Beliefnet
Beyond Blue

Thank you to reader Peg, who, in addition to her remark about Recovery, Inc., posted the following comment:

“As a cradle Catholic and one who was raised in a girls’ Catholic boarding school for 10 years (from ’49 to ’59), I am often confronted by members of my family who accuse me of being full of guilt. I know there is good guilt (as in if we steal something, we should feel guilty), but how do you draw the line when depression is also a factor?”

What an excellent question, to which I absolutely don’t know the answer. This is something I struggle with each and every day. Because guilt is a humongous contributor to depression, even though it can be a good thing at times (think purification of the soul).

I should have chosen “Guilt” as my confirmation name: Therese Lynn Guilt Johnson (my maiden name) because my therapist was blown away by my ability to feel guilty about absolutely everything. Out of all her patients in her 25-plus years of counseling, I won the guilt prize!

My first thought? Oh no, did I take the guilt prize away from someone else? I don’t really deserve the guilt prize–she gave it to me in sympathy. I should have worked harder for it. What about the starving children in Ethiopia who don’t get guilt prizes? I should send them mine. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? How inconsiderate of me.

I hear Jewish guilt is almost as bad as Catholic. But I think the fish-frying, saint-loving folks see the world through a guilt lens that is hard to appreciate if you haven’t been yelled at by strict, unapologetic, and very judgmental (but also very loving) nuns.

For example, right now as I write this, I’m feeling guilty about a host of things. Like…

I should have picked up the house this afternoon because it’s completely trashed which could send Eric into therapy; I haven’t yet called back Tracy to find out why she had to take her son to the ER last night; I forgot to collect the neighbors’ newspapers and mail the last few days, so if they get robbed (three newspapers in the driveway is an invitation inside), it’s my fault; I haven’t signed up Katherine for ballet or David for karate; I haven’t followed up with a therapist for David to sort out his anxiety issues; I ate three Twix bars tonight; I drank four cups of coffee today; I haven’t had sex with Eric in three nights, which means he probably has blue balls; I should look forward to making love, not view it as a chore to check off the to-do list; I haven’t taken my mother-in-law out to lunch in three weeks–that was supposed to be my charity so that I don’t have to feel guilty about not volunteering at the homeless shelter; I need to do more about Iraq’s civil war, Afghanistan’s destitution, and global poverty in general; I shouldn’t have told the 65-year-old nurse helping me with my MRI today that she looked EXACTLY like the 85-year-old wife of my running partner; I haven’t washed out my dog’s ear like I’m supposed to (and the dogs don’t get enough attention); I’m contributing to global warming by using toilet paper (I should air dry like they do in India), making coffee, taking a shower, driving to the doctor, using my HappyLite, going to the gym, and every other activity I do in my day; Katherine should be potty-trained by now, and she shouldn’t be using a pacifier; Katherine and David will both need pacifiers and cases of vodka as soon as they realize their parents’ generation and the selfish folks before them were responsible for destroying the planet; I let the kids eat too many gummies today; I should have opted for the organic chicken (free of hormones) so that Katherine doesn’t get boobs before her First Communion (the Catechism stipulates against bras for second-graders); David and Katherine watched four hours of TV today (schools were closed and I had deadlines); David is watching too much Star Wars–he is infatuated with the dark side; Katherine watches too many Barbie movies–I think she already has an eating disorder; I shouldn’t be so candid in my writing because once the kids learn to read they will hate me; I cuss too much; I worry too much; I feel guilty too much.

That’s a modest sampling of my happy little thoughts.

My therapist suspected my acute case of self-bashing was caused by the deadly combination of three things: a strong, traditional Catholic faith; a propensity for obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behavior (extreme rumination); and the bad kind of perfectionism.

She told me to imagine myself as a car driving along the highway. When I get one of those guilty thoughts, my car is out of alignment. So I pull over. I assess the problem–check to see if I need to make any adjustments (if I stole something, I should give it back; if I wronged someone, I need to make amends). Then I have to get back on the highway. Each time my car wants to rear off the main drive, I should ask myself, Is there something I need to do? If not, I need to get back on the road.

I was obsessing about one sin in particular for over a year. I did everything I could to correct the situation, but I still felt horrible.

“You need to keep saying to yourself, ‘Look, I made a mistake, and I’ve rectified it as best I can. I have learned from it, and I’ll do better next time. Now it’s time to move on.’ And do your very best to do just that: move on.”

At one point the ruminations were so bad that I wore a rubber band around my wrist. Every time I got caught in a destructive guilt cycle, I’d snap the rubber band as a signal to tell my brain to move on, that I’ve done everything I can. And I need to get my Catholic car (with a St. Christopher medal on the dashboard and rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror) back on the road to Mass, where I can sit in confession.

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