Escaping the Guilt Trap

“Step on me, please.”

When I was a teenager, my grandmother and I were on a family vacation in my parent’s RV. The quarters were close, the beds at a minimum. My grandmother insisted I take the couch and she take the floor. When I objected to this arrangement on the grounds that I did not want to step on her if I got up in the middle of the night, she calmly said those words. “No. Step on me. Please.”

How absurd, I thought. Why on earth would she want me to step on her? It wasn’t until I had my own child that I understood. To some degree, every mother wants her children to be perfectly comfortable, perfectly protected, perfectly happy—no matter what sacrifices she might have to make. When we, as mothers, inevitably fall short of this ideal, guilt sets in.
 
Purpose of Guilt
Is there a positive side to these feelings of guilt? There can be, says Lesley Spencer, founder and director of Home Based Working Moms (HBWM)--an association that helps bring working moms closer to their children.

Guilt keeps us in touch with our feelings,” Spencer says. “If we are feeling guilty about something, then there is probably an area in our life that needs addressing.”
With the first pangs of guilt, ask yourself why you are feeling this way. Are there ways you can alleviate guilt by changing your priorities? Will this be a positive change? If so, make that change. If not, take steps to zap that unnecessary guilt.

A mother’s guilt stems from an inability to give more of herself, but Jane Adams, speaker, author, and research psychologist, offers another perspective. “Guilt is an internal state that is self-defeating and also self-absorbing,” she says. “Guilt is all about you, not the subject of your feelings.”

Adams adds that she prefers the word ‘regret,’ because regret, she says, is “guilt without the neurosis—it is an expression of feeling that acknowledges the other person’s feelings, too.” 

Alleviating Guilt

Re-examine your goals and priorities
Spencer offers sound advice. “If your guilt involves not spending quality and quantity time with your children, then the issue should be taken seriously,” she says. “Decide your goals and where they are falling short. If you work at home to spend more time with your children, you’ll have to address the issue of a growing business that requires more time or growing children who require more time. Don’t hesitate to hire outside help to help you accomplish your goals.”

Remember Your Role as a Parent
Adams reminds us that it our duty to set limits. “Understand that setting priorities, limits and boundaries—about time, money, gifts, etcetera, is part of being a parent, and requires no apologies or guilty feelings,” she says. “Don’t let yourself be run or controlled by these emotions, especially when it’s in the best interest of your child to stick to the limits or priorities you’ve set.”

Learn from Your Mistakes
Discuss the object of your guilt with people whose opinion you respect. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and vow to learn from them. Be honest and upfront with your children, if you determine you are at fault. Offer a sincere apology and explanation.

Change "Guilt" to "Regret"
A simple semantics change could make a big difference. "Try substituting the world 'regret' for the feelings you now label 'guilt,'" Adams says. "Regret requires no expiation--simply the realization that you did the best your could in the situation and that you're not going to let your child's reaction control your actions."

Related Momscape Articles:
How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty
Do you find it difficult to say no? Do you have a fear of displeasing others? Do you have trouble expressing your true feelings? You're not alone. Author Amber Rosenberg has some tips to help you set personal boundaries.

Working Mommy Guilt; Four Tips to Help You Cope

Building Self Confidence: Five Steps to a More Confident You