I was raised a Roman Catholic. People often tell jokes about Catholic guilt. Those jokes are based on stereotypes, but stereotypes develop for a reason. People joke about Catholic guilt because we really do live by it. As you can guess by now, I was not only raised Catholic, but I was raised to live by guilt. As a result, since I was a child, I have been easily swayed by guilt trips—the ones others lay on me and, perhaps worse, the ones I lay on myself.
I feel guilt about things I do. I feel guilt about things I don’t do. I even sometimes feel guilty about things I don’t do but only think about doing. I know so much about guilt that I could teach classes. Sadly, I must also admit that I have lived under guilt trips for so long that I have also become someone who uses them against others. I am not proud of that fact, and I have struggled to change it. This week, I got a new weapon in my arsenal against guilt.
As part of my new program at a pain clinic in Edmonton for my fibromyalgia and chronic mysofascial pain syndrome, I see a psychologist once a week. The goal of the sessions is to help me learn ways to cope with the emotional and mental side effects of chronic pain. My psychologist, who I’ll call AG, asked me last week what I wanted to work on in the sessions. I told him I want to focus on three things: pain anxiety, anger with my body for what I feel is a betrayal, and guilt. AG wanted to know what I feel guilty about. My answer, based on things I’d felt inside for a long time, went something like this:
I feel guilty about the way my illness has impacted people in my life, especially my husband Roland. I feel bad that he has to take up the slack at home because I simply can’t keep up with the physical work. I feel guilty that when we travel, I can’t walk all day like I used to. I hate that we have to stop and rest so often and that I have to quit sooner in the day than before. I feel like I’m ruining our day or our whole holiday. I hate that there are things I won’t even try to do because I’m afraid that we will get stuck somewhere because I’m too much pain to get back to where we started. I feel guilty that he has to live with the emotional side of my illness, when I get down or frustrated by how I feel and how things have changed—which is often.
When I finished talking, AG asked me a profound question, one I couldn’t answer at first. The question was “What sin have you committed?”
The question stopped me in my tracks. I had to think about it. I thought back to my Catholic upbringing and remembered the connection between sin and guilt: if you commit a sin, you should feel guilt. The other side of that, of course, is that if you have committed no sin, you should feel no guilt. I stuttered and sputtered, trying to find an answer for AG, one that would show that my guilt about my health and how it has changed my life and Roland’s was justified, that I had indeed committed a sin in this situation to feel guilt about. The truth is I couldn’t do it. The truth is also this:
I have not committed any sin. My illness is not my fault. The impacts it has on my body and my life are not my fault. Since I have not done anything wrong, I should not feel bad. There is no reason for my guilt about my ongoing health problems.
In the future, I plan to use AG’s question not just about my health-related guilt but about all guilt. Of course, forty plus years of going on guilt trips and sending other people on them are hard habits to break. I don’t expect they will go away instantly; that would make me guilty of oversimplification and foolish hope. I believe, however, that consciously keeping this question in my head when I embark on a guilt trip—aimed at myself or at others—will help me to be more aware of what I am doing and when I should stop. I believe that, in time, I will be able to stamp my life’s itinerary with “Guilt Trip Cancelled.”