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. This is a healing space and I am grateful. We will be opening spots for our Moving Beyond People Pleasing Group Coaching on Friday.

Today's 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: Thanks for your question. I think it’s easy to get hooked into feeling like you have done something wrong (guilt) when someone is unhappy, disappointed, or angry when you don’t do what they want. 

If a person can make you feel guilty for saying no, he or she is much more likely to be successful in getting you to back down. This is the manipulator’s strategy. 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. This type of person’s thinking is simple. He (or she) 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 in to their demands, and consequently, we’re tempted to feel guilty. 

So what’s the way out? Let’s 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, and people brought the sick to Jesus where it says, “the whole town gathered at the door.” Imagine the pressure Jesus felt with everyone pressing in on him to do something. That evening he healed many people and he eventually said no more and went to sleep. Those who were not healed may have felt disappointed.

The text says, “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.” People were waiting their turn for healing. 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 he needed to do for himself and do what God wanted him to do. For example, he had to decide, “Do I continue healing people or do I stop and take care of myself (sleep)? During his quiet time of prayer, Jesus asked the Father to help him discern between the good things and the best things. What do I do next Lord? Just like we do, Jesus had to face hard choices – to please God or to please others. He chose to please God. This priority regularly cost him the disapproval and disappointment of others, including his disciples, religious leaders, and his own family (see, for example 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 to clarify true guilt from false guilt.

1. Go to God’s word for clarity. Ask yourself, 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”? or “Thou shalt never disappoint 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 and because God asks me to? Or do I feel 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 say “no” to something else. 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?

6 Comments

  1. Sara Rapp on June 22, 2023 at 9:34 am

    My mom did this last night. We were at a crowded concert & when I finally found her, she insisted I sit by her. “I’m family!” She demanded. I didn’t say anything. I just smiled & started walking back to my original seat. She went to sit with her friends. End of problem.

    • Carol on June 22, 2023 at 12:55 pm

      It must have been hard to do that.
      but as a mom myself I would have rathered my daughter say something, use her words, like I want to go do this or that and I think you will be happy also sitting with your friends., of course we are still family. “ rather to me, my opinion of that move smiling and walking away seems passive aggressive. Just would have been kinder for both of you because you need to voice your desire and she needs to hear it.

      • Dee on June 23, 2023 at 10:23 am

        Unless Sara has told you more than she wrote above, Carol, it seems you’re making lots of assumptions. It could be that Sara smiled because she’s experiencing clarity and freedom from a long-standing destructive dynamic. Perhaps she said no words because she has already kindly said all the words.

        Your comment about passive-agressive motive is potentially a shaming mischaracterization. Only Sara knows the reason for her smile as she walked away without engaging with her demanding mother. Perhaps that was amazingly healthy behavior after a lifetime of taking responsibility for a manipulative mom’s emotions. Perhaps it was a powerful demonstration of kindness to both her mother and herself.

        I’m sorry, Carol, if you’ve experienced a pattern of passive-aggressive behavior. I realize that’s destructive. But unless Sara has disclosed her inner world to you, you could be mischaracterizing her, and that’s another destructive dynamic many survivors are all too familiar with.

        • Carol on June 24, 2023 at 6:49 pm

          Thanks Dee for your response but I noticed you wrote “perhaps” In all your Scenarios, so therefore I guess neither of us know exactly her
          backstory. And Yes I deal with a lot of passive aggressive people and that’s why my
          Antenna went up. I’m a lot older so I now see things for what they are and people for who they are, yet change is possible. I have learned to speak up and say things kindly when I’m confronted with that behavior and communication has been better for all. Some people aren’t even aware so communicating in love and not specifically calling
          Them out just speaking up with a question and my
          Own boundary has helped!!

  2. Caroline Abbott on June 22, 2023 at 9:59 am

    I love how you liken manipulators to 2 year olds. This is an apt description. I always say that the hardest thing about setting boundaries is the other person’s reaction. Many times we are trained as children to people please, and it makes it hard for us to see someone else upset with us.

  3. Mary Gessner on June 22, 2023 at 10:16 am

    This answer is excellent. However, I obviously misunderstood the question. I thought the question to mean, How do we differentiate between a person saying a fake, “I’m sorry,” and a true statement of, “I’m sorry.”

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