Guilt Is Easier Than Pain

By Sam Jolman | November 24, 2013

A divorced man came to me recently to get his life back.  He was pretty beat up.  Let me state the obvious for us all: Divorce is brutal.  An end to a story that lovers never imagine would end.  I’ve known people who are grateful they got divorced, but never grateful for the divorce process.  And his was every bit as bloody.  His wife chose the divorce.  The marriage was dying, but she finally pulled the trigger, and he felt the gun blast blow open his chest.

Believe me, he had his stuff to own.  His anger for starters and all the times he drank too much and ended up passed out on the couch.  We spent a lot of time talking about this all.  Months actually.  We had to for his sanity sake. He’d really become a monster of a man.

And then we turned a corner of sorts.  We seemed to run out of stuff for him to own.

And furthermore we started to bump up against his wife’s part in the fallout.  She had really shut her heart off to him for a very long time.  She got lost in her job and her running club.  And she pretty much stopped talking to him, except for the business stuff.  And to get the full picture of his divorce, we had to talk about this part, that she had hurt him too.

He winced as we started down this road. And literally in the middle of talking about it one day, he held up his hand as tears streamed down his face. “Just stop right there. I can’t do this. Can’t this just all be my fault?”

I stopped because I got it.

Sometimes guilt is easier to feel than pain.  Sometimes we would rather it be our fault than someone else’s because at least if its our fault we don’t have to feel hurt.  Its strange to think about at first, that anyone would want to feel guilty.  No one would ever openly say they like feeling all that shame.  But given the choice of raw pain or guilt, a lot of times we’d gladly take the guilt flavored pill.

Pain is… well, painful, to state the obvious.  Pain is also vulnerable.  Its raw.  Its naked.  It puts your heart right out there. And it leaves nothing much to do but to feel it.  To be sad, to cry and let it out. That’s hard.  Not to mention, a really powerless place to be in.  To be a victim of any hurt is to accept some level of powerlessness.  That you couldn’t stop what happened.

And who wants to live in a world where people hurt other people?  In theory, we can accept this.  But to let it wash over when it happens to you?  Well, that’s pretty overwhelming.

Guilt gives us an alternative, something to cover up with, like a thick coat on a cold day. Think about it this way: If something is my fault, then it means that whatever is causing me pain is in my control.  I can change it.  I have something to work on, something in my power to fix.  It lets us stay in control, keep our sense of power.  As a client told me today.  “When you have pain you just have pain.  When you have guilt, you can do something about it.”

So we take the blame on ourselves rather than face the painful thing in front of us.

The problem is that eventually you run out of things to confess or apologize for.  And then what?  Well, you have to start making up more things to be guilty about. That’s when guilt becomes a drug a lot of people use to numb their pain. Its not that we like feeling ashamed of ourselves.  But we like the by-product: being pain free.

Of course, at this point, none of this is real guilt.  Real guilt or conviction from God when we’ve done something wrong doesn’t feel at all like this stuff.  It doesn’t numb us like the false stuff.

Does this still sound absurd?  How about this example: Have you noticed how many people apologize when they cry?  “Sorry…” Sniffle “…I’m sorry.”  Its so crazy consistent and yet totally baffling all at the same time.  We on the outside aren’t feeling the need for an apology.  Sure we might feel uncomfortable around a grieving person, usually when we’re not doing well ourselves.  But I don’t think anyone’s watching and waiting for an apology.

I think its a flinch against pain.  Or a flinch against feeling exposed in the pain.  Saying you’re sorry when you cry takes the edge off just enough.

Its not fair to say you’re just doing all this “guilting” on your own.  I don’t think you woke up one day saying, “I’m bored… why don’t I feel some guilt to pass the time.”  A lot of us were set up to feel guilty for the painful things in our life.  Sometimes people hand us the guilt.  “You did this… You caused this…”  Or imply it with their demeanor or silence or abuse.  A woman this week fought me when I told her she did not cause her sexual abuse.  “No, I had to do something. I must have invited it somehow.”

A lot of religious institutions spoon feed this stuff. Its why Jesus got so pissed at the Pharisees and said, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”  These people were masters at guilting people.

All this numbing with guilt is just the sort of thing evil likes to do, get us stuck in some guilt trip we can’t ever get out of. And that’s the thing.  We can’t get over something if we’re stuck in trying to feel guilty about it when its not our fault. The door to freedom is through our pain.

Through grief we can feel alive again.

Maybe its time to drop the guilt trip on yourself.  There is no way all your problems or struggles or pain are your fault.  No way whatsoever.


  • Ok. Have been on this journey thru my stuff-abuse, PTSD, depression & more. I think I’m hearing from my counselor, that pain is a result of bad thinking. Solution:fix the bad thinking & the pain will go away. Implication: any pain you feel is your own fault/responsibility. I understand that bad thinking can/does sometimes make pain worse. But something in me just wAnts to scream NO!!!! That can’t be true. Am I just being cowardly/irresponsible by not wanting to own my responsibility in my own mess/pain? Or is my heart telling me true? Your post is really stirring something. The bad side of my heart being “right”- if it is- is that then there is nothing left but to feel the pain. & walk thru it. Not very appealing. Nor am I good at it.

    It also seems that if you follow this “you are responsible for any pain you feel” thinking, you’d wind up as a cold, robotic person, immune to/ guarded from any deeply personal touch. Kinda “no one can hurt me, because I am responsible for my own safety from pain.” Not sure I like this either.

    Another thing I just don’t get: this idea that bad memories, when “healed”(whatever the hell that is- they no longer cause pain. As if that were a desirable thing. No one ever speaks of trying to forget positive emotions & the events that caused them. I guess that sorta sounds silly

  • Something glitches on last post & couldn’t finish.

    Guess that sounds silly. Of course everyone wants to remember the good stuff. But the hard things were no less important & possibly much more defining. So why a the pressure /push to let go if/be healed from the negative emotions of it?

    Thanks for your posts. You often put words to the unspoken language of the heart.

    Blessings. Wish you lived nearby.

    • Cat, glad this is speaking to something for you.

      Let me say last sentence again to you. “Maybe its time to drop the guilt trip on yourself. There is no way all your problems or struggles or pain are your fault. No way whatsoever.” You are responsible for what you do WITH your pain. But not for ALL the pain. Hope this helps.

  • Holy crap, this couldn’t be more timely.

    Painful family stuff, right in my face, under the guise of happy thanksgiving visiting.
    SO MUCH GUILT. I think I’ve said “I’m sorry” about ten thousand times the past week. And yet this morning, after they all finally left, all I I can do is cry. Don’t even know why. But yeah, I sure feel guilty about it all: my sadness, my failure to measure up this week, my inability to please everyone, the lonely & abandoned place of being stuck in the middle between parents & husband where neither one of them gives a shit about me, only how well I perform/serve them. And no point in bringing it up – since I’m the one who “acts out” with sadness & pain, it is all my fault – pile on more guilt, guilt, guilt.

    I think I’ll just go have a good cry now….


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