The guilt trip: a big issue! New parents and new emotions!
What seems to arrive with a new baby is the anxiety around the enormous responsibility for your child and the fear of ’not doing it right’. And, unavoidably, we will make mistakes, or not doing it right and what then happily kicks in is THE GUILT!
What is guilt?
Guilt is a valuable emotion; it taps into our conscience, which is our internal guide for what is wrong and right. And if we have done something wrong, the emotion of guilt emerges. It is a warning system. Guilt can be motivated internally; where you know instinctively on a deep level that you have done something wrong, or externally, when the outside world tells you that you have done something wrong. It is important to distinguish between the two, because with the first one you are accountable and responsible, with the second one you are pressurised from outside yourself.
It wasn’t until I had my own child that I understood. To some degree, every mother wants her children to be perfectly comfortable, perfectly protected, perfectly happy-- no matter what sacrifices she might have to make. Nothing is good enough for my child. When we, as mothers, inevitably fall short of this ideal, guilt sets in.
Some of the most common “guilt triggers”:
- Not always being there for your children, partner or parents.
- Prioritising fun over duty.
- Taking the easy option.
- Saying “no” at work or at home.
- Taking time for yourself.
Do any of these sound familiar?
Often our response is so automatic that we feel unable to change it. The truth, however, is that guilt is the greatest destroyer of emotional energy. It leaves you feeling immobilized in the present by something that has already occurred. In fact, excessive guilt is one of the biggest destroyers of self-esteem, individuality, creativity and personal development.
How to deal with guilt?
The positive thing about guilt, is that it keeps us in touch with our feelings, and warns us. With the first pangs of guilt, we should take a moment to stop and reflect about the following:
Is this guilt externally motivated or internally? In other words: ‘Do I hear my mother telling me off?’ or ‘That article I read yesterday was showing I did it all wrong’, or do I feel uncomfortable in myself about my action?
The difference between the two is that the externally motivated guilt could be dismantled easily: you will never be able to deal with expectations from others and it moves you away from your own truth. So, park those aside. Tell yourself that this is not your conscience, but someone else’s.
When it is internally motivated, go to step 2.
Review the action or event over which you feel guilt. What is it exactly you feel guilty about? Make a list on paper. Write every small aspect down. By doing this, you break the feeling down and in stead of being overwhelmed, it enables you to address every aspect. Ask yourself the question if the action was appropriate or acceptable under the circumstances? If so, let go of the situation and refuse to think about it further. If your action was inappropriate, is there something you can do to correct it or to make amends? Then take the action and accept that you have done all you can to rectify the situation and let it rest. What have you learned from this experience that will be helpful in the future.
If have taken these steps and you still can’t forget your mistake — perceived or real — do something paradoxical. Force yourself to feel as guilty as possible for a full minute. Set your stopwatch. Doing this will either make you sick and tired of thinking about the situation or point out the absurdity of self-recriminations.
Remember that the past cannot be changed, no matter how you feel about it. Excessive guilt will neither alter the past nor make you a better person. By implementing the above steps, however, you will learn from your mistakes and not be obsessed with them.
Tips for Avoiding Guilt
1. Re-examine your goals and priorities. Once you have decided on these, your decision process will be easier and clearer to all parties involved. ‘Mum has to go to work now, because we need to pay for the holiday, but remember, I will be with you tonight and read.’
2. Remember Your Role as a Parent
Sometimes, it is hard to be disciplined and say no. But there are times you have to say no for the greater good of teaching your children boundaries and limitation. If you know what you base your choice on, guilt is an inappropriate emotion.
3. Learn from Your Mistakes
Discuss the object of your guilt with people whose opinion you respect. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them. Be honest and upfront with your children. There is no harm in admitting you did it wrong and apologise. It sets a great role model example and will benefit them.
4. Change "Guilt" to "Regret"
A simple semantics change could make a big difference. Guilt is heavily loaded, and a much better word for it is regret. Regret requires no explanation, it represents you did the best you could at that moment. Acknowledging the regret and move on is the best way forward.
Guilt can be a helpful emotion, but if you allow it to be negative, immobilising, demotivating and punishing, it doesn’t offer any advantages. Try to deal with it, and for the future work out your strategies to avoid the guilt. And never forget that guilt is about behaviour, it is not about being!
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