Freedom from the Guilt Trap

In a previous post, I shared about something that I learned here at the Bonhoeffer House. I call it “The Guilt Trap”:

  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.

The trap feeds itself, and the loop must be broken. It isn’t the sort of thing that you just get used to after awhile and then it’s fine.

This week, I want to share one way that I found to break the loop. It isn’t the only way; I would love to hear ways that y’all have managed to break this loop.

At step 3, I am of the opinion that I did something that a basically kind and generous person would not do. My standards may be too high, but I am not realizing this at the time, so the guilt is heavy.

On its own, this wouldn’t trap me. But when I am encountering suffering and requests so fast, I receive another request before I am able to process the guilt from the previous one.

I’m already feeling guilty, so maybe I give in when I shouldn’t. Well, that just leads to more requests, and who can blame them?

Or maybe I stick to what I said previously, and I say no.

Well, I already felt bad about that. So now I feel bad again. Guilt is piled on top of the already heavy guilt.

It’s the speed of the requests that is doing the damage. The process of fossilization is a good metaphor.

Bones are made of the wrong kind of stuff to last for millions of years. We only get fossils when the bones are buried deeply, extremely quickly, in the right kind of soil where rock can slowly replace the bone. This may happen in a flood or a mud slide. The fact that they are buried so quickly is what makes the bones able to turn into fossils… and in the same way, it’s the fast requests, over and over again, before I have time to process what is false guilt and what is justified guilt, that cause initially painful guilt to get buried and harden into bitterness.


In fact, “fossilized guilt” isn’t a bad description of the deep bitterness that results from this trap.

And so one place to break the loop is at the point where I am feeling guilty about saying no, but before the next request can come in.

I need to ask myself, “Okay, is this guilt justified? Did I actually do something wrong?” And I need to find an answer to that question that convinces me.

If the guilt is just false guilt, I need to know exactly why I think it is false.

And if the guilt is justified, I need to repent and decide on a fairer boundary

… and all of this needs to be done before the next request can come in.

It can be tiresome to keep stopping what I am doing and working through this process, but if I am going to continually encounter this level of suffering and not develop a bitter heart, it’s worth it.


One thought on “Freedom from the Guilt Trap

  1. Davis,

    I’ve been really bad about keeping up with your writing and my own, and I apologize for that. 😊

    That being said, I think I remember you telling me about this. I want you to know that of course it’s okay to say no sometimes, or even most of the time. You’re only human; you’re only one man. There are going to be times when you are just not able to fulfill people’s requests.

    There have been times when you’ve had to tell me no and I’ve accepted it because I understand that you can’t do what I ask at that particular time. I had to learn that a few years ago from another friend of ours… as you’ve noted, a person can become burned out by all the requests.

    I hope you realize now that there’s no need to feel guilty about saying no to people. If nothing else, consider it a form of self love and self care.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s