Guilt weighs heavy on the hearts of so many mothers as we are juggling a myriad of responsibilities and often unsure if we have given enough, even though at the end of the day there is absolutely nothing left to give. Did I love enough today? Did I spend enough time with each child? Did I listen to my partner? Did I let down that friend? I should have done this, or I shouldn’t have done that. We promise to do better tomorrow. Then tomorrow comes with the same flurry of responsibilities that yesterday had, and our best never feels quite good enough.
Guilt comes in varying degrees of severity and toxicity. Sometimes it is specific and appropriate and points to a need for action. An example is perhaps you yelled at your children or said something hurtful to your partner. The guilt you feel then is a warning sign that you crossed a boundary and need to make amends and work toward better reactions in the future. At other times it is generalized or inappropriate. For example, you may feel guilty for co-sleeping with your child after talking with a mom who has an independent sleeper. Even though there is nothing wrong with your behavior and co-sleeping suits you just fine, guilt seeps in because you begin to compare your situation with someone else’s and question your choices. Therefore, guilt can be a catalyst for positive change or a disease that eats away at our self-worth and actually hinders our ability to do better. Our conscience is an important guide; it makes us human and points us back to our values. Yet allowing guilt to become excessive and chronic rather than recognizing whether it is appropriate or inappropriate and handling it accordingly is a dangerous trap.
One of the reasons I chose positive parenting is because I know that a child who is in emotional distress cannot be his best self; yet I too often forget that the same is true for myself. Unchecked guilt is emotional distress and can lead to anxiety, depression, and a host of other problems. Furthermore, when we are locked in a guilt cycle, we are actually more likely to repeat our mistakes. This is why, in positive parenting, we show empathy to our children while guiding behavior through teaching and modeling rather than relying upon a one-size-fits-all punishment in order to make them feel bad. If we can apply that same logic to ourselves, having self-compassion while working toward improvement instead of punishing ourselves with unnecessary guilt, we would be more likely to succeed at reaching our goals while improving our self-esteem in the process rather than seeing it destroyed.