In their book 12 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend identify several “spiritual” beliefs that are actually toxic. Three apply to people of any religion: “it’s selfish to have my needs met,” “leave the past behind,” and “guilt and shame are good for me”.
It’s Selfish to Have My Needs Met
It’s like eating. You need to eat so your body has the energy to get things done. You can’t focus on helping others eat while you don’t eat; you’ll run out of energy. There is nothing wrong with eating in and of itself. When carried to excess, however, there is a problem. However, when done the right way, it is not only a good thing, but vital and essential.
You have needs, and you have a responsibility to meet those needs. As Townsend and Cloud wrote, “If your need for comfort, encouragement and hope is selfish, then others’ need for that is selfish, too. It it ain’t okay for you to have it, it ain’t okay for you to give it.”
God doesn’t ask us to go at it alone. He has given us other people to help us meet our needs. As the poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” We can’t make it on our own.
Leave the Past Behind
There’s a difference between forgetting the past and leaving the past behind. Forgetting the past is denial. Leaving the past behind is facing it and moving on. Forgetting the past leaves you enslaved to it. Leaving the past behind sets you free from it.
Cloud and Townsend write “The past can’t really affect us, but our present feelings about the past can.” That’s borderline personality disorder (BPD) in a nutshell. We are trapped by our feelings about the past, and we use maladaptive coping skills to deal with it. Our present feelings about the past manifest in negative ways, such as addiction or self-injury.
Cloud and Townsend write “We cannot change our past. But we must change our internal connections to those who have hurt us by forgiving them.” In a way, this changes the past. It doesn’t undo the damage; it simply removes its sting. Forgiveness sets us free.
“God is in the process of reconciling everything that has gone wrong, including our personal past,” Cloud and Townsend write. “He deals with the past, reconciling people to himself, repairing damage, rebuilding what sin has destroyed. But in order for him to deal with our past, we need to bring all of our broken parts to him. This is the ultimate dealing with the past.”
Guilt and Shame are Good for Me
There’s a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt occurs when you’ve done something wrong–in other words, it’s concerned with action. Shame occurs when you feel as if your existence is wrong–in other words, it’s concerned with who you are. Guilt can sometimes be helpful, while shame is never helpful.
Guilt can be overcome by apologizing and making it right. Shame can not, because you can not change who you are. Guilt allows you to continue being yourself. Shame makes you fear being yourself because you fear further condemnation.
We often get shame and guilt confused. Guilt can be remedied by correcting our conduct. Shame can not. If we feel guilty or ashamed and aren’t sure which is which, we should ask ourselves “Is this because of something I did or because of who I am?” If it’s because of our actions, it’s guilt. If it’s because of who we are, it’s shame.
We don’t have to be prisoners to fear of being selfish, to our past, or to shame. We can be set free by recognizing the three myths for what they are and adjusting our beliefs accordingly.