What do we do when we feel guilty?

Today is a day that I have been looking forward to for quite some time, but I feel ashamed to admit that to you. For the first time, I have two children attending school (one in kindergarten and one starting preschool), and I have the house to myself. I have time to do some of the million things I’ve been wanting to do for months (years, really) and space to clear my head and hear my own thoughts. My desires aren’t extravagant; I’m not headed to the spa or the mall. I just want to sit in my new little home office (which I painted pink, of course!) and focus on my work.

But I feel guilty.

Somehow my life has come to the place where if I am not actively and sacrificially giving to someone else, I feel unworthy. I have a difficult time being seen by others if what they see isn’t the spent and tired me who’s given everything I’ve got for my children, my family or my church.

I feel guilt in other areas of my life, too.

Going to the grocery store is one of the most difficult things for me to do, and yet as luck would have it my people keep expecting to eat every single day, so I have to go to the grocery store. There’s just no way around it.

I started to really ask myself why I hate the grocery store so much, and I had to purposefully dial in to my feelings and figure out what was going on. Why do I cringe every time I add a box of snack-sized bags of Nilla wafers to my cart? Why do I hold my breath every time the total appears on the register until the word “approved” pops up after my debit card transaction? Why do I feel like I need to hide as my cart becomes overloaded with items as if I’m some sort of criminal?

It’s because I feel guilty. I feel incredible guilt for the things that I have and the ability to buy whatever I want at the grocery store. The grocery store is ground zero for this guilt because of things that happened many years ago.

My family struggled for money my whole young life. It wasn’t because we were poor, but it was a symptom of the chaos we lived in. My parents mismanaged their money, which happens a lot in families where someone struggles with substance abuse. Even though there was money coming in, there was even more money going out, which meant we lived in a constant state of need and anxiety.

When I was in college, money was very scarce. My parents were separated and my Dad went from supporting one household to supporting three in a few short years (his, my mother’s and mine at college). I never had enough just for the basics. When it was time for me to go grocery shopping, I would let my Dad know and he would tell me either to write a check or to use the debit card from our shared account. It was a perpetual juggling act where he tried to take money from one thing to give to another.

One day he told me there was money in the account, so I could go grocery shopping. I had been waiting for several days, so this was a welcome relief to be able to finally stock my pantry. I piled up my cart with plenty of food and headed to the checkout line. I swiped my debit card, and the word “declined” popped up on the screen.

Heat flooded my face and my hands began to shake.

“Oh, that’s weird,” I said. “I’ll just write a check,” I said.

I looked nervously at the line forming behind me.

I wrote the check and the cashier slid it through the machine. Something was wrong. She called a manager over. The people at the end of the line began to move to other checkout lanes as the cashier’s light flashed above her register, awaiting a manager’s attention.

Eventually the manager came over and said, “I’m sorry, your check is no good here. Do you have another way to pay?”

My Dad had bounced checks at this grocery store chain before, so I couldn’t use a check. My bank account was empty, as evidenced by the declined debit card. I had no credit card. I had no choice but to leave behind this cart full of groceries, which were already bagged and ready to go. I thought they were mine, but they weren’t. I have never felt as much shame as I did that day, leaving the store empty-handed.

Every time I go to the grocery store, I still remember that young girl who left in shame. I’m still her, but my situation has changed. I can afford to pay for my groceries, but I still feel guilty every time I spend that money. I feel incredible sadness for the girl I was and the millions of others who are still struggling in that situation, who are unable go to the grocery store to buy the simple necessities of life.

I’ve realized that feelings of guilt can be one of the biggest motivators in our lives. These feelings can dictate to us what we do, where we go, how we feel about things and who we think we are. Guilt pushes and pulls us in different directions like waves that move sand to and from the shore.

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As I’m working through these things, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated. Why am I still affected by things that happened so long ago? Why can’t I just get over it? How do you get over this, anyway?

And I’ve started to think of it like this. Anytime I feel guilty about something (having alone time away from my kids, spending money at the grocery store or not volunteering at my church or my kids’ school) I ask myself, “Is this guilt from God?”

Because if I am feeling guilt that is from God, then there is something that must be done about it. I must ask for forgiveness, make right whatever wrong I have committed and seek God’s direction for the way forward. But if it isn’t from God it should not be allowed to shape the direction of my life.

I’ve found that my feelings of guilt stem mostly from my own unrealistic expectations and from other mothers around me who are struggling with the same things. And as those realizations have come to light, I’ve begun to ask God to remove these burdens I’m carrying around. I don’t think we can will ourselves to not feel guilty anymore; I think it’s something bigger and more supernatural than that. It has to be God who lifts those things off of our hearts.

Even as I write this, I’m still feeling guilty that I’ve sat in my little pink office for a few hours uninterrupted, but it’s okay. I know that it is guilt that comes from me, not from God and I am praying that he will help me find my way from underneath it.

The guilt that’s guiding you may have nothing to do with buying groceries or sitting in a little pink office, but I wonder if there is some area of your life where you experience something similar. Is guilt a guiding force that makes decisions for you and steers you in a certain direction? How do you work through those feelings?

 

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