Skip to content

Recognise illegitimate guilt—don’t let them define morality

This is a section of a longer paper. To read the whole paper:

Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashOnline: a roadmap for the entire paper Download the entire PDF

We noted above that a person exhibiting SBCMB tends to define morality primarily in reference to themselves and also tends to make themselves into the greatest victim in any situation. This distorted “moral world” can exert a powerful influence on you. If you have engaged with such a person in any depth or for a significant length of time (e.g. as a child growing up in a household with a person exhibiting SBCMB), you may have had your own conscience “trained” in line with their distorted reality, so that you feel guilty when you should not. That is, you may find yourself feeling deeply guilty whenever you think of the person badly, or whenever you do anything that you think may cause them to feel any kind of pain. This may be true even in situations where you have every right to think badly of the person, e.g. if they have hurt you deeply; and it may be true even in situations where you have every right (or even a need) to act in a way that results in them feeling hurt—e.g. if you need to stand up for yourself or state personal boundaries in a way that may cause them to complain.

You might be able to recognise that this kind of guilt reaction is illegitimate by comparing it objectively to the way you feel about other people. That is, you may be perfectly capable of disapproving of certain bad behaviour amongst other people, and you may be perfectly willing to state your own regular personal boundaries to other people, without ever feeling guilty (or perhaps only feeling mildly guilty). However, you may find you cannot easily do the same thing when it comes to the person exhibiting SBCMB. Exactly the same behaviour with this particular person might provoke a strong guilt reaction in you, because your past experiences with them have trained your conscience to over-react when it comes to this person.

If this kind of reaction is deeply ingrained through long association with the person exhibiting SBCMB, you may need to seek professional help. Yet even if your association with the person has been shorter or less intense, you may still find yourself experiencing illegitimate guilt reactions. If this is the case, we have found the following responses helpful.

  • It can be enough simply to recognise that this reaction is happening, and name it as illegitimate.
  • You could talk to others whom you trust and ask them for their objective opinion on whether you should feel guilty in the situation.
  • Or, you could ask yourself whether a reasonable person who is observing your situation would think you have a reason to feel guilty.

It is helpful to remember that it is quite legitimate for you to feel pity or empathy towards a person while at the very same time naming their behaviour as wrong and asserting your own legitimate personal boundaries. This is a normal way to think and feel, but in our experience, one of the effects of SBCMB is that it can thwart people from being able to think normally when it comes to that person. People find themselves unable to both empathise with or pity the person and realise that they have been truly hurt or wronged by them. One way you might be able to overcome this is to consciously practice feeling both things at the same time—i.e. feeling pity/empathy and feeling legitimate grief/anger at what they have done to you or others. This can help you to “retrain” your conscience away from their distorted moral world to one that is more real and true.

Read the next section: Don’t be afraid of disengaging

Copyright © 2021 Lionel and Bronwyn Windsor

Note well: Because of time and energy constraints, we’re not personally able to respond to any queries or comments about this paper. So please realise in advance that if you send us a message about this paper, you are unlikely to receive any response from us.

To read the whole paper: Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours

Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashOnline: a roadmap for the entire paper Download the entire PDF

You may also like: Lift Your Eyes

Lift Yours Eyes is a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

All posts

Recent blog posts

  • Yes no“Paul within Judaism” and Romans 2:17–29
    My article on Romans 2:17–29 supports one key feature of the "Paul within Judaism" perspective, but undermines another common feature.
  • Photo by Engin Akyurt on UnsplashThe goals of Bible teaching (1 Timothy 1:1–11)
    In gospel ministry and Bible teaching, if you’re not committed to the right goal, or if you have the wrong goal, it’s not just a matter of being ineffective: you’ll be downright dangerous. So what is that goal? What are you seeking to achieve in your gospel ministry and Bible teaching - now and in the future? And how would you know if you’d done it right? This passage in 1 Timothy 1:1–11 speaks to this issue of the goals of ministry and teaching. It challenges us to think about our own aims in teaching, and to see how important it is to get it right. A sermon preached at Moore College Men's Chapel on 14 July, 2021.
  • Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashSlow-burn crazy-making behaviours: recognising and responding
    Do you know someone who seems to have drama and problems constantly appear around them? Whenever you relate to this person, perhaps you find yourself feeling vaguely guilty, or uncomfortable, or put down, or obligated to affirm them? Do you often feel like you’re questioning yourself and your actions because of what they say and do? You don’t feel the same way around other people; it’s just this individual who seems to attract these dramas and give rise to these feelings in you. If that’s the case, the chances are it’s not you who is the problem. It’s quite possible that the person you’re thinking of is exhibiting a pattern of behaviours that can be significantly detrimental to you and to others. This pattern of behaviours is hard to pin down; it doesn’t seem too serious in the short term, and indeed it might appear quite normal to a casual acquaintance. However, over the long term, it can cause serious problems for you and others. That’s especially true in close-knit communities, like families, churches and other Christian ministries.
  • Romans Crash CourseRomans Crash Course (video)
    A 75 minute video course in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans designed for church members and leaders.
  • The Mistranslation "Call Yourself a Jew" in Romans 2:17: A Mythbusting StoryThe mistranslation “call yourself a Jew”: A myth-busting story (Romans 2:17)
    This is a story about a scholarly myth and how I had the chance to bust it. I’m talking here about a small but significant 20th century biblical translation: “call yourself” instead of “are called” in Romans 2:17.
  • Breaking news: Religious Scandal in RomeThe named Jew and the name of God: A new reading of Romans 2:17–29
    I've just had an article published in the journal Novum Testamentum. In it, I provide a detailed defense of my new reading of Romans 2:17–29. This passage is not primarily about Jewish salvation - rather it's primarily about Jewish teaching and God's glory.
  • Photo by Joseph d'Mello on UnsplashPreaching the Pastoral Epistles
    A one-hour audio seminar with principles and ideas for preaching the biblical books 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus ("Pastoral Epistles")
  • A Crash Course in Romans: Livestream
    Here's a <90 minute "Crash Course in Romans" I'm running on Monday evening 1 Feb 2021. It's aimed at leaders and any interested members of my church St Augustine's Neutral Bay and Church by the Bridge Kirribilli. Anyone is welcome to watch the livestream.
  • Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on UnsplashWhat’s wrong with the world? Is there hope? (Ephesians)
    Guilt, weakness, spiritual slavery, prejudice, arrogance, tribalism, conflict, war, victimhood, persecution, pain, suffering, futility, ignorance, lying, deceit, anger, theft, greed, pornography, sexual sin, darkness, fear, drunkenness, substance abuse, domestic abuse, workplace abuse, spiritual powers... In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he says many things about the problems we face in this world. He also gives us wonderful reasons to find life, hope and healing in Jesus Christ. Along the way, he provides practical teachings about how to respond and live together.
  • What does Ephesians say about reconciliation?
    We humans are not very good at living up close with others. This is especially true when we have a history of conflict with those others. Reconciliation isn't easy. No matter how much you might want healing, it’s hardly ever a matter of just everybody getting on and pretending the hurts didn’t happen. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he says some very important, fundamental things about peace and reconciliation, and gives many other very practical teachings about how to live together in light of these truths.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor