4 Things That Create False Guilt

False guilt. The constant feeling that you’ve done something wrong at the end of the day even though you haven’t. The feeling that you haven’t done enough or that you’ve done things you shouldn’t.

It’s a weight that puts its hands around your throat and holds it just tightly enough to give you a consistent feeling of heaviness. A weight that we often create for ourselves because of our own expectations or because of harmful religious beliefs. (Or maybe I’m projecting…)

I first heard the term “false guilt” when I opened one of my daily devotionals written by Valorie Burton for Proverbs 31 Ministries. The words struck me and I felt like one of those cartoons characters who has an epiphany and then a light bulb instantly illuminates above their head.

False and guilt. I was intimately familiar with the second word and didn’t let myself trust the first one. I’m more inclined to believe that I AM wrong than believe something or someone else is false. This combination of words creates a whole new reality but simply placing them next to each other. It’s like the first word gives you permission to let go of the second.

The dictionary defines false to mean not according with truth or fact; incorrect.

Another buzz word would be irrational. A word my counselor likes to throw around during our sessions to pull me back to reality when I’ve gone into detail about my 30 minute rumination involving something awkward I said to someone that therefore meant I had committed the wrongest of wrongs.

But how does this false guilt happen? Valorie Burton said it best:

“There is no false guilt without expectation. And so there is no faster way to undo your guilty feelings than to adjust your expectations of yourself and make sure they are aligned with God’s expectations of you.”

She goes on to list the three unhealthy types of expectations that set us up for false guilt.

” 1.Vague Expectations. The vague expectation sets you up for guilt because you can’t really measure the results. For example, You should do more. Well, how much is more? And what should you “do” exactly? Without specifics, you never know when you’ve done enough.

2. Outdated Expectations. Whether the life-change is a new job, a relationship change, a financial change, a health change, a move, or anything else that shifts how your life operates day to day, you’ll set yourself up for guilt if you hold on to old expectations in a new season. So much has changed this year alone. Give yourself some grace.

3. Others’ Expectations. Sometimes what others want isn’t what you want, isn’t what God wants for you or simply isn’t doable. And yet fear can lead you to take on the burden of others’ expectations as a way to avoid uncomfortable conversations or rejection. “

– Valorie Burton / Proverbs 31 Ministries

These three expectations spoke to my soul and made so much sense as to why I carry false guilt with me throughout my life. But I feel like there is a fourth set of expectations that effect many of us.

Religious expectations.

When religious texts, theologies, or cultures are misinterpreted or harmful to begin with, it’s hard to shake the standard of behavior you’ve placed upon yourself. If you’re anything like me, everything in your life becomes a moral issue. I credit this to my upbringing in the evangelical Christian faith in combination with my struggles with codependent, perfectionist behavior.

And when I say everything, I mean everything. If I bought something on sale that was actually priced incorrectly resulting in a higher cost, I feel as if I’m done something wrong in my quest to be a good financial steward of my money. I’ve done something morally wrong.

I become fixated about doing everything to the best of my ability as instructed by Colossians 3:17:

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” NO PRESSURE, RIGHT?

But guess what happens when you make everything in your life a morale issue? Constant failure. Constant false guilt that you’ve done something wrong. Because when you make absolutely everything in your life an issue of right and wrong, more often than not, you’re going to get it wrong in relation to your own set of standards. And I’d argue that there’s a lot less stuff in our lives that is so high stakes, so right or wrong, than we think. That most of our life choices or lifestyles are really just preferences. And it’s okay to have preferences that don’t align with other people or that even inconvenience others at times. Or, heaven forbid, make others uncomfortable!

And when you become so obsessed at hardly ever making mistakes and doing your best at everything, you’re really lying to yourself. You are denying the inevitable. Giving yourself a false sense of control. And guess what: the people who openly make mistakes, show up late, say the wrong thing, DO the wrong thing, but seem happy – well they’ve just stopped lying to themselves and given themselves permission to accept the inevitable while learning as they go.

Even more importantly, God is completely aware of this inevitable nature of the human condition. And he’s not mad at you for it. He’s not holding you up to the standard of what you “should” be capable of. He cares more that you are at peace and experiencing him, his goodness, his blessings, the goodness of life than if you’re doing things right. Even if it means being a total hot mess express.

Ultimately, if you find you are always failing in alignment with a system of beliefs. Maybe it’s time to question the system.

It’s not heresy. It’s not “losing your faith.” It’s not relying on extreme relativism. It’s learning how to wrestle and grow. It’s developing curiosity. It’s being kind enough to yourself to explore the fact that you are a unique person with unique needs who just might be creating a false guilt in their life that God never intended for them to carry.