You have met the guilty type: the person who feels bad over things they have no control over, the person who takes responsibility for other’s mistakes, or the person who can’t seem to rest because there is so much to do. Yes, you have met this person and they may be staring back at you in the mirror. Frequently thoughts such as “I should not have”, “I can’t believe I did this”, “I feel so bad”, or “I wish I could” plague their mind as they actually believe that everyone else thinks this way too. These thoughts often paralyze them into hours or days of inactivity or worse senseless busyness. But there is a better way.
The third stage of Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Development is Initiative vs. Guilt which occurs during the delicate years of four to six. Taking initiative is the ability to formulate a plan, an idea, or a scheme and then begin the process. It does not necessarily mean completing it however, this is a different stage of development. Guilt is an emotion where a person feels responsible, takes blame, feels shame or remorse for something that has happened. Although, it does not necessarily mean that the person committed the action.
The Psychology. These years are associated with the preschool and kindergarten years for a child when they either learn to take initiative or to feel guilty when they don’t. During this time, they are very interactive with play usually creating some type of random game or imaginary scenario to reenact. If a child is allowed the freedom to play their own game or be imaginative without criticism, they learn to take initiative. If not, they feel guilty because their idea was not good enough or was done the wrong way.
The Child. As the child progresses, if they have learned to take initiative they will naturally take responsibility in other areas of their life as well. They will want to learn and become more involved in their own basic care such as learning to cook (easy things), hygiene, academics, and sports. If they have not learned to take initiative, they may be uncharacteristically shy about trying new things without constant approval from others, they may be afraid to share ideas for fear of criticism, and often refuse any leadership opportunities.
The Adult. An adult who has learned to take initiative will handle change relatively well with an ability to formulate new plans as needed. They have learned to manage themselves and maintain a sense of self-control. However, the adult plagued by thoughts of guilt often takes on too much responsibility to mask their irresponsibility in other areas of their life. They constantly feel bad for others and try to “help” others even to their own detriment. Sadly, they are more than willing to subordinate their plans to others because their plan is never good enough.
The Cure. Recognizing the guilty thoughts and calling it guilt is half of the battle. The other half is counter-acting the thoughts with truth. For instance, if a person feels guilty because they got a promotion over a coworker, they need to stop and recognize that they are not responsible for the decision, a manager is. Moreover, perhaps the reality is that the guilty person, not the coworker, actually works harder and does deserve a promotion. As long as the guilty person did not jeopardize their coworker’s chance at the promotion, there is nothing to feel guilty over.
The only time God uses guilt is to convict us of a sin. All of the other times a person feels guilty, they are actually taking on more than their responsibility and risking their health and welfare in the process. Realizing that Jesus Christ already bore the price for sin and He has already taken on the responsibility, eliminates the need for anyone to take on the sins of others. Instead, the guilty adult must learn to shed the unnecessary guilt and begin to take initiative for the things they are responsible for handling.
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