Overcoming “Mormon Guilt”

This is a co-authored post with one of my closest friends… I hope this helps you or someone you know.

I have quietly benefited from this blog for over a year now and have also been a part of the monthly group  discussions that inspired the blog for the past 9 years. I’ve attempted to start a few posts, but as time went on, I slowly lost direction and focus. 

As I have worked on this post, I have realized the connection between the topic and the reasons I never completed a post in the past.  I recently came across an interesting article from “Understanding the Mysteries of Psychology” by Mark Leary that presented the question “Why do we have emotions?” According to the article, almost – not all – emotions serve a constructive purpose to direct us in one way or another, but there are 2 emotions for which researchers can find no viable purpose: schadenfreude (experiencing pleasure at another’s misfortune) and shame. Today I wish to focus on shame.

According to these researchers, emotions have an evolutionary purpose to notify us of threats and opportunities in our environment, to motivate us to take action. These emotions evolved past only recognizing emotions in the moment, but we gained the ability to experience emotional reactions to events that were not currently happening. For example, we can think of past experiences and feel joy when reflecting on our wedding day or the day our child was born. We can think of the future promotion at work or upcoming vacation and feel excited. The very thought of heights or a spider can induce fear and so on. These emotions create actions such as cognitive appraisal to protect, or motivation to achieve, etc. Shame, on the other hand, serves no definable value.

Guilt and shame are not the same thing, but we often refer to them as the same. In my experience the “Mormon Guilt” often felt within Mormon culture is actually shame and not guilt.  Guilt actually has value whereas shame does not.  Research shows that shame and guilt come from the same family tree of emotions, but are as different as two members of any given family can be.   They involve two different experiences though they both begin with a link to a misdeed that hurts someone or breaks a moral rule.  

Most of us suffer remorse of conscience from things we did wrong or were left undone. That feeling of guilt is to our souls what pain is to the physical body. Physical pain is nature’s warning system that signals something needs to be changed, cleansed or treated, perhaps even removed by surgery. Likewise, Guilt leads us to seek spiritual attention needed to mend our spiritual wounds. Shame, on the other hand leads to the belief we not only did something wrong, but we are a bad person, and therefore do not deserve, or could not be fixed by treatment. Shame can cause one to become withdrawn, obsess over feelings and identify one’s self as “BAD”. Shame also has the characteristic of permanence in the person’s mind.  Due in part to that perceived permanence, shame becomes a story; a narrative that overrides the image of ourselves, others, our life history, and our likely future.  The research surrounding shame has shown that the more people fall victim to shame, the more they misbehave.

“Shame is important because no other [emotion] is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem, diminished self-image, poor self-concept, and deficient body-image. Shame itself produces self-doubt and disrupts both security and confidence. It can become an impediment to the experience of belonging and to shared intimacy….It is the experiential ground from which conscience and identity inevitably evolve. In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness, inferiority and perfectionism. It plays a central role in many psychological disorders as well, including depression, paranoia, addiction, and borderline conditions. Sexual disorders and many eating disorders are largely disorders of shame. Both physical abuse and sexual abuse also significantly involve shame.” – Gershen Kaufman (Shame: The Power of Caring)

As I have failed to live the gospel standards at times in my life, my shame has helped me create a self-image that was unworthy to talk about the gospel, and especially write a post about it.  I convinced myself I would “never” be able to write a post, or talk to people about the gospel.  It has prevented me from dropping to my knees and asking for help in prayer, or reaching out to friends and family because “I didn’t deserve their help”, or was unworthy of their love. Rather than building relationships, I would disengage and let them wither. Shame is a destructive emotion, because it undermines our true identity, and if left to its own, it will silently kill off all confidence and hope we have.  We all know someone who has struggled with depression, self-destructive behavior, lack of self-confidence, and a self-image that has no basis in reality.  The power of that shameful self-image in people’s behavior has lead me to believe that “shame” is actually the ultimate weapon of the adversary.  

“…[Satan] leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever.” 2 Nephi 26:22

I have always struggled with the concept of the Devil sitting on “the Iron Throne” with the sole purpose of meddling with our lives and destroying our souls.  What I feel now is that Satan is the “author” of all lies and shame is how he feeds those lies into our story.  Satan’s ideas, influence, and story permeate this world, but shame, because it is a real emotion that everyone feels, is the most useful. If Satan can help us feel as Kaufman explained above… alienation, loneliness, inferiority, perfectionism… his job is then very easy. Once that false self-image has infiltrated our minds, we and those around us do the rest of his dirty work leading us to turn ourselves away from God and light.

The Prophet Joseph Smith said:

 “A man is his own tormentor and his own condemner. … The torment of disappointment in the mind of man [or woman] is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone.” (Deseret News, 8 July 1857, 138.)

Even our Savior had to feel the darkness of shame in order for him to truly complete the atonement and “descend below all things.”  When the moment of facing his impossible task came, our Lord took his three closest friends aside and “began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy.”  Eventually saying, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death, tarry here.”  

In his most human of moments, three separate times Jesus prayed for God to provide another way, possibly he began wondering if he could even do it, asking for his friends to “watch” with him and be there for him, yet they fell asleep leaving him alone. I can imagine Him wondering if He was worthy, if He could do it, was now the right time? Lies spreading through his mind and finally God sent him an angel to strengthen him and help him remember that not only he was capable, but to remind him why he was going to finish his work…to give us all hope.

How do we overcome Shame?

I have mentioned narrative and self-image a few times. In my opinion our self-image is a narrative (story) that largely determines the choices we make, and how we see the world. Our stories are all based upon our experiences, but how we interpret them, and therefore, how the story progresses is central to who we become. The beauty of the scriptures is that they enable us to see how very much like us – how very ordinary – the characters of the scriptures were even in the midst of their extraordinary accomplishments.  They too experienced hardship, doubt and – yes – shame, but get to see and have confidence in the temporary nature of those hardships because of hope. We read how God loved them despite their imperfections and we see are able to empathize with them just as we see the Savior loving them still.

Some of the fundamental parts of Mormon self-image include:

We are literal children of God, meant to become glorious like him.

We can communicate and receive communication from him even when we are wayward.

We are capable of overcoming “all things,” and the atonement is ALWAYS available to us.

Everyone on earth will have the chance to be saved even if they have never yet heard of Christ.

Our purpose on earth is to build relationships that will last for eternity and will be coupled with joy and happiness.

How we treat others will affect how we will be treated after this life.

There are many others, but at the center of them all is Jesus Christ, the almighty Son of God , who had all the power of God and the mortality of man; who felt and conquered all things including sin; died and then conquered death. His human experience, his patience and love for his imperfect apostles, his patience and then literal “rising above” earthly things in the end provide the foundation for our faith and the centerpiece of our hope.  The Bible and the Book of Mormon provide many wonderful examples of imperfect people doing extraordinary things, and provide insight in how we can overcome shame, and help others who are feeling “sorrow unto death.”

The Only Standard for Receiving Mercy is Giving it

One of the most depressing things I have realized about this life is the damage we can do to each other. We are just so unmerciful at times. Being harsh to others, especially to youth when we are in a position of trust, can inflame/enhance shame and make worse their self-image.  “You need to lose weight.”  “You are a bad person.”  “No one can love someone like you.” “You are worthless.”  We should not fall into the habit of labeling others something because their imperfections and weakness.  

For Example: Someone who tells a lie is not necessarily a liar, but if they and others enforce a negative self-image that they are liars, then it is likely they will become a “liar”, and eventually they will not see being honest as something they are capable of, and even if they were trying to be honest, no one would believe them. This kind of story, made worse by shame and lies, is a downward spiral that can have tragic endings.

Why is Utah among the top states in the nation for young adult suicides? Could it be that the expectations of what is acceptable and good for human behavior among Mormons is impossible for us all to achieve? And that the failure to achieve, coupled with the perception that everyone else is so easily achieving that “perfection”, leads to shame and a downward spiral of hopelessness? John the Beloved captured this problem quite eloquently:

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:8-10

The high standards of the Church that lead many to and bless the lives of those within the Church, can be all too often seen as prerequisites to the mercy and grace of the Atonement.  It is easy for people, especially youth, to confuse the emphasis on the standards for priority, over the power of mercy, grace, and the Atonement in our lives.  Our sins are temporary because of the atonement, and a faith in the atonement will help any shame we feel be temporary. One of the Savior’s most memorable sermons illustrates this:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” Matthew 5:3-11

The shame felt by many is made worse by leaders and parents, men and women alike, who condemn, mistreat, abuse, gossip, and shun people in their stewardship for any reason, let alone because they are imperfect. I cannot think of many things more pernicious and evil than an adult bringing shame on a young person for making mistakes, and sinning, when we are all sinners! Just think what happens in the mind of a child or teenager when someone they are supposed to trust tells them they are “Evil” or “unworthy”. Even if it isn’t a clear accusation, but a reference to people who “are like this” or “like that” are evil and that young person is relating to “those people”. Do not think for a second that when Jesus said, “Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones…it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.” he was only speaking of physical or sexual abuse.  Offending young people includes anything that exacerbates potential shame they may be feeling, or generates feelings of shame.

There is hope for all of us, no matter how vile we are, or may think we are. That is the message of the Gospel. Mercy is found in the giving of Mercy. Love is found in the giving of Love. The church standards do help us get closer to God, and are sources of safety and peace, but they are not the gospel and we all fail in them so the key of us doing this together is to encourage, help, and teach things that will build narratives of hope and faith in Jesus Christ. There is no room for condemnation of people who do not live the standards of the church. The standards can only be taught and encouraged with mercy not with condemnation and shame.

Engage with Loved Ones even if it Feels Difficult

Even when we are in the depths of shame, we have people who we know love us. Even though one of the first results of creating a shameful self-image is separating from those we love by telling ourselves that they deserve better and will be happier without us, the most important thing we can do to overcome this narrative is to spend time with those we know love us. When we feel this way, we feel unworthy of love and support from others and God. To hide our shame, we may physically hide ourselves from others; we may also avoid social settings with those we love and respect in order to avoid potential loss of their love and respect for us.

When I was at my lowest point in my life, I felt I had let everyone down. I was unable to be there for one of the most joyful moments in my family’s life and I felt as though I had become a “bad” person. I had separated myself from those who loved me and instead spent time either in isolation or with others who had similar self-images. It was the first time in my life I had felt suicidal. I wasn’t suicidal every day, but I had created a story that showed me the world would be better without me in it. I shudder at that thought now, so many years later, but it was how I felt at the time. I was blessed and fortunate to have my friends and family consistently reach out to me, love me,  and spend time with me. Eventually I moved in with friends and my life began to take on another path. Love and hope are the cure. They must be a part of our stories. Spend time really thinking about who loves you and who wants you to have hope and love in your life. Those are the people you need to spend time with.

To those who are loved ones of those struggling, be a listening and caring ear.  You can’t always give solutions, as that requires you to judge the situation, but you can listen and engage, and encourage.  Focus on the temporary nature of all situations.  Relate your own personal stories of feeling down and how eventually things got better as you focused on the things that were possible.  Most of all though, just ask questions, and keep asking, but keep listening and do not rush to judgment.

Change the Narrative

There is a story in the Book of Mormon that encapsulates the possibility of changing a narrative in a few short scriptures. Alma the Younger, along with the Apostle Paul, are the symbols for the changing nature of Jesus Christ and they can give us some clues as to the small and simple things that can help change our stories from the Satanic shame narratives to the hopeful narratives of the Gospel.  

I want to go through a few scriptures and discuss these small and simple things.  Note that it is not insignificant that Alma is saying these words to his Son (a youth) and showing him that he isn’t perfect, but that hope in Christ is the point (Alma 36:6-21) and that even the most terrible of situations is temporary:

“For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God…And it came to pass that I fell to the earth…for when I heard the words…I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth.”

Alma gives us a brief description of “who he was”. He was someone who was destroying other people’s souls and had a group of friends that were acting in a way they knew they shouldn’t. They had taken on the identity of whistle blowers; the smart ones who knew that their parents were full of false magical tales. There was no God, and the church was controlling them. They “were” agents of change. Then Alma tells of his experience when he realized they had made mistakes, he was shaken, and caused to be immobile. He could not change. He was evil.

” I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.”

Alma’s guilt was turning to shame. He was now remembering ALL of his sins. He was condemning himself, the pains of hell, and he was identifying himself as someone who does not belong with God.

“Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.”

Now Alma’s self-image grew to also include being responsible for other’s actions. He was the one who made them to be who they were.  His narrative removed the accountability of others, and placed all blame and all evil upon himself.

“Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.”

It would be better if Alma was dead, but not just dead, extinct. And even that he never would have existed so others would not have to know who he truly was and how evil he was.  He especially did not want to face God. This is the plight of those who feel suicidal.  There is no form of existence that seems to be worth being alive in the narrative they have created.

‘And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.”

A small glimmer of hope, a remembrance of the story of Jesus Christ. A kind word from a family member, an email or text from a friend, a gentle reminder that there is hope, and that Jesus Christ is there beckoning us.

“Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.”

Calling out to God requires hope that he will save and answer our request. This calling out can be any effort to discover what hope He can bring into our lives.  It means just a kernel of belief that he can save us, and that we can be made whole.

“And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.”

When we bring Christ into our story, and focus on his hope and healing power, when we decide that we believe we are saved and that he will help us as long as we try, then our pain begins to subside and we begin to see that there are good things in our lives, and there can be more. I have lost the hope to repent in the past since I was convinced I was too weak to resist the temptation just one more time. I was sure I would mess up again as I had done dozens of times before, so I lost the hope of forgiveness, and I didn’t want to face my bishop one more time for the same mistake.   Shame prevents us from seeing mistakes or sins as part of our mortal existence and a teaching tool, but rather creates a story that we fell short of perfection and will always fall short.

“And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.”

If we continue to focus on Christ and his atonement, in his hopeful resurrection then we begin to see that failure is part of the process. The personal abuse we inflict upon ourselves, induced by our guilt turned into shame, has no place in our hearts when we allow in Christ and his atonement.  We will make mistakes, we will be required to repent and we will fall short of perfection. That is okay. Christ is there to put his arm around us to cry with us; to uplift our downtrodden hearts. There is no need for shame to prevent us from the atonement and forgiveness. The hopeful narrative allows us to look at our sins the way the Lord does when he says “I, the Lord, will remember them no more.”  I don’t think this means he doesn’t remember our sins, I think it means he knows those sins do not define who we are.  He “looks upon our hearts” and can see that our mistakes are not defining our story. Shame is Satan’s most powerful weapon against us, one he uses to convince us to define ourselves by our mistakes. Christ’s atonement is our defense; it allows us to define ourselves by our willingness to ask for help and to help those around us. I hope all can see the light of Christ’s love and acceptance to get through the shame we have all felt. It has changed my life and my relationship with God. I have lived drastically different narratives in my life including one driven by shame and one driven by hope.  I know that anyone can find that Christ’s hope and I love all of those who have helped me to find my own way. I pray we can all see those around us who need help and be a loving reminder to them that there is hope.

 PS.  I highly recommend the book by Adam Miller called “Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan”.  

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