Spoiler: maybe you don’t want to…
It’s a feeling many parents - mums AND dads - feel regularly. It can feel impossible to get things “right” and meet everyone’s needs.
But feeling guilty (in moderation of course) can actually be a healthy emotion. More often that not, as parents, we‘re actually feeling a different emotion, that can be a lot more toxic to our mental health.
What is typically labelled as “mum (or dad) guilt” is more often really “mum (or dad) shame”.
Read on to find out more.
Guilt relates to how we feel about our behaviour, whilst preserving our inner sense of goodness, capability and worth.
With our prefrontal cortex online, it can propel us towards making healthy changes and helps us to maintain connection with others.
Shame, on the other hand, gets right to the core of our being, having us believe that we are bad, useless, incompetent.
Shame is less helpful to us because it typically inhibits change. Switching on our survival (fight/flight/freeze) mode, it makes us want to hide away, and often leads to vicious cycles of automatic reacting.
Feeling guilty (or ashamed) is a normal and healthy emotion and makes sense because we care so much about our children.
None of us is perfect - thank goodness - and so inevitably we will make mistakes and may feel guilty (or ashamed) about them.
Having the courage to turn towards these feelings, then using self-compassion to modulate shame, into guilt is a powerful tool. We can then think more clearly about what to do next - how best to look after ourselves and our child.
One way we can do this is by using a mindfulness exercise I call BALM... you can remember the acronym by imagining using a soothing balm when your guilt or shame shows up. Work gently through each step to allow the BALM to help you feel calm:
B - Breathe
A - Allow
L - Label
M - Mantra
First, tune into your natural breath. It's always there as an anchor to the present moment when we are feeling strong emotions.
Then, when you are ready, tune into what you are thinking or feeling in that moment... and try to allow those thoughts or feelings to be there, observing them with curiosity, without pushing them away. The more we try to suppress tricky feelings, the more they come back: "what we resist persists".
Give them a label if you can - say it out loud in your head. Research shows simply doing this helps us to regulate our emotions, and gain some distance from them. "I am feeling guilty right now... or maybe even ashamed. I am having the thought that I am a bad mum".
And finally, repeat a mantra to yourself. Something that allows those feelings to be where they are. Something that creates the space to consider a more self-compassionate response rather than an automatic, self critical one. Something that can allow shame to become guilt and guilt to become an action alongside gentleness and acceptance of imperfection. "It's ok to feel this way... it makes sense... I'm just a human doing my best... we're all safe... I can repair with my child, and repair with myself too."
Let me know what you think in the comments below.