Ask IPS, Your Faithful Catholic Therapist
Originally posted during Lenten Season (February 2015)
The IPS (Institute for Psychological Sciences) offers practical advice from psychological experts, drawing on Catholic faith and modern psychology. This month’s question explores feelings of shame.
QUESTION: During Lent, I feel like there is a large emphasis on sinfulness. I find myself feeling constantly ashamed of my past sins. Is this healthy?
William McKenna, M.S.
Clinical Extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services
You are not alone in your concern. All too often, individuals feel inadequate when confronted with their sins, and sometimes Lenten sermons on the consequences of sin can lead people to question God’s love and mercy. It is a good thing when a person feels an emotional response to disordered behavior because it allows them to recognize the wrong and seek forgiveness. However, when that same person has repented and begins to believe that they themselves are a bad person because of past sins, then we have a bigger problem.
To understand the dilemma above it is important to make a distinction between a person feeling guilt versus feeling shame. Someone who feels shame because of their sins may say things such as, “I’m a bad person who shouldn’t be allowed in God’s presence” or “I hate myself because of my sins.” On the other hand, the guilty person may echo the words of Scripture by saying, “Have mercy on me God, a sinner.” Persons feeling guilt understand that they are inherently good, and that they tend towards sin because of the fallen nature of human beings. The shameful person believes that he is inherently evil and that no matter what, he will always be evil. The shameful person, more significantly, believes that they do not deserve the love of God.
Both the Church and psychology agree that this sometimes blurred distinction between guilt and shame stems from a person believing that he or she is not lovable. God created us to know Love, to be loved, and then to give love to others. However, when a person believes that he has never been loved, he struggles to form relationships with others or even with God. This feeling is usually rooted in our earliest relationships as infants and very young toddlers. We use these early relationships as a guiding model for our later relationships. Oftentimes, people develop early attachments that show that people can be counted on for love and support and tell us that we are worthwhile. Sometimes, though, if a person does not feel secure and safe in an early relationship, it is harder for them later to feel loved and supported in adult relationships and even with God.
The Lenten season is a joyful time. Indeed, it is a time of renewal when we prepare for the wonder and the beauty of Christ’s resurrection. While it is good and necessary to repent of our sins, we also recognize that Christ paid for our sins by dying on the Cross. As the Church proclaims in the Exsultet, “Oh truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! Oh happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” May God bless and keep you during this wonderful liturgical season.
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William McKenna is a Clinical Extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services. His clinical interests include counseling couples, families, military personnel, and those suffering from anxiety and depression.