The Guilt Trap

At the Bonhoeffer House, one of the things that we did was to create community with our neighbors. Rather than selectively hanging out with only other college graduates who were similar in age, interests, and socioeconomic status, we tried to get to know everyone who would come to our place. We invited everyone we saw to our big family-style dinner on Wednesday nights. Since we saw those who lived nearby more often, we invited them more often. And in Old East Dallas, a 15-minute walk from downtown, many of these folks happened to be homeless.

How do we be genuine friends to folks who have so many needs? It was the same question that I had tried to answer, through my actions, in Tanzania. This time, we were a community, together, trying to answer this question through our actions. As we attempted this over and over, we saw a vicious thought pattern that made this particularly hard for us:

  1. I think of myself as a basically kind and generous person. My standards here are unrealistic and confused, but I’m not aware of this at the time.
  2. A friend asks something of me. I decide that they are asking too much. I say no, and I call this “setting a boundary”.
  3. Soon after, I decide that the boundary I set was not a boundary that a basically kind and generous person would set. So I feel guilty. Now the important thing at this step is that I feel guilty. The guilt may be unfounded, or it may be founded, but regardless, it weighs on me. And before I have gotten to the bottom of this…
  4. I receive another request that appears to be too much. Mentally, I return to the boundary that I had set, but then I remember that I felt guilty about that boundary.
  5. EITHER I give in to this request (due to the guilt about last time)
  6. OR I stick to my boundary and say no again, which increases the guilt, since I am still not okay with the boundary I set.

And of course, giving in leads to more requests (who can blame them?)… and increasing guilt leads to burnout and bitterness towards my friends.

Things get worse when members of the community disagree about whether certain boundaries are kind and generous… we add to each other’s guilt. Looking back, I hate that I did this to my dear friends.

Of course, the cycle can be broken and the damage healed, and some of this did happen in our house. But it must be addressed; this isn’t the sort of thing that is arbitrarily fixed by time and “getting used to it”.

I know I am not the only one who has felt this, and it doesn’t only result from trying to be a friend to folks who are homeless; this kind of thing can pop up with co-workers, spouses, family members, etc. I would love to hear y’all’s perspective on it.

Bonhoeffer porch
At the Bonhoeffer House, our beautiful front porch is one of the most common causes of this boundary confusion. It’s an ambiguous space, neither in nor out, and a great place for shade, getting out of the rain, and sleeping.

2 thoughts on “The Guilt Trap

  1. 🙂 Well, I’m not sure you could have given me a better compliment than comparing me to my favorite writer. You are so kind. I miss you, friend.



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