Ditch The Guilt, It Ain’t Helping

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 202 · Duration: 00:20:13

Ditch The Guilt, It Ain’t Helping

Parents today are consumed with chronic parenting guilt. Why do we have guilt? Does it serve any good purpose? If I have too much of it, can I get rid of it? What do I do if I have guilt and resentment?Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, Ditch The Guilt, It Ain’t Helping.

Here’s a scenario many of you can relate to:

Your son has a report due with plenty of time to work on it.  He has learning issues that make this kind of assignment difficult for him, so you let him know in advance that you’re available to help, but not at the last minute.  You’ve been working on a work project all day and are exhausted and ready to settle into a movie when your son says he needs you to edit his report, it’s due tomorrow.  From experience you know that means he’s completed a rough draft and you will need to sit with him and tutor him to rewrite paragraphs and restructure the report. If you decline and choose not to do it, he’ll either submit a terrible report or will submit it late and be graded down.  What do you do?

Now to Mom’s dilemma and the last minute request to help her son:  

Obviously, there’s no right answer here.  If you go ahead and help, even though that will be exhausting, disappointing that the relaxing rest of the evening you were looking forward to just evaporated, and maybe doesn’t give your son the natural consequence of waiting for the last minute to get things done, it will be helping him and after all, you certainly want to help him when you can.  Now, will you resent it if you help? Will you feel guilty if you choose not to?  Neither of those are good feelings are they? So let’s talk about it.

Many of you report that the podcast woke you up to the fact that you carry lots of both of those emotions, guilt and resentment.  

Let’s talk a bit about resentment.  There’s a good article in this week’s newsletter from the Greater Good Science Center I’d recommend you visit.  It’s called “Is Resentment Stopping You from Feeling Grateful?” 

Essentially, resentment is a sentiment that speaks to injustice.

Often people feel that if they let go of resentment, they are accepting and inviting injustice. Click To Tweet You have gone out of your way for a friend several times and now you call on them to help you out and they beg off with what seems to you a pretty flimsy excuse.  You think “wait a minute here, where’s the mutuality in the relationship?  The effort I’ve put out on your behalf should be returned.  I invested in this relationship, shouldn’t you?” Resentment here reflects your experience of injustice.  

Let’s take a look at our frenemy, guilt?  It’s that feeling that I let someone down, or I did something wrong.  Is it a good emotion or a bad emotion? It’s both and that’s why I say it’s a frenemy.  Guilt is an important feeling since it motivates people to do the right thing, or change bad behavior.  It’s an important part of socialization. If a child or teenager doesn’t feel guilt when they do something wrong, they’re likely to keep doing the same wrong behavior. So, if guilt motivates good behavior, what would be wrong with it, and the answer is plenty.  There Is an enormous difference between healthy guilt and neurotic or unhealthy guilt? 

Let me explain.

Yes, healthy guilt can motivate a change in behavior, right.  We tell our kids, “you hurt your friend’s feelings when you did that, you need to apologize and make it up to them.”  

“When you didn’t clean up your room, it made more work for me.”  “When you didn’t get ready to go, you made everyone late.”  We want our child to feel some guilt here, so they change their behavior and learn not to repeat the behavior. In order to feel guilt, we also need to feel empathy. Since we empathize with the person we hurt, we feel badly or guilty that we hurt them.  If we don’t empathize, then we don’t really care that we hurt them.  I could have a friend that I haven’t reached out to in a while and not only do I miss seeing them, but I’m also having a pang of guilt that they could be feeling hurt or neglected by me. In that case, it would motivate me to reach out, make contact, make a plan to get together. So when is guilt a bad thing?  That’s when guilt is chronic, when no matter what you do, you tend to feel guilty about it.  As if you can never get it right, never do enough.  When you set limits and actually adhere to them, ouch, comes the guilt.

Why on earth would we feel that way?  There are a couple of reasons so let’s take a look.  

One reason is that as a child, you were raised with a lot of explicit or implicit criticism. You received that message that there is something wrong with you, some enduring flaw within you. 

Maybe you had ADHD and were always getting criticized for being impulsive or fidgety. Maybe you had a depressed parent and were never able to get the feeling you pleased them.  Maybe you were raised in a culture where the saints were held up as role models and no matter what you did, it was certainly more selfish than a saint.  Perhaps your parents had perfectionistic tendencies and always expected you to do better, so you heard constant criticism.  A parent could be quick to anger and yell, even hit and say mean things. I could go on but it’s important to understand this, that there are many obvious and many subtle ways that we develop a chronic sense that we’re often, if not always, doing something we should feel guilty about.  As children and teenagers, we tried and tried to get it right but never could.  

Then, as an adult, when someone complains or criticizes, it validates that sense within that we’re doing something wrong and should feel guilty.  Often, we can resent that we’re being made to feel that way, after all, I’m trying harder than you are and that isn’t fair, and we get caught in a polarity of should I feel guilty, or should you feel guilty.  Am I more wrong than you are, or are you more wrong than me?  Should I feel guilty or resentful, and since I’m not sure, I feel both. 

But that’s the variety of chronic guilt that comes from our childhoods that now gets triggered as adults.  

Then there’s the chronic guilt that comes from a barrage of explicit and implicit criticism in our environment without enough personal support to fight it off.  In other words, even if we grew up with decent self-esteem and reasonable ability to have personal boundaries and set limits, we are social animals and as such, we need support from our social environment. Without it, it can wear us down and undermine that self-confidence. Constant criticism can come from your partner, it can come from your work environment, it can come from your children, teachers, and the world of parenting advice. You know, Parents should be bonding more, limiting devices more, getting their kids to eat healthier food, and get more sleep.  Not doing well at those things, and who is, feel guilty about it. It gets exacerbated when your kids aren’t doing well, and you feel helpless about it.  During the year away from in-school learning, many or I should say most kids did poorly, and parents felt helpless to fix it or even know the best way to respond to it; give their kids a pass or hold their feet to the fire. Many kids returning to the classroom this year are still struggling, and parents can feel they should be doing more or better for their kids, yet don’t know what so they feel anxious and guilty.  

If you’re a parent who cares deeply about your child’s feelings, your child will know how to make you feel guilty, for sure. “You love my sister more than me. You never let me do anything.  What’s such a big deal, just let me have this one thing, you’re so stingy. You’re always on me.” 

The bottom line here is chronic guilt is not healthy, it is chronic stress, and you don’t need that. Avoiding it by giving in to the expectations of others, or your imagined expectations of others, will lead to resentment and that’s worse.  Better to pass on the resentment and address the guilt.  What I mean by that is, identify the source of the chronic guilt, and work to heal it.  

If your chronic guilt comes from childhood, you can significantly improve if not heal that. Remember, chronic guilt is the internalization of an unworthiness message, and a belief that we aren’t good enough. That of course is ridiculous.  Certainly, all children deserve to feel good about themselves while being taught appropriate limits and responsibilities. It can all be done in a way that says who you are is wonderful and if you didn’t receive that, it’s not because you weren’t good enough, it’s because the adults gave you the wrong message, and that was their weakness, not yours. 

Healing starts with awareness and challenging the false beliefs.Click To Tweet  Counseling with an experienced and competent therapist can be a wonderful gift to yourself and may be critical to making real progress in this work. Keep in mind that even if you are in therapy, changing your internal message is still going to be your job.  The therapist can support you and show you the way.  Some will have some nifty techniques and therapeutic activities in the counseling office. But you are going to need to get up every day with the intention to pay attention to the narratives you’re living with and change unhealthy narratives about who you are to healthy positive empowering narratives.

If your chronic guilt is mostly derived from the current social environment, and not so much childhood, real strong social and parenting support will be important and can make a huge difference.  No one parents perfectly; we all run out of bandwidth and act from frustration.  You’re a person first and a parent second, so it will take some effort, but give yourself a break.  Get the support you need and deserve.

So parents, therapists and folks who work with families, let’s all pay attention to this critical information; when parents are looking for help for their youngsters, we can’t forget about the help that parents themselves need. As evidenced by what our listeners wrote, parents are suffering.  They feel confused, guilty, often resentful and need as much support as their kids. This is a particularly hard time for parents and kids, and they deserve compassion and understanding that they are doing their best, and they get to feel good about that. Only when we successfully address the guilt, will we make progress on any other issue.

Thanks for tuning in listener and special thanks to the many of you who wrote in wanting more on guilt and resentment. And of course, if you have more questions on this or any family related or mental health subject, send them in and we’ll see what we can learn together.  Before we close, let’s do this together, take a slow deep breath, hold and then exhale very slowly, ready?  Inhale through your nose, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, good, now hold, 1,2,3,4,5 and exhale very slowly 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.  Do it again and this time, exhale all of your guilt.  Inhale, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, good now hold, 1,2,3,4,5, and now exhale and send your guilt away.  Are you remembering to slow down and breathe and do other easy positive things for yourself? They’re important because as I’ve said many times and I’ll say it again, this parenting business ain’t easy so self-care is essential; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now. 

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