How understanding your Guilt can help you to get a grip on it.

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Choosing to combine a career with caring for THEIR children can be one of the most Guilt-ridden decisions of a woman’s life.  Feelings of Guilt are often a central reason women delay, or avoid their return to work after having children, and it’s one of the emotions that negatively impacts our wellbeing if we don’t get a grip on it.  

Handing over some of the day-to-day care of your offspring to someone else, not always being there when your kids get home from school, fear of not spending enough time with your children, and missing the odd performance or assembly – if you try hard enough, there are a multitude of things you can feel Guilty about when it comes to being a working mother.  

When it comes to doing Guilt, it’s fair to say mothers do a better job than just about anyone. 

Guilt is uncomfortable, and Guilt is confronting, but when we look a little deeper into the science of Guilt, we start to appreciate that Guilt is far from the dishonourable and wasted emotion it is often referred to. And here’s the kicker; figuring out the guilt that teaches us, from the guilt that simply taunts us, is what makes all the difference.  

Social Psychologist Roy Baumeister, claims that our feelings of Guilt originate partly from having empathy, as well as our human desire to remain connected to others. Guilt emerges when we are concerned about how our behaviour affects others. When we care about the welfare of someone else, and we believe we have done something to potentially harm that person even in a small way, we can experience the emotion of Guilt.  

In motherhood, Guilt tends to happen because we care SO MUCH, and because of our deep obligation and self-expectation to do the best for our children. Guilt becomes a problem not because it is a harmful or wasted emotion, but because it can originate from expectations or obligations that aren’t realistic or achievable. Without even realising it, we’re setting ourselves up to feel guilty by holding ourselves to obligations and expectations we don’t need to.

Guilt can be a great teacher. Sometimes the Guilt we feel is justified. Guilt often alerts us to a mismatch between our expectations of ourselves and our behaviour. When things feel out of balance, Guilt can be a barometer that indicates there is a need for some change. Guilt can prompt us to re-examine our behaviour and explore how it might be affecting others and ourselves. In this sense, Guilt can be a great initiator of healthy change. 

So, it’s the guilt that doesn’t teach us, or help us to improve our lives that we want to get better at managing. This kind of Guilt can be harmful, unhealthy and paralysing. 

This Guilt is based on unrealistically high expectations of ourselves and it can eat away at us during quiet times and prevent us from thriving at home and at work. This kind of Guilt can create confusion on the direction we’d like to head, it can make us over-sensitive, over-conscientious and over-worked as we try to make things perfect, happy or right for everyone that we care about.  

Knowing the difference between guilt that teaches, and guilt that taunts comes down to the expectations, obligations and standards that we hold ourselves to. When we hold ourselves accountable to standards that are impossible to maintain, we set ourselves up to fail. Some of our unrealistic expectations are socially constructed, or based on the expectations of other people. Popular culture loves to promote the highly-strung, over-worked and under-loved working mother who skids in late for pick up and football practice, turns up late to meetings and struggles to relate to her children because she’s not around enough. 

These stereotypes might sell movies and magazines, but they don’t reflect the average hard-working mother who actually receives significant fulfilment from her work outside of the home and has created a safe and loving home environment where her family can thrive, most of the time. The women whose children thrive, not in spite of her choice to work, but because of it. The media aren’t interested in showing this mother getting it right most of the time and only messing it up some of the time.   

Other Guilt-inducing expectations can come from our internal perfectionist. Even if you’re not a perfectionist normally, there’s something about the enormity and vulnerability of being a mother that can bring out the perfectionist in all of us.  The pressure to be perfect can be paralysing. And when you are driven by a desire to get it right, all the time (either at home or at work), you better pack your bags fast, because you'll soon be heading on a guilt trip. When you hold yourself to impossible standards, you’re fighting a no-win battle. Guilt will win every time.  

We’re so passionate about supporting women to get a grip on the unhealthy guilt they feel, we’ve devoted an entire chapter to it in our Career Comeback online return to work program. In our program, we explore a 3-step formula we’ve developed to help you to get a grip on your guilt, and we also explore 6 powerful mantras that we live by in managing the inevitable return of this emotion. Find out more here

If you feel that guilt might be getting in the way of you thriving in life, try getting to know the source of your guilt a little better and consistently challenge the expectations, comparisons, or obligations that might lie beneath your feelings of guilt. Resist running away from this uncomfortable feeling, and instead, sit with it for a while and try to understand it a bit better. Ask yourself “What exactly do I feel guilty about?” “What harm do I believe I am creating?”, “What expectations/standards am I holding myself to?”, “Who am I comparing myself to?”… and the best question of all “What might be another, healthier, or more helpful perspective?”.

There’s no magic bullet to getting a grip on your guilt, but with some focused reflection, exploration and your own response plan, guilt no longer needs to hold you back from achieving your professional or personal ambitions. Unnecessary guilt does detract from your wellbeing, and getting a grip on your guilt means you’re one step closer to thriving, more often.