A common theme among mothers is that of guilt. Fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters probably feel guilt too, but mothers seem to be particularly prone to it. I have not been an exception to that. But, I have learned ways to let go of guilt and have come to see that it generally serves little purpose. For me, letting go of guilt is an on-going process, but it doesn’t eat into my life in the way it used to do. A discussion on Katia Bishof’s blog I am the Milk has prompted me to share a little of what works for me.
First, it helps to understand why we feel guilt – what we unconsciously hope to get from it and why we won’t ever get that. For me, understanding that felt like permission to treat myself with more kindness. If you struggle with guilt or shame, perhaps this article can be your permission to let go.
Guilt and shame are related, but there are differences. Guilt says: “You’ve done something bad and must be punished.” Shame says: “You are bad and no punishment will ever be enough for you.” Professionals would say that guilt is linked to behaviour and shame is linked to our sense of who we are.
These two emotions often arise together, and we humans spend a lot of time and energy trying to work out what experiences mean. So if you think: “I did something that hurt someone,” it doesn’t take long to get to: “…and it means I am unkind, bad, wrong, a horrible person.” And the more often you feel guilty, the more you are likely to have that feeling of being generally not good enough (shame.)
But, you may be thinking, isn’t it right to feel guilty if I’ve done something wrong? If a person repeatedly does bad things, shouldn’t they feel ashamed? Well, yes and no. Years ago I read Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw in which he wrote about healthy shame. He describes healthy shame as our humanness – knowing that we aren’t perfect and that that’s okay. It is also what lets us know it’s okay to need help and gives us the sense of there being something greater than ourselves. (This could be god, but just as easily it could be feeling part of the universe.) In an attempt to escape from unhealthy (or toxic) shame we will either try to be more than human or less than human. Instead of explaining more, I’ll let Bradshaw speak for himself in this video below where he explains why it is so important not to shame children. If as you watch it, you notice you have said any of the things to your children that can create shame, remember you are human so go easy on yourself. Shaming or guilt tripping yourself for shaming your child won’t create change. Being compassionate with yourself just might.
Now, let’s return to guilt. By its very definition: “I’ve done something bad and must be punished,” guilt is about the past. It has nothing to do with right now. This is so important to remember because when we hold onto guilt what we are trying to do is change the past. Say we did something we regret, such as yell at our toddler. So now we mentally yell at ourselves for it, over and over and over, in the hope it will stop us doing it to our kids again.
Oddly enough, it doesn’t work! Instead, we feel so awful that we need somewhere to vent the pain that’s building up inside of us. So what do we do? We yell at our kids again. It took me years to realise this, and even after I’d seen that punishment doesn’t work, it was as if I was afraid to trust that. It was almost as if part of my mind said, “Okay so this doesn’t work, but until I can figure out what does I’m going to go on punishing myself, just in case.”
Then I stopped (mostly) and learned to treat myself compassionately when I reacted in ways that disappointed me. And guess what? I hardly ever yell these days. Not only that, but I’ve noticed that in our family in general the volume is so much lower, and the tone is so much kinder.
It’s not just when we’ve done something we think is wrong that we feel guilty. Often we don’t even know what it was we did, so we want to figure that out in the hope that, even if we can’t actually go back and undo what we’ve done, we can at least stop ourselves ever doing it again. This is what I did after our second daughter was born prematurely. I would go over and over everything I’d done towards the end of my pregnancy trying to figure out if that could have been it. For instance, I read an article about chemicals in hair dye and because I had dyed my hair about 6 weeks before the baby was born, I asked our hairdresser if that could have been the cause. He said no, and I was briefly reassured, until I read some other article about something else and flew into a panic again. Even if it had been the chemicals, beating myself up for not looking into every factor of hair dye safety could not change that she was born when she was. Since I had no plans for more children it couldn’t even stop me making the same mistakes – if I ever worked out what they were! All it did was keep me stuck with guilt, ruminating over the past.
Besides, to presume that what we did was wrong is often playing God. For instance, going back to the example of yelling at your kids: raise your hand if you’ve done this and then been terrified you’ve damaged them for life.
If you raised your hand, you are one of billions of parents. But for all anyone knows a sincere expression of anger may serve a child better than faked niceness. I feel sure children can recognise insincerity and without realising what they are doing they often goad the parent into honesty – even if that honesty is anger. I’ve seen that happen with myself and with other parents. (And I’m not suggesting we should all go round yelling all day long – I’d have a very sore throat for a start!)
Guilt comes from a belief in blame. When we look at life from the perspective of blame, then when “bad” things happen we either have to blame others or ourselves. It hurts either ways. When, instead, we realise that given our emotional and mental make-up at the time, we made the only choice that was open to us, we empathise with ourselves and with others. Yes: letting go of blaming yourself also makes you less likely to blame others.
Blaming is not the same at taking responsibility. If you or I do something that we regret and someone else suffers, then we can both forgive ourselves and take action to make amends. That’s being responsible. Returning to the example of yelling at your child: that action could be as simple as explaining, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I was feeling tense because we were rushing to go out. It’s not your fault; you’ve done nothing wrong and I love you.” Or the action could be reading an article like this one and then going on to learn ways to help yourself cope under pressure. Or it could mean learning more about child development so you know what to expect at any given age. It could be doing all those things.
Blame and guilt keep us stuck ruminating on the past; self-forgiveness and responsibility enable us to let go and empower us to make new choices. While doing some research for this post I came across a wonderful blog post (link at the end) in which the author says to recognise that even if you did something you knew was wrong, so technically “should have known better,” emotionally you weren’t actually able to do what you thought you should. This makes total sense to me, and it explains why I could see that punishing myself didn’t work, yet still went on doing it. Emotionally I wasn’t ready to stop. (There are even physiological reasons for this, because our thinking patterns create neural pathways in our brains and when we change our beliefs it takes time for new pathways to form.)
So that’s the why of waving goodbye to guilt. It also helps to have a few practical techniques to use when guilt comes calling.
It was while reading what Hale Dwoskin of the Sedona Method has to say about guilt and shame that I first began to feel it was okay to let go of guilt. Much of what I’ve written in this article is my understanding of Dwoskin’s words. He has written some great articles on the subject, but it’s not easy to track them down on the internet! Here’s one from the Sedona Method Forums. The gist of it is, having realised that guilt and punishment don’t actually work, you ask yourself: “Could I decide I’ve been punished enough?” It’s even okay to say no! I did the first few times, and it’s far better to be honest with yourself than to falsely pretend to let go. If it takes time, just allow it to take time as best you can. (In other words: don’t feel guilty for feeling guilty.)
At its simplest, the Sedona Method is a way of allowing whatever you are feeling in any given moment. So, if for example you feel anger (the emotion mothers most often feel guilty about) instead of squashing it down, allow it to pass through. It’s really important to know that you don’t need to express this anger or do anything with it. Just feel it, and notice that if you don’t try to justify it, it will pass through. The same is also true for guilt. At first, when doing this it’s absolutely normal to have times when you remember and times when you revert to old ways of ranting at others or at yourself. All you need to do then is – when you do remember – treat yourself with compassion.
That brings me neatly to the book Self Compassion by Kristin Neff. Neff is a professor of human development at the University of Texas and has spent many years researching the effects of having or lacking compassion for oneself. In Self Compassion she draws on her studies and those of others to show how trying to punish and force yourself into becoming a better person doesn’t work, but self-compassion does. Sounds obvious when you see it written like that, doesn’t it? Yet, so many of us can see why we should be kind to others but not why we should be kind to ourselves. “I’ll be lazy, big-headed, mean to others if I like myself,” we think and we go on beating ourselves up. Neff’s findings are that self-compassion motivates us more than fear does, and it makes us kinder. This is certainly my experience. Since I have actively been forgiving myself for making mistakes or snapping at my husband or kids, I do it far less. Little things that used to irritate me don’t so much any more.
Neff has developed a mantra to use whenever you are struggling with the desire to beat yourself up. It consists of four parts, and she suggests not necessarily using her mantra but developing your own that has meaning for you. Mine is:
This is really hard for me right now.
Everybody feels this way sometimes; it’s just part of being human.
May I be kind to myself right now.
May I give myself the compassion (or love) that I need.
Nowadays, when the need arises, I generally use the self-compassion mantra to empathise with myself and then I allow my feelings to pass through. Because it’s easy when we read of new techniques to think they should work instantly, I want to end by saying that neither of these processes is a magic bullet. However, with practice it is possible to let go of guilt and to be kind to yourself and others – most of the time.
Top photo by FrameAngel via FreeDigitalPhotos