Before I delivered my first child, I had maternal guilt. I was certain that eating Flintstone Vitamins in lieu of the prenatal ones (which I could not keep down) per my physician’s suggestion would lead to some horrific defect. And (all together now:) It will be ALL my fault. According to Erma Bombeck, guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. And how right she was.
A twinge or a flood, justified or absurd, guilt is a common emotion. Added to the obvious mistakes we make are the endless choices we as parents could have made which should have resulted in a better outcome and Bingo! Guilt. The brain seeks to make sense of our circumstances, no matter how good or bad. One way in which it does that is to take responsibility. For everything. And everyone. So what, if any, positive purpose does legitimate guilt serve and how can we fight the illegitimate guilty feelings to which we are prone?
According to John M. Grohol, PSYD, “guilt is an emotional warning sign that most people learn through their normal childhood social development. “Healthy” or “appropriate” guilt serves a purpose in trying to help redirect our moral compass.” If you let your child marinade in a wet diaper for 3 hours, chances are you earned your guilt twinge. If you have twins and one is a brilliant mathematician while the other barely scrapes by, feeling guilty for this is inappropraite. If there is no moral issue to correct, there is nothing over which to feel guilty.
Legitimate guilt is an internal signal that we need to admit our mistake, apologize and move on. As Augustine said, “Repentant tears wash out the stain of guilt.” Relief only comes when we face our mistake and seek to make things better. This means humbling yourself to apologize, when it is warranted, even to your children. Family is where we learn what it takes to make good choices in the world. It is key to instill in your kids the need to take responsibility for their actions.
Forbes Magazine published a Stanford Business School study which reported that people who feel guilt when doing something wrong actually made great leaders. Partly, perhaps, because they feel responsible for their actions and aware when those actions negatively affect others. Additionally when prompted by guilty feelings, good leaders seek to make amends with those they have caused harm.
“Unhealthy guilt’s purpose, on the other hand, is only to make us feel bad for little legitimate reason” says Grohol. This unhealthy guilt, encouraged by its equally wicked twin, anxiety, seems inherent in parenthood, right? Whether pesky or downright immobilizing, unhealthy guilt is a huge waste of emotional energy. Living under the burden of illegitimate guilt can lead to impairment in one’s ability to make future decisions, fearful of making a wrong move.
If you feel completely overwrought this time of year, perhaps you are burdened by guilt. How can you get to a freer place?
Quiet your mind to dig down to the root of your guilt. Take a walk, write in a journal, be quiet and uncover what is really going on. If it is legitimate guilt over something you did or failed to do, make amends. Ask God’s forgiveness, write that letter, make a call, admit your part in whatever went wrong. Whatever it takes to own your actions, do it. Then let it go. Once you have admitted your mistake, whether or not someone forgives you is not your responsibility. If it is something like working mom guilt or stay at home mom guilt, examine that. If you made the best decision for your family be at peace with that and determine to once and for all let the illegitimate guilt go.
Honestly there are a thousand better ways to do things as a parent which will all become clear about the time our offspring are 25 or so. When parental guilt rears its ugly head, take a a moment and identify whether it is justified or not. Dig past the surface emotion to identify the true origin and if it is valid, change your behavior. If unjustified, cut the senseless guilt out like the cancer it is. A world of wasted energy could be saved if we would but take a quiet moment to inspect our emotions rather than being helplessly sunk by them.