You Have Permission to Walk Out.

Friends, a few quick notes to start:

A Wish Come Clear celebrated its four-year blog anniversary on January 16! I had every intention of publishing that day, but life got in the way.

In the past week, I’ve faced a host of physical issues. (I’ll spare you the details, but don’t worry, nothing is serious, just unpleasant.) Naturally, I did not appreciate this. Who enjoys letting go of their plans, taking pills, and slowing way down? Not me.

However, there is a silver lining. I’ve had practice letting go of judgment and self-blame and choosing kindness, which is a spiritual workout.

Plus, I’ve realized on a visceral level that I have so much to be thankful for. I mean, I get to write posts that thousands of beautiful, wise people such as yourself actually read! And we’ve been doing this together for four years now … ?! What a gift.

Which reminds me: since I’ve been publishing less frequently here while I’m writing my next book, I’ve been posting more mini-stories on Facebook and Twitter. I invite you to like and follow and join the conversation.

But if you do click over, don’t forget to come back and read the story below … I’m sending it your way with love.

I’m not proud of this, but here’s the truth: I waste a lot of time gripped by false guilt. 

Last month, for example, I felt guilty that my husband Jonathan and I spent $11 on ornaments for our Christmas tree. I felt bad in part because I am naturally frugal, and in part because I was taught by my childhood church that Christmas trees were ‘pagan’ and off-limits to true believers.

As Jonathan and I stood in the check-out line, I said, “Um … should we really buy these? Maybe it’s too much. I feel guilty. I could put them back … ?”

Jonathan paused. We’d agreed to shop for ornaments, so he had every right to be annoyed. Instead, he thoughtfully replied, “It seems like you feel guilty about a lot of things unnecessarily. So maybe guilt isn’t a reliable indicator of whether or not you should do something.”

BAM. He was right. My guilt gauge is overly responsive. It goes off at the slightest infraction, so I can’t look to it for a true reading. Instead, I can acknowledge false guilt, then make a deliberate choice about what I want to do.

Christmas 2014

We did get the ornaments after all!

This takes a lot of practice, but it’s worth it. One recent Sunday, I arrived late to church and felt – you’ll never guess! – guilty. But I coached myself:

You are allowed to be imperfectly punctual – even your pastor says so! (This is one of the many reasons why you love her.) Remember, it was hard for you to come here today, since you’re feeling vulnerable. So instead of being hard on yourself, maybe you can give yourself credit for showing up at all.

Giving Grace

In short, I tried giving myself grace rather than judgment, and it worked. I was able to relax into the worship music and even dance a little.

As I’ve shared before, dancing in church is both delightful and difficult for me. When I was young, worship meant singing hymns with my hands at my sides and my feet planted on the ground. When this early patterning collides with the more spontaneous norms of my current church, I feel … conflicted.

But here’s what’s been helpful for me: to I accept that I am probably going to feel (momentary) guilt no matter what I choose. I will feel guilty if I feel like dancing (because I’m disappointing those old voices of religious authority), and I will feel guilty if I don’t feel like dancing (because then I’m not joining in with others around me).

So I just acknowledge the guilt, then go ahead and do what feels right on a given Sunday. On the day I walked in late to church, I did choose to dance, and it felt great.

But then another musician started singing, and his voice rose to shouting levels.

Feeling Afraid in Church

Intellectually, I knew that the singer was just being intense about the music, just doing his thing. I love being part of a church that invites authentic expression. I am so fortunate to have found this church, these people; they have welcomed me just as I am, and I know that I am safe and loved there.

In the moment, though, those truths didn’t register emotionally. Instead, I felt deeply uncomfortable. There was just something about me sitting in church, as a woman, and ‘getting yelled at’ by a man in a position of authority … something about that scenario triggered fear and shame in me.

Though the singer was calling out words of love and acceptance rather than judgment, I couldn’t stop feeling like I wanted out. But then – wait for it! – I felt guilty about that desire to leave.

I tried to reason with my scared self: Caroline, it’s OK! You know this guy! He’s a good guy! He is not trying to shame or oppress you! So can you please stay put and get over it?!

Alas, these mental admonitions didn’t quell the fear.

permission to walk out

Church, Washington DC

Permission to Walk Out

So although it felt risky, I decided to do something different: to let the feelings come, to honor the frightened child within me.

Small children can’t hear reason when they’re afraid. They need to feel safe before they can process anything rationally. So I took my small-child self in my metaphorical arms. I got up and walked out, as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.

It felt deeply subversive, but also great.

I stood in the hallway, taking deep breaths. Soon, I was calm. And I went back in for the rest of the service, soaring on a feeling of freedom.

When I finally took care of my vulnerable self – when I stood up for her, literally and figuratively – I felt God cheering. It was a lovely surprise to realize that God never needed me to feign invulnerability. That was all my own pride. Instead, God was proud of me for being honest.

As Anne Lamott writes in Plan B:

“I assumed Jesus wanted me to forgive [her], but I also know he loves honesty and transparency. I don’t think he was rolling his eyes impatiently at me …. I don’t think much surprises him: this is how we make important changes – barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph.”

That’s how I felt after I walked out: as though I’d made an important change – barely, poorly, slowlyand that Someone was raising a fist in triumph.


How about you? What important change might you make, barely, poorly, slowly? Do you have permission to walk out?


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16 thoughts on “You Have Permission to Walk Out.

  1. Mary says:

    What an amazing insight about guilt not being a good indicator of what action you should take. Thank you, Jonathan. Caroline, you married a stellar guy.

    I’ve also been working with that inner child. So glad to be walking together!

    • Mary, I am so glad to be walking with you too! It’s amazing how we can go on parallel journeys even at a distance – thank you for sharing that, and I’d love to hear more sometime. And I couldn’t agree more – Jonathan is indeed an insightful, stellar guy. But then, I am terribly biased! 😉

  2. Joyce G says:

    Oh, I loved this story – Guilt is such a part of my life that it stops me from doing so much. My adult son is working so hard with me to stop me taking blame for things, feeling guilty all the time, and basically living in fear of something going wrong and it being my fault. It’s so hard .. I’m trying, but it’s very little baby steps ….. (I’m 57 – so I’ve been doing it the hard way for MANY years – ha ha). I take the safe route all the time, look longingly at adventurers and wish I could do something spontaneous … SOME DAY I WILL – I know that now 🙂 thanks for your story!

    • Joyce, I’m so glad to hear that the post resonated, and that you could relate! And I hear you about the baby steps – kudos to you for taking them, even though it isn’t easy. Do come back and tell us about your spontaneous moves when you make them! 🙂

  3. Olga Jendrek says:

    So interesting for me to read what you felt “guilt” and how you reacted from you experience in church — ‘getting yelled at’ by a man in a position of authority … something about that scenario triggered fear and shame in me. It makes me sad in a way that our children felt that way and yet I realize I too have experienced the same feelings. I am so glad we are understanding grace and God’s love for us more deeply. We are realizing the mistakes we make as human beings and we are learning to see how God see us more and more.
    He loves us so deeply and wants us not to feel guilty but loved.
    Praises be to Him.

    • Auntie Olga, thank you for writing! You said it well – so much of life is “a process of understanding grace and God’s love for us more deeply”. (I think it was William Blake who wrote that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love.)

      So many people from all different backgrounds can relate to that feeling of shame in church, and it is indeed sad and troubling to realize that it’s a widespread issue. And yet as you said, there is a great deal of hope, because when we learn to see ourselves with eyes of love, everything changes. So much love to you.

  4. What a wonderful post, Caroline. This is a perfect message for me today as I have a challenging situation coming up in which my vulnerable, scared self is really needing to feel safe, and I realized after reading your post that I’ve been trying to “reason” with her. You’re so right, the scared self needs to be taken care of, not reasoned with! Thanks for this gem, and congrats taking care of yourself so beautifully! 🙂

    • Jill, thank you! I am so thrilled and humbled to hear that the post spoke to you at the right time; maybe I’ll read more about it on your blog soon?! 🙂 I will take courage and think of you the next time I’m faced with a choice about comforting my scared self.

  5. Ahhh…guilt! Why do so many of us suffer from it? I know I do way too much. Reading this made me realize it’s ok and that I don’t have to do things I don’t want to because of guilt. Thanks for this inspiring and comforting post.

  6. Beautiful, Caroline! Thank you for the reminder to be gentle and forgiving to ourselves — I needed to hear that. And how glad I am that you and Johnathan have one another. Love you so much!

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