Parent guilt is something we almost assume comes with the job of parenting. I myself have said to other parents “as you know, the baby comes out with a big side of guilt.” I said this because it is often true, but it does not have to be. I am learning how to reframe guilt in my mind. Guilt is one of the many neural pathways we have created over the years. Guilt is a very natural feeling, however, it is similar to anger, in that it is a secondary emotion. It is often the feeling we get in response to another emotion. Guilt is the meaning we make of an uncomfortable sensation in our bodies. Figuring out what emotions are lurking under the mask of guilt and digging into where those feelings come from, is often the key to resolving your guilt and moving past it. Also, our personal experiences can drastically dictate which actions make us feel guilt and shame, similar to anger.
As an example, most people feel sad when a friend moves away. Only some people will be angry, because they see the leaving as a rejection or an abandonment. These feelings are likely triggered by an unresolved issue from their past. Guilt is much the same. Losing your patience with your child, because they did not comply with your request, after you asked multiple times, is a pretty common catalyst for guilty feelings, as a parent. But what were you really feeling? Learning how to reflect on an incident with empathy and compassion for both parties, is not a skill learned over night. It is however, the secret to reframing those feelings of guilt. Through using the tools of reflection, we can still feel the emotions that are necessary to learn from the experience, but by balancing those feelings with a growth mindset, the guilty feelings become drastically reduced and subside much quicker.
Guilt is an excellent manipulator, not motivator
Guilt and shame are often mistaken as motivators for change. I would argue that they are more manipulative, than motivating. They do work temporarily, sometimes, however, the harmful consequences can be long lasting. Mostly guilt and shame effect people in two different ways; they accept it or they reject it, the compliant soldier or the rebel. I think we all take on both roles, at times. The problem is, one is compliant because they feel guilty, not because they are intrinsically motivated to cooperate. The other is so hurt and scared by the feelings of guilt that are brought up, that they reject the characterization and feeling, refusing to comply, but still feeling the guilt and the rejection.
Self-induced guilt is usually the hardest for parents. Letting go of the guilt can actually help let go of the anger, in those moments as well. We must figure out our emotions in order to process them. That is how we overcome guilt; by finding out what is hiding underneath it and giving it space and time to be reflected on, processed and then released, when it is ready. You should not have to try and release feelings of guilt, it should just come naturally. If it does not feel like that for me, I know I have more reflecting to do.
Instead of calling it guilt, let’s call it instinct
Picture a new parent trying to make excuses for being a responsive caregiver by saying “I just can’t leave him to cry, I feel too guilty” No, what you feel is instinct. Now imagine if the new parent said “I just follow my instincts and pick up my baby when it cries.” No guilt, lots of common sense. We need to be able to recognize these sensations in order to respond to our child. That is why they are there. But the parent who labels the feeling “instinct” versus the parent who labels the sensation “guilt” is going to likely have a much more fulfilling parenting experience. Perspective is everything.
Stuffing it down
I think another common approach to guilt, is trying to stuff it down. Just because you don’t know how to process your guilt, does not mean you ignore it. The person not responding to their child, trying to ignore their child’s needs, they are also feeling instincts, but because they are not responding, that feeling morphs into guilt. Like I said, some people internalize guilt (I’m such a bad mother, my baby never stops crying), others, externalize it (there is something wrong with this baby, it won’t stop crying). The truth is, babies cry, that part is really natural. What is not natural is leaving them to cry alone. Follow your instincts to meet your child’s needs. When you make a mistake, like all humans do, multiple times a day, try reflecting instead of going down the rabbit hole of guilt and shame. Reflection allows you to come out on the other end a more authentic version of yourself, whereas guilt and shame destroys self-worth and often perpetuates feelings of self-loathing or resentment towards others, including our children and partners.
What to do instead
The sensations that you get when you feel guilty are actually messengers from your body. They will ultimately help you to resolve your guilt easier because they will alert you to feelings of guilt before they overcome you. When you feel that sensation, STOP. Sit down and or find a quiet space and try reflecting instead.
- What am I feeling guilty about?
- What am I afraid of right now?
- Why does this scare me?
- Is there anything I can do about this threat?
- What is most important right now?
- What did I do right in this situation?
Example of using the reflection questions
- What am I feeling guilty about? I feel guilty about yelling at my children. I feel guilty about not being able to stay calm. I feel guilty about not being able to intrinsically motivate my children to listen to my requests.
- What am I afraid of right now? I was afraid that they were going to get hurt. I was afraid that my words would not be enough to convince them to stop wrestling, after all, THEY were having fun. I was afraid that I would not know what to do next. I was afraid that I would not be able to stay calm and grounded while worrying about their safety and feeling overwhelmed by not being heard. All that fear took over and I became what I feared most, the yelling mom, who scares her kids. Now I am afraid that I have scared them, hurt them or broke their trust.
- Why does this scare me? I fear that I do not have the inner strength to provide for these children what they need. The fear of not being enough is something I carry from childhood. So, if it is something I carry from childhood, is it really relevant, or is it getting in the way of authentically connecting with my children and seeing my own self-worth? Maybe it is turning a simple, everyday situation into a guilt spiral of emotions from the past, instead of allowing me to stay present and approach the situation rationally.
- Is there anything I can do about this threat? Yes. In the case of not feeling like enough, positive affirmations can provide the concrete evidence to counter this distorted thinking. “I am enough. I lost my patience, I was overwhelmed and fear took over. We have little control over fear, but I have control now. I take my power back when I manage to reconnect with myself and my true intentions. You are a loving mom. Your children are your world. You are the only person in this whole universe who can love these children as much as you do. We are all human. I will give myself grace, the way I also give my children grace.”
- What is most important right now? Now, that I have made peace with myself, I would focus on reconnecting with my children. Apologizing for my behaviour is always a great place to start. I usually try to explain to my children how I was feeling, while trying to avoid blaming them “I am so sorry I yelled at you guys. Nobody deserves to be spoken to that way. I was scared that you were going to get hurt. I know you were having fun, I just worry sometimes because there are lots of objects to hit and I know we all get caught up in the moment when we are having fun. Regardless, there are so many other ways I could have handled this situation. How would you have liked for me to handle it?” My child would likely just say “not yell at me.” This is a simple answer, but it is poignant. That is it, “I do not ask much mom, just don’t scream at me,” fair.
- What did I do right in this situation?
- I stopped myself when I began to yell.
- I stepped back and began the reflection process which helped me to slow down the situation and better evaluate what was going on.
- I looked at the feelings underneath my guilt and anger and used those feelings to process what happened and evaluate my role in the situation.
- I reflected on where my feelings of fear came from and how fear may have played a part in hijacking by behaviour.
- I reframed my distorted thinking by using a combination of “evaluating the evidence” strategies and positive affirmations.
- I gave myself grace for being human and not getting it right all the time.
- I then apologized and reconnected with my children through empathy and honesty.
- I tried to make them feel heard by asking what they would have liked for me to do.
- Our challenge actually ended positively and turned into a growth experience for everyone.
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