The guilt trip: let it go!

As a working mother, how often do you find yourself dealing with guilt? Now is the time to learn how to let go of parental guilt and, even better, how to avoid it.

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 sacrifice she might have to make. When we, as mothers, feel we fall short of this ideal guilt sets in.

What is guilt?

Guilt is a valuable emotion; it taps into our conscience, which is our internal guide for what is right and wrong. In case 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 it’s only external pressure.

When do you feel guilt?

Many of us feel guilty, and some of the most common “guilt triggers” I have heard mothers mention are:

  • not always being there for my children, partner or parents
  • prioritising fun over duty
  • taking the easy option
  • saying “no” at work or at home
  • taking time for myself

Do any of these sound familiar? Is this you?

How to avoid guilt

There are simple techniques that will prevent the feeling coming up. Try to look at the following tips and relate them to your triggers and the triggers mentioned above.

  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 limitations. 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 made a mistake and apologise. It sets a great role model example and will benefit them.
  4. Swap the word  ‘Guilt’ for  ‘Regret’. 
A simple semantics swap 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 moving on is the best way forward.

How to deal with guilt

However, you just cannot always avoid guilt, and when it crops up, you need to deal with it. Often our response is so automatic that we feel unable to change it. It is vital, though to stop and take it heads on, as 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.

With the first pangs of guilt, we should take a moment to reflect about the following:

  • Is this guilt externally motivated or internally? Do you hear yourself think: “Do I hear my mother telling me off?’”or “That article I read yesterday was showing I did it all wrong”, or do you feel uncomfortable yourself about your 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 the next step.

  • Ask yourself: What is it exactly I feel guilty about? Make a list on paper. Write every small aspect down. By doing this, you break the feeling down and instead of being overwhelmed, it enables you to address every aspect.
  • If your action was appropriate or acceptable under the circumstances. Let go of the situation and refuse to think about it further.
  • If your action was inappropriate, ask yourself: Is there something I 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.
  • Finally, ask yourself: What have I learned from this experience that will be helpful in future? This way you turn your guilt trip into a positive experience that allows you to change your reaction in future.

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, learn from it and for the future work out your strategies to avoid the guilt.

Author: Dr Mariette Jansen MBACP. Mariette is a Stress Management Consultant and Life Coach. You can contact her at: mariette.jansen.coaching@gmail.com

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