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A deep and thoughtful post about guilt and mental health to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week 2020.

by Shavaun Glen

I learned about guilt through my Catholic* upbringing.

I was in my late teens and my Mom and I had sparred for too long; “they’re too alike” was how the family described our relationship. One day she walked into my room and gave me a simple handmade wooden cross. It had been carved by a Jesuit priest.

It symbolises reconciliation. Something that featured heavily in South Africa at the time.

She chose to take the big and bold first step to say sorry. In fact, she did more than that. By giving me that cross, she was saying “I have been responsible for hurting you and I have contributed to your pain. Forgive me.”

It was a profound lesson in humility, in human sympathy, in love, in kindness and the importance of healing those you have hurt and who hurt you.

That reconciliation cross has travelled with me and hangs in my room today. It is a reminder of my Mom’s act of love towards me but also the kindness to herself.

She used the language of religion to resolve her guilt and repair our relationship. I don’t know if she knew it at the time, but it was also a stroke of genius in terms of managing her wellbeing, and mine.

Leaving guilt to run the show can be damaging

Feelings of guilt can consume and overrun. They can hang heavy on our minds. They can haunt us and send us to dark places; turning a reasonable mind into a state of confusion and warp how we interpret relationships and interactions with others.

Processing guilt can be healthy.

I tend to think about things long after they’ve happened; especially those where emotions have run high. Not because I feel regret; what’s done is done. But I turn them over in my mind, reflecting on the impact of my words and actions on others and theirs on me.

I will try to avoid doing or saying the same thing again. I don’t always get it right. Being human is an infinite project.

By acknowledging where I’m at fault and my responsibility in doing something wrong or saying something hurtful, I feel liberated.

Be prepared to accept an apology

I know that there are times when I hesitate to apologise. It’s usually because I’m not sure that the other person is ready to accept my apology, which means I also need to think a bit more deeply about how to approach the conversation.

However, if you’re on the receiving end of a sincere apology, not a fleeting “I’m sorry about that”, then do act graciously. The cycle of accepting an apology, emboldens people to acknowledge their faults more readily.

Surely that’s good for the emotional and mental wellbeing of all of us?


Though my Mom and I don’t always see eye to eye, we are able to talk about why. We have a healthy respect for our similarities and differences. We live in different hemispheres, but this has brought us closer. And even though I’ve lapsed, my parents remain active in their local Catholic church, St. Xavier which serves the Martindale and Sophiatown communities in Johannesburg South Africa.

They talk with great affection about their friends in the parish and the ageing priest, Father Victor Kotze, who delivered the sermon at my Great-Grandmother’s funeral in the 60s! I especially enjoy our conversations about the importance of their faith and how it shapes our relationship.

When I told them about my inner conflict and preparation to reach out to someone I know I have hurt, they sent me this article.

*This is not an invitation for commentary about the Catholic Church.

Shavaun Glen is director of Seen and Heard Communications. You can say hello on Twitter at @ShavaunGlen

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