Friday, December 6, 2013

Letting go of Guilt

Guilt seems like an inevitable part of being a Mum.  There’s always a list of things that we ought to be doing or ways in which we should be doing things differently.  Our time is so stretched that we inevitably use short cuts so as to get by and then beat ourselves up about it.  We also come across other Mums who approach things differently, or are perhaps a little less than honest in their descriptions of what goes on in their families, and suddenly that nagging and judgemental voice pops up in our heads again. 

The media doesn’t help either.  We are bombarded with voices criticising what Mothers do.  Today’s little beauty from the Daily Mail – “Babies can ‘contract’ depression in the womb: Infants with depressed mothers have abnormal brain wiring”.  Because that’s just what depressed, pregnant women need isn’t it?  Not only are they feeling pretty damn lousy already, the Daily Mail now tells them their babies are going to have an abnormality as a result.  The blame and the guilt are aimed directly at the Mother.  It’s enough to make you feel quite depressed.  Oh hang on…

In my coaching work I have found that sharing experiences of guilt with other Mums can be a cathartic experience.  My suspicion was that it would be a comfort and reassurance to share your guilt triggers as it makes you feel part of a club and normalizes your feelings.  I actually found that just saying the thing you feel guilty about out loud to someone, rather than just having it incessantly swirl around your own consciousness, was helpful in itself.  The guilt trigger that had been gnawing away at you inside can suddenly sound trivial and ridiculous when said out loud.  A bit of laughter and a not-taking-yourself-too-seriously perspective can work wonders.

However, just because other Mums share your guilt triggers (ridiculous or not), this is no reason to accept the situation.  Guilt is an unhealthy emotion.  It uses up a lot of energy that could be better spent elsewhere.  Have a think about this.  How does Guilt manifest itself in your life? What is the impact on you? Your partner? Your children? Your work?  What is the cost of not doing anything about this feeling?

In Elinor Wilde’s ‘100 Working Mums Project’, mums said that feeling guilty, stretched, torn and miserable can lead to being snappy with their children, having little energy to spend time with them or their partner and certainly no energy for themselves. 

I researched further to try and understand why it is such a negative emotion.  A Cognitive Behavioural Therapy book about Guilt helped my understanding enormously (see ‘Coping with Guilt’ by Windy Dryden).  ‘Feeling guilty’ is the emotion you experience when you blame or condemn yourself for doing something wrong, for failing to do the right thing or for harming or hurting someone.  It is actually the unhealthy alternative to Remorse.  If you feel remorseful, you accept your whole self whilst taking full responsibility for the behaviour.  (So, rather than thinking I am a bad person for doing this thing, you are able to think, I am a fallible human being who in this instance did the wrong thing).

I have certainly found that many Mums experience Guilt in the same way that they experience stress, finding it difficult to pull the two things apart.

But how do we stop feeling like this? How do we let go of our own Guilt?  This is when I need to introduce you to my own personal guilt saboteur. I call her Mary.  The saboteur is a concept that embodies a group of thought processes and feelings that maintains the status quo in our lives.  The best way I have to explain it is as that voice on your shoulder that is constantly sitting in judgement and telling you what you ‘ought’ to be doing.

My own guilt saboteur, Mary, is constantly telling me that I OUGHT to be a better Mum.  I ought to be more present with my boys, ought to spend less time doing ‘my’ stuff and she tells me I should be able to cope with two very young boys.  I should always be happy and upbeat, and should never have to ask for help.  For me, she is personified by a lot of the Mums or female carers that you see in children’s books – particularly quite traditional ones.  Mary Poppins probably does it for me (although admittedly she’s a nanny rather than the children’s mother! She gets to go off duty occasionally!). 

Have a think about what your guilt saboteur is telling you?  Hint: Listen out for the phrases ‘should be’ and ‘ought to be’.  As a coach, that always tells me that the saboteur is present.  Make a list of all of the judgemental remarks that she makes. And then start to think about what your guilt saboteur looks like.  Does she remind you of anybody you have met? A character in a film or storybook? I’ve used Little Miss characters with lots of my clients.  If you’re stuck you could call her Little Miss Guilty. 

Your guilt saboteur is neither good not bad. It just is.  She will lose power over you when you can identify the voice for what it is and this is the first step.  Stop and notice all of the options available in the situation to you (not just the shoulds and ought to’s) and then consciously choose what it is we do really want at that time.  If you could put the saboteurs voice to one side, what options are available to you?  Is there a more positive angle that you would like to choose to hold regarding any situation?  Is there something that you would like to do differently?  As soon as you notice yourself saying ‘should’ or ‘ought to’, stop yourself.  That’s your guilt saboteur again!  Perhaps change the ‘should’ to ‘could’ and see what comes up for you?

Finally, commit to doing something differently.  Write down four things you are going to do differently as a result of this exercise.  And then tell someone about it.  You are much more likely to succeed if you share your intention.  I would love to hear from you.  Contact me at