Four ways to transform mother’s guilt into gold
When I first became a mother, guilt was almost a religion for me. I thought that if I beat myself up and turned myself inside out with guilt, that I’d somehow do better next time. Over the years, I’ve learned that this simply isn’t true.
Guilt is a feeling that many mothers know too well. It creeps up when you’re too busy to play with the kids. It seeps in after you’ve spent all day out with your family and neglected the housework. When one of your kids is struggling in some way, guilt echoes in your mind long after your head hits the pillow at night.
While guilt is a normal and necessary emotion, it can become toxic if you hold onto it for too long, moving into shame. Once this shift is made, guilt serves no purpose and becomes a destructive force that prevents you from taking positive action. Fortunately, there are ways of working with guilt when it arises. Through awareness, compassion and open-mindedness, you can transform guilt from a catalyst for shame to a force for good.
- Shine the light of awareness on guilt
Begin to view guilt as an invitation to practice mindfulness. If you’re a mother, you’ll have no shortage of opportunities to do this! Notice when guilt arises and, if you can, locate the thoughts that proceeded it. Observe the self-talk that surrounds the emotion and just hold your awareness of it, noticing it with no judgement. Witness how guilt feels in your body and where you hold it. Do you feel it in your neck, throat or chest?
Cultivating awareness of guilt is the first step in transforming it into something useful. By becoming aware that you are feeling guilty you step out of reactive mode and into a curious mindset where you can gather information and choose how to act next.
- Notice how you act when you’re feeling guilty
I have a habit of letting my kids get away with things if I’m acting out of unconscious guilt. The heavy emotion has a way of making me relax my boundaries in an effort to atone for whatever I’m feeling guilty about. The result of this is more negative behaviour from my kids, which invites a negative reaction from me, followed by more guilt! It’s a cycle that does more harm than good and becoming aware of it before it’s in full swing has empowered me to step off the loop and choose something else.
Observe how guilt influences your reactions and decisions, and write your observations down in a journal. Perhaps you become too lenient, experience indecisiveness or feel hopeless and lethargic. Simply noticing your habits around guilt will go a long way in helping you to transcend it.
- Compassion is the best medicine for guilt
Last week, I yelled at the kids for fighting when we were about to leave for school (anyone relate?!). Afterwards I watched the guilt creep in. Taking a deep breath, I apologised to them for the way I spoke and observed my anxious impulse to ‘make it all better’. In that miniscule pause, I understood that the stress and disorganisation of our morning had contributed to heightened emotions in all of us. With this realisation, I was able to choose genuine compassion for myself and the kids, which transformed my tone of voice, leading the kids to visibly relax and let go of the argument. Magically, we drove to school happily chatting about the day ahead.
Applying compassion to guilt is a conscious choice. It’s a choice you make because you know it works, allowing you to not only shower yourself with kindness but to feel true empathy towards you children. Compassion, like awareness, changes the energy in the room, allowing you to pause, think clearly and make better decisions going forward.
- Planning for success
Every negative experience contains the seed of something positive – including guilt-inducing situations with your kids! After the experience is over, evaluate how you can plan to avoid or optimise it in the future. In the case of my kids fighting before school, I observed that we had all been unorganised and rushed and could figure out ways to plan ahead to avoid that sense of disorganisation the next day.
Once you’ve put your plans into place or acted on an insight, affirm that you’ve done your best and that your kids need you to be happy and well – not perfect.