The Guilt Bucket This post goes hand-in-hand with Step 3: Take Responsibility. Accepting responsibility and asking forgiveness for the things we do wrong are keys to maintaining successful relationships. However, when sexual abuse has been a part of our history, guilt tends to get in the way. Why is that? Well, children are egocentric. That is, they think the world centers around them. That’s the way they’re supposed to be; it’s part of the normal developmental process. But when sexual abuse enters the picture, they believe that they are the cause. When we become adults, it means we are left with feelings of guilt. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it is a reality.
So now that we’re adults, what do we do with this guilt? It’s time to learn the difference between true guilt and false guilt. True guilt is the guilt we experience for the things we do that are wrong. We all come equipped with a God-given conscience that alerts us when we do something wrong. The problem for abuse survivors is that the conscience becomes warped, and we find ourselves continuing to feel guilty even when we’ve done nothing wrong. That’s false guilt. So what does that have to do with taking responsibility? A really good therapist explained it to me using the example of the Guilt Bucket. He told me to think of it this way: You have a bucket that fills up with the things you feel guilty about. When you fill it up with false guilt, for things like sexual abuse, your bucket becomes full. So when true guilt comes along, you can’t accept it; your bucket is already full. So you reject the true guilt and become defensive when someone calls you on something. The way to heal it is to dump out the false guilt to make room for the true guilt.
How do you do that? The first step is to learn how to tell the difference between true guilt and false guilt. This is where the 5 Steps of Recovery come in. You must decide to face the issue, tell the truth and now, learn to take responsibility. The main issue is looking into the past and giving responsibility for the abuse back to those who were responsible. That’s not easy, so try this. Take a long look at children you know. Now imagine someone approaching them to do harm. Would you then blame the children? Of course not! And yet if you’re like I was, you feel responsible for what happened to you. It was not my fault, and it’s certainly not yours.
Practice emptying your guilt bucket of false guilt, so it won’t overflow when the real thing comes along. I just try to visualize what’s in the bucket. I “look” at each one in my mind. Was this really my responsibility? Is this something someone else did to me? Is this a choice that I made? Answer those questions honestly, and then you will be able to take responsibility for the things you do wrong while letting the other stuff go. You will be amazed at the improvement in relationships you’ll see when you can take responsibility for your own stuff. It’s just part of being adult. And the most surprising part about this is how freeing it is to be able to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong,.”
What? you say. Yes, I know, I really do know, that to say you’re sorry is to humble yourself and be vulnerable. Those are two very difficult things to do for anyone, abused or not. And notice: I said humble yourself, not humiliate yourself. Those are two very different things. One of the first times I practiced taking responsibility for something I knew was mine was with my daughter. I realized how much I had hurt her with all my suicide attempts and cutting, so I told her that, and then I said, “I’m sorry. Would you please forgive me?” I knew I had done the right thing when she turned around with tears streaming down her cheeks. It’s what she needed to hear from me, and it was the beginning of a transformation in our relationship. That was the moment the gap between us began to close, and now our relationship is better than it’s ever been, all because of two words: I’m sorry. They may be the most powerful, most healing words you ever utter.