The variety of what we choose to feel guilty about as mothers is extensive. It could include things like not being able to breastfeed, going away for the weekend, spending money on ourselves, locking the bathroom door while we pee, and so many more.
Almost all these things could loosely be put under the headings of feeling like we haven’t met our children’s needs or putting ourselves first. For many women when they do something from either of those broad categories they are instantly flooded with a wave of guilt. For others it’s the guilt of not feeling the guilt. Society does its best to dictate we should feel guilty about putting ourselves first, and not meeting the desires of our children. For many when they don’t have that guilty sensation they tell themselves they should and then beat themselves up because they hadn’t felt guilty and as a result start to feel guilty. A weird cycle that ends with so many women experiencing some level of guilt in their lives.
With hundreds of hours in conversation with men and women who experience some level of guilt in how their living their lives what I’ve discovered is that often we have mislabeled the feeling.
Guilt is what we were told to feel. Maybe you were told by parents. Maybe you were told by a teacher. Maybe you were told by social media and the wealth of information that is flying through the airwaves daily, in every moment. Often the word guilt isn’t used overtly. Often it’s a subtle, passive aggressive tone or message that projects this on to us.
We label it as guilt, because it’s easier, and more socially acceptable to say we feel bad about our actions, then to admit we actually really feel bad about who we think we are.
Before I go any further let’s get clear on what I mean by guilt, somewhat unusually I’m going to follow along the lines of the dictionary definition here. It defines guilt something like: a sense of having done the wrong thing, of feeling bad about our actions. Shame on the other hand, is feeling bad about who we are, that our identity is bad. For me, it was the sense that I was crumbling, that who I was had dissolved and I didn’t know what was left.
So many mothers say that they experience ‘mother guilt’. When we dig a little deeper, when we explore a little further, what we tend to discover it is actually shame they are experiencing. What they are telling themselves is not limited only to the sense that they’re not doing the right thing, that they’re not doing all they could for their children. Beating ourselves up for our action (or inaction) and the resulting emotion, would be known as guilt. However, dig a little deeper with almost any mother and you’ll find that it’s not her actions that weigh on her most heavily, it’s not whether or not she breastfed or whether or not she took the trash out on time or whether or not the dishes are done that is her deepest problem, it is more often that she’s asking herself, maybe unconsciously, “Am I good enough?”
To question and/or doubt our actions, to judge our behaviours, experiencing the feeling that arises known as guilt, is healthy. It is what stops us from being psychopaths. To question who we are, our own worthiness, if we are enough, that feeling, by my definition at least, is known as shame. Sharon Pearson, in her book ‘Ultimate You’ (2018) on pages 204-5 suggests that when left unexpressed shame creates symptoms including procrastination, self-sabotage, living in fear, keeping busy without purpose, holding yourself back, overachieving, craving your addiction or putting yourself last on the to-do list will be the result. Maybe hidden under the label of ‘Mother Guilt.’
The solution then isn’t found by asking how do we remove, release, and/or let go of ‘mother guilt.’ As mothers we want to notice the guilt, we want a response to shitty behaviours, actions that aren’t at our best, not showing up the way we want to, not keeping our promises. Guilt becomes the driving force for progress, the instigator for growth, it is how we get out of our own way and start to change our lives. Guilt, the bad feeling associated with less than actions, is a good thing.
The problem arises when we go a step further and create a sense of shame, limiting our sense of self to our actions. The sense that “I’m not good enough” because…I did or didn’t do something. The feeling of being bad, because we did something that doesn’t align with our values. The sense we are not lovable if we don’t meet expectations. Feeling like we don’t matter unless we meet a level of superwomen (aka unrealistic) self-imposed standards. The solution then is found by asking ourselves “How do we release or let go of shame? How do we start to reclaim, restore, rebuild our self-esteem? How do we fall back in love with ourselves?”
Which, of course, is not a short answer. It is a long answer, something we could unpack together for decades. It is indeed what I believe this journey on earth is all about. Nurturing our inner self, having a team of inner champions that encourages, motivates and inspires us to live a life we love. For now, in this article, allow me to scratch the surface, and explore what is at the tip of the iceberg, giving the tiniest glimpse, of what could begin to be the foundations of this journey.
To feel that we are good enough, that we matter, and we are lovable; we must go on a journey to reclaim our self esteem. There are 3 elements that construct our self esteem triad.
- Awareness of our own needs
- Reciprocated respect for healthy boundaries
- Access to our full range of emotions.
Adapted from ‘Ultimate You’ (Pearson, Sharon, 2018, page 60).
Again, we could dive so deep here, so let’s just touch briefly on needs, barely scratching the surface of possibilities. One of the more common needs I see women neglecting is that of saying yes to themselves. It seems they’re waiting for permission. Just as they wait for permission to go out for drinks, or buy new underwear, or lock the door when they go to the bathroom. They are waiting for permission to say yes to themselves.
It isn’t guilt that holds them there. Though so it’s much easier to believe and say that it is. It is shame. It is a fear that if we look inside to discover what we need, we might not like what we find. Founded in the mistaken belief that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t deserving.
The first step, is to stop waiting for permission. It’s not arriving. The stork doesn’t deliver it with our babies, in fact it seems to take it away. For many of us, our husbands are oblivious that this is what we are seeking, and it’s not theirs to give. When we seek permission from the outside world we will always continue seeking, if instead we choose to grant ourselves permission, we have hope of finding it. Acknowledging it’s not the guilt holding us, in stopping us from giving permission to ourselves, but the shame, the self doubt, the fear that we aren’t good enough is a great start.
There is so much that we could do around those beliefs those feelings, but for now, take a moment and contemplate: what might it look like if you were to give yourself permission? The permission to express and explore your needs. Whatever they look like. The permission to say yes to you and what you dream of becoming. Knowing that in doing that you will take a step towards becoming the role model you want your children to have.
In the everyday world, Amy Taylor is a wife, a mother, and small business owner.
She has been on an amazing journey through this thing called life. Down into the depths of darkness, back into the light. At one point she had 4 kids under 6 and lost sight of herself.
In her own mind, she is a tightrope walker, a fluffy cat with attitude, a princess, and a transformational wizard.
With many life lessons learned including how to preserve and protect her sanity while living in chaos. As her life changed, and she embraced being calm, developed more capabilities and became more resourceful, she restored her sanity, reclaimed her identity and built her own inner team of champions to spur her on. The journey is ever evolving.
With a love of adventure, exploration and Ohh look, shiny thing… Now coupled with an ability to see clearly and hold a focus. She not only starts many projects she follows them through to completion.
She has a knack for absorbing information from multiple sources, overlaying them, adding in her own flavour, discarding what doesn’t work and creating new frameworks on which to build success.
Website: Wisteria Enterprises