . .But even a background check often just checks for criminal convictions in say one state and they often just check for felonies. It’s very easy to change your name to fool a background check. That said, if you pay enough money, firms can check for identity theft, sexual assault, and even violence.

      Now, if you have the tax returns, you could look for “devices”: strings of undercapitalized partnerships; Private Foundations (—sounds fancy, anyone can do it) that own PIC (Private Investment Corps.) that “corporation” is usually undercapitalized too and often engages in some type of an “active business” and it could do lots of things but layered entities allow people to “lose”, even declare bankruptcy but keep their assets. Also, revolving lines of credit can accomplish the same. Any kind of fraudulent conveyances used to hid assets where a cause of action exists is material because movement of assets is almost always to avoid claims, especially in divorce, lawsuits, and many times it is criminal.

      . . . I was thinking more psychologically when I was thinking about that question but it’s going to show up, maybe, in tax returns and credit history too. I checked nothing: not degrees, not graduate degrees, not Doctor of Dental Surgery degree, not credit, not anything when I got married. It all turned out to be true. I would have never even thought to check. It never crossed my mind even with growing up in a totally abusive home. . . . .When you meet in Sunday School and all your interactions are church activities, you just don’t even think along those lines. Not even the psychological aspects were on my mind. I never heard the word abuse even once in the Baptist church we both went to.

      Oh, and I agree Free, talking to the “X” is probably incredibly insightful too.

  9. Free on September 29, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    Aleea, I think some of this is just personality. We are all gifted differently. Enjoy who you are and where you have come from. There is no need to dwell on the past. Our life here is short.

    On the dating issue. My abuser did not show any of his dark side until the honeymoon. Who knew? An expert in propaganda continues to this day. I just don’t buy it. I have so many more interesting things to do in life.

    • Aleea on September 29, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      “My abuser did not show any of his dark side until the honeymoon.” . . . . I bet a seriously trained psychoanalyst would have picked it up (Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Your Real Beliefs by Dr. Jordan Peterson). Psychoanalysts rarely believe what you are telling them is true. They are hyper-skeptical and it doesn’t matter how sad your story is, if they don’t feel that story, they just flat out tell you they feel “nothing.” Professionals like that have a profound understand of the clinical psychology of scripture. But who can get the date in to see the psychoanalyst?

      Truth is our only natural resource. It is all we have to guide us. “. . . I have come to understand what it is that our stories protect us from, and why we will do anything to maintain their stability. I now realize how it can be that Chrisitianity is true, and why that truth places a virtually intolerable burden of responsibility on the individual. I know now why rejection of such responsibility ensures that the unknown will manifest a demonic face, and why those who shrink from their potential seek revenge wherever they can find it.” —Dr. Jordan Peterson

  10. Ame on September 30, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    You will be a blessing wherever you live. I will pray for your new chapter. I am so thankful for your presence in my life you have given me the road map to start on a very purposeful journey to seperation. THis would not be possible without knowing who and I and finally understanding what was happening to me in my marriage. These tips are so helpful and unfortunetly so pertinent to my daily life. I look forward to being alone with my children and being alone more with God. You are a blessing to our village of wounded and loved women. May GOD BLESS YOUR LIFe continually.

  11. Angelina on October 8, 2016 at 8:13 am

    WOW you nailed it! and put words to my ‘wrestling to understand’!!
    Thank you!

    • Aleea on October 10, 2016 at 5:14 am

      You’re so welcome Angelina. . . .I’m trying to get to the point where I have fewer words and way more actions. I fail lots. Sometimes, when I am praying (—all those words/requests to God) I just wonder if what I am really praying for is for God to do the work that I am too afraid to take action about. Maybe the miracle resides in me and I need to simply “be all in”, rather than standing on the fence waiting. . . You know, it would sort of be like “you cannot do it unless you do it”. But that always frightens me because then I start to wonder what really is the difference between God’s part and my part. I mean really. . . . But then I think, no, no. . . .no, . . .if there is no communication then there is no respect. If there is no respect then there is no caring. If there is no caring then there is no understanding. If there is no understanding then there is no compassion. If there is no compassion then there is no empathy. If there is no empathy then there is no forgiveness. If there is no forgiveness then there is no kindness. If there is no kindness then there is no honesty (—because we are totally afraid to be honest where people are not kind). If there is no honesty then there is no love. If there is no love then God doesn’t reside there either. . . . And that is why all those words are important???

  12. Angelina on October 8, 2016 at 8:15 am

    Thanks for sharing!

  13. Darla on November 10, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    I have learned that my adult son was doing this exact behavior after his father and i seperated, we had been married 30 years by this time. He would even leave horrible messages to my cell phone about what a horrible mother I am. My counselor helped me get over my guilt feelings by telling me this…”he is a grown man who should be supporting himself. As long as you are financially supporting him, you are stepping in the way for him to become the man God made him to be. So I began parroting this to him. I can not support you financially as it is preventing you from becoming the man God created you to be. I will not do anything that will cause me step in and become an obstacle thereby keeping you from the great potential God has for you. He no longer asks me for money. He does not leave mean, horrible messages either. I set my boundries. When something comes up I tell him I have to think on it to makes sure I’m doing what God wants me to do for him.

  14. Sharon on November 11, 2016 at 9:01 am

    Thank you.

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