Unfortunately, it is very difficult to discern the critical difference between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt, or what we call shame. Healthy guilt is the experience of realizing that our actions that lead us astray are beneath us, that we are better than our behaviors. It is simply not becoming for a prince of the King of the Universe to act in this way. The key here is to view ourselves as above our poor decision and actions.
Conversely, unhealthy guilt/shame conceptually means equating our sins with who we are as a person. Our identity becomes what we have done, and we say to ourselves, “If I committed those aveirot, I am obviously an awful person.” When we identify with our flaws and our worst moments, that shame permeates our entire being, making it extremely difficult to return. We believe that the only way out of our despair is not to merely change our choices and actions, but to completely alter who we are. Yet since we perceive ourselves as despicable, the mere thought of becoming better can be overwhelming.
The prince in our previous example does not have to change his identity. He is a prince, after all. He just needs to start acting like one.
But he must be patient with himself.
In many cases, this despair can be traced to the desire for instant gratification. We think, I am going to make sure to pray with kavanah, with concentration. We suppose that it is enough to try and then boom! – all of our tefillot are going to be filled with kavanah from beginning to end. And while we’re at it, we think, I’m going to go through Mesillat Yesharim and become an expert at every middah listed there. If I just stick to it – and there’s no reason to think I won’t – in due time, I’ll be the biggest tzaddik/tzaddeiket around!
And then, how frustrated we become when we don’t see it happening!
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Accordingly, we must bear in mind the all-important rule: Slow and steady wins the race. Don’t overload, don’t jump the gun. The Gemara (Kiddushin 17a) warns, “If you grasp too much, you’re not grasping anything. If you grasp a bit, you’re grasping something.”
And even with that little bit that we can do, we’re going to flounder and mess up. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. As Shlomo Hamelech states (Mishlei 24:16), “The tzaddik falls seven times and he arises.”
Which brings us to a favorite theme of our society: diets.
Beware: most diets don’t work. That is a researched fact, with myriad reasons behind it. One of those reasons is that it is only natural to succumb to temptation and eat the cookie that is against the diet’s rules and regulations…So we go ahead and eat the cookie.
Make the Right Choice
Now we are faced with two choices. Either we pick ourselves up and say, “Okay, I fell, that’s understandable. After all, I do love cookies,” and then get right back on track, and watch our food intake carefully for the rest of the day.
Or, we make the unfortunate choice made by so many. “Look at me, so undisciplined! I promised myself I would be ‘good’ this time, and now I’m never going to lose an ounce. Once I cheated and messed up today, I may as well finish the entire box of cookies!”
That would be like the farmer saying, “Okay, that’s it. Forget it! I received a worthless field. I’m not working anymore. I’ll just throw in the towel!”
Rather, we must not despair, but keep pushing forward, doing our best with the “field” we have been given.
Keep working steadily toward your goal. When you fall and fail, dust yourself off, stand up again, and get right back to work. If you stick to it, you will eventually succeed.
For example, if you inadvertently spoke lashon hara during the hour in which you were meant to be extra vigilant about guarding your tongue, don’t drop out of the program altogether. Rather, figure out a way to remind yourself not to speak lashon hara during your designated time slot, and keep up the momentum!