Freeing Myself from the Slavery of False Guilt

“I was at an advanced showing for Monsters U and this girl, just the kindest girl, was behind my group in line. She had Down syndrome, I think. I asked her if she was excited and she told me she loved Monsters, Inc. This was the first time her parents let her go to an event on her own. I went into the movie, had a good time, then came out to find her standing by the curb at the parking lot. I asked how she liked the movie and she said she never saw it. That the line had cut off right after me — first come, first serve for the tickets. I had no idea. I hadn’t checked behind me when walking into the theater. She didn’t know how to contact her parents. She’d stood at the curb for two hours waiting for them to pick her up.”

It’s 2012, my freshman year of college in Seattle. My psychologist, a wizened man in his 80s (and wise as a wizard), leans his nearly-weightless weight onto a leather armrest that’s as creased as the creases between his eyebrows. He’s a forehead-creaser when he thinks hard. I like that about him.

“And you feel guilty. How guilty?”

“I barely slept the past couple nights and had three panic attacks. I can’t stop thinking about it. If I just turned around, I would have known she hadn’t gotten in. I would have given my ticket.”

“Panic about the past rather than apprehension for the future?”

“It feels like panic attacks. I just think about her face and cry.”

He leans forward, hands me a tissue, and pokes me in the knee. Stares into my face until he catches my eye.

“You can’t be mad at yourself for not turning your head. What other thoughts do you have during these attacks?”

“I think about her parents’ sadness when they realize their child’s first adventure was a failure. I think about kids from special ed in high school being bullied. I think about me not being their friend and helping them. I think about their parents’ sadness.”

“So the thought leads to a thought leads to a thought? And all guilt?”

“Yeah.” I blow my nose. Nothing gets cystic fibrosis sinuses running like salty tears do. The whole floral-patterned box of tissues is pressed into my hands.

“Guilt for things out of your control.”

“Maybe.”


I left the office with the words “overactive conscience” floating about in my conscience. More often called “false guilt,” it’s the idea that a person overthinks situations and places blame on themselves for things outside of their control. It’s commonly depicted in TV and movies as being tied in with post-traumatic stress disorder — survivor’s guilt.

False guilt is a cackling hyena, whispering discontent in my ear and shredding little pieces of my soul, bit by bit. My psychologist theorized it is the rotting root of my anxiety and panic disorders. 

It can be about small things: guilt for doing my job as an editor — criticizing people’s writing, though I know it will only grow their skills. For having to flake on plans with friends for medical emergencies.

It can be about big things: guilt that I (no, my disease, not me) forced my parents to drop their beloved jobs and move away from paradise. Guilt that I am living healthily while others with cystic fibrosis are still suffering. That every happy post I make is spitting on them. Guilt that I got new lungs while others on the waiting list died. Guilt for carrying the lungs of a dead man. (This is the part where I remind you that mental illness is not rational.)

Guilt that injects my sleep with nightmares. Guilt that makes my heart hammer so hard against my ribs that I hear it, even without my implants. Guilt that makes me question my identity, makes me question my purpose, makes me question my questions. Guilt that makes low blows to my joy.

Note: Amend all guilt to “false guilt.”

I deceived myself into thinking the guilt I had was a blessing, that it was used to force me to constantly try bettering myself. But there’s a difference between human guilt that is false and spiritual conviction. (There’s spiritual conviction that is God nudging you towards doing certain things. And there’s spiritual conviction that makes you confront your sins/misdeeds. The latter is what I’m writing about.)

Human guilt can be corrupted and passed off as humility, when it’s actually self-serving (it leads us to pursue what ‘makes us feel better’). False guilt is a form of that corruption. Spiritual conviction comes from God and ideally leads to remorse and action to seek forgiveness. When forgiven, the sin dies. When the sin dies, we live.

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation — but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” – Romans 8:12-13

With these thoughts, I created a simple rubric for my guilt:

  1. Did I sin? (Did I disobey God?)
  2. Is this guilt keeping me from living as God wants me to?

If the answer is “yes” to either of these, there’s a problem. If it’s a “yes” to Question 1, I’ve sinned and should focus on remorse and forgiveness (which often requires action, not just words). This would also mean Question 2 is an automatic “yes,” until I’ve received forgiveness from God.

If Question 2 is a “yes,” and Question 1 is “no,” the guilt is false and is negatively affecting my heart. It should be dealt with before it festers and corrupts my mind by producing anxiety.

Check this out:

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” – Galatians 5:1

I view false guilt as a slavery. When I allow it to control my emotions and it is not from God, it is an idol and a master.

For my specific case — the false guilt produced by my transplant — I am learning to focus on God’s Will. If I truly believe it was His Plan for me to get a transplant, should I feel guilty for getting it? For taking joy in the fulfillment of a promise?If I didn’t sin by taking this transplant, why should I feel guilty? Would he have comforted me through this process in times of prayer if it wasn’t the process I was planned to undertake? 

“When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.” – Psalm 94:19

Being transparent, I still have these feelings of false guilt even as I write this. I allow my anxieties to produce inaction when God is telling me, “Go.” But I am fighting back against this paralysis of spirit. God has given me new chances at life and I should be joyful.

“God has delivered me from going down to the pit,
   and I shall live to enjoy the light of life.’

‘God does all these things to a person—
   twice, even three times—

to turn them back from the pit,
that the light of life may shine on them.’”

– Job 33:28-30