The G-word

An Adult Perspective on Catholic Guilt

I have many fond memories of growing up Catholic—May processions, church socials, and cherished gold-edged holy cards.

Unfortunately, there’s one aspect of my Catholic experience that has always been a real drag. Any guesses? It starts with “g” and rhymes with “built.”

You got it.

Two kinds

Guilt and I go way, way back. We’ve had an intimate relationship over the years, one that’s been lengthy, challenging and—ultimately—very enlightening.

It’s taken me years, but I finally learned that there are two kinds of guilt. There’s the good, useful guilt that liberates us, and the bad, useless guilt that limits us.

I’m an expert in the second kind.

There must be a sin in here somewhere
When my Catholic school classes went to Confession, I was often at a loss, wondering what in the heck to say to the priest. As a result, I developed a weird relationship to sin. If my family skipped Sunday Mass, I was relieved: “Yay, I have a sin to confess!” If I didn’t have that useful transgression in my pocket, I’d grasp at straws. “Hmm … I dawdled for ten minutes before setting the table for dinner… okay, that’ll work.”

Ultimately, preparing for confession became an intellectual exercise in taking benign actions from my past and framing them as sins.

Guilt sensitive
The problem was, I had trained myself too well. As an adult, I became adept at finding guilt in every corner of my life. If I took a day off work—even with my boss’s permission—I felt guilty. If I wasn’t super-friendly to someone I knew, I felt guilty.

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This tendency was exacerbated by the fact that, as a teenager, I’d started to struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. This anxiety disorder meant that unwanted feelings and thoughts could get stuck in my mind, played on what seemed like an endless loop. Walking down the street, a random thought—”What if I accidentally knock the person next to me into oncoming traffic?”—would clang around in my mind. I’d feel terrible for thinking it, even more terrible for being unable to stop thinking it.

All of this meant that I moved through life with guilt as a constant companion. Unfortunately, some of the messages from my Catholic past—you’re a sinful person, you know you’ve done somethingwrong, etc.—made my struggle even worse.

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I finally summoned the courage to seek help for my OCD. I learned how to undo these patterns of thought, to recognize my insidious tendency to overestimate my own guilt. I learned to let myself off the hook.

The good, the bad and ugly
Of course, sometimes I feel guilt for legitimate reasons. This guilt forces me to recognize that something I’ve done, or am about to do, is pulling me away from others, away from my best self. This is what good guilt does—it helps us take a recognizable step towards a healthier life. It sets us on the right path, even if the process is painful at first.

But the bad, unnecessary guilt is all pain and no reward. It makes us worry endlessly about niggling details or random thoughts. It robs us of the energy that we could be using to develop a friendship, or authentically assess our spiritual selves, or simply relish being alive.

It’s impossible to do those things when the bad guilt keeps flashing on, like a traffic light always turning red just when you’re ready to move forward.

Movement, it’s all about movement
How to tell the good from the bad? Well, ultimately, it’s about a journey. Good guilt isn’t an end in itself; rather, it nudges us ahead in life. It moves us forward, not round in circles. It’s liberating, not confining.

Best of all, it points us towards someone who loves us unconditionally. Any guesses? It’s someone whose name starts with “G” and rhymes with “laud.”

Yep. You got it.