“What else can I do when I still feel guilty after repentance?” Ensign, July 1980, 32
Dale F. Pearson, director, undergraduate social work program, BYU, and bishop, Pleasant View Fourth Ward, Provo, Utah Probably only your bishop can help you decide if you’ve done everything necessary to repent of a particular wrongdoing; but the problem of feeling guilty isn’t always a simple one. Guilt can be a healthy sign—serving notice that we’ve sinned and need to apply the Lord’s plan of repentance. But guilt after genuine repentance can also be extremely unhealthy, and some people suffer guilt long past any reasonable point or even when they haven’t done anything they need to feel guilty for.
People I’ve counseled who seem to have the first problem—they can’t stop feeling guilty even after repenting from a transgression—usually have another problem: that of very low self-esteem. They feel that there’s nothing they can do to gain control over their lives because they’re such worthless people. For instance, one woman I know made an unsuccessful suicide attempt after months of feeling desperately lonely and isolated from her family. She blamed herself for this isolation (“If I were a better mother, we’d be closer”) and after her attempted suicide simply switched the blame to another aspect (“How could I have committed such a terrible sin?”). Even though her husband, her bishop, and her stake president worked with her in a sustained and loving way to assure her of the Lord’s love for her, she refused to stop feeling guilty because she really didn’t believe she was worthy of forgiveness. In a way, feeling guilty was her reason for living because it enabled her to keep on punishing the “worthless” person she had become.
The second type of unhealthy guilt—feeling guilty for no apparent reason—frequently develops out of similar self-esteem problems caused by an individual’s inability to take charge of his life. I counseled with one such person, a forty-five-year-old successful business executive who really wanted to be working with youngsters instead. But he felt that he couldn’t ask his family to go through the life-style adjustment necessary for this kind of career change. He found himself avoiding work as much as possible because he disliked it, but he also found himself avoiding his family.
The healthy solution for both the sister and this brother was basically the same. They started making plans and carrying them through. As they saw that they could make decisions, their self-esteem rose, their guilt dropped, and they were able to see their guilt in perspective.
Someone who finds himself feeling guilty long after he has repented might try asking himself these questions:
Have I completed all the steps of repentance (recognition, remorse, confession if appropriate, restitution, etc.)?
Have I asked forgiveness of the Lord?
Have I allowed the Lord to take my burden by trusting his power to do so and his love for me?
Have I fully forgiven myself for my wrongdoing?
On the other hand someone who finds himself feeling guilty when he hasn’t done any wrong might ask:
Do I tend to see things as extremes—such as totally perfect or totally evil—rather than as a mixture of good and not good? Do I need to develop more balance?
Do I have close relationships with my family? Do I have good friends whose company I cherish?
Do I truly like myself?
Do I feel that the Lord truly loves me?
Why do I “need” to feel guilty?
Answering these questions honestly may pinpoint some areas where a person needs to work, honestly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. Frequently it is helpful to talk over these areas with a trusted friend or Church leader. Sometimes professional counseling can be valuable.
Guilt is normal; it’s the danger that signal flashes when a transgression has occurred and needs to be repented of. But unhealthy guilt that persists for no reason, or even when repentance has been completed, can undermine our whole relationship with a loving Father in Heaven.