By Matt W Sandford, LMHC
Let’s face it; if you have been striving to be a good parent, then you’ve felt guilt. Then again, if you’ve not been striving too much, it may also be from guilt. Either way, guilt and parenting seem to go hand in hand. But parenting guilt can be particularly heavy, more so than other guilt. Why is this? Because the stakes are higher, we tell ourselves. The fear of messing up our kids, or the belief that one already has done so, can be devastating to one’s emotional health, as well as damaging to the relationship with our kids. Let’s look at this in more detail and then I’ll offer some suggestions for freedom from this kind of guilt.
The Two Guilts: False Guilt and True Guilt
We’ve done something to our kids that we believe is wrong, or hurtful, or neglectful. Maybe you feel it as soon as it happens – like the times I overreact to misbehavior and I yell, belittle, lecture, use sarcasm, withdraw love, or shame in some other way. Maybe you feel it when you observe the effects of your misdeeds, such as the time my son repeated a curse word he had heard me utilize, or if your child repeats one of your behaviors in their play with another child. Or maybe it relates to the times that you weren’t able to provide the love, support, encouragement, or help that you wished you could?
When we violate our own moral code, we naturally feel guilt. But here’s the thing; our moral code is not completely accurate and trustworthy. Oh, you’ve probably got the basics; don’t lie, cheat, steal, or derive pleasure from someone else’s suffering. But, you’ve also got layers of this other stuff: cultural expectations, generational teachings or conditioning, lots of unspoken roles and expectations from your family of origin, and you own experiences and the bent of your personality. And that means you have assimilated a ton of stuff and rolled it all into your own hierarchy of personal expectations you place on yourself. That’s where this all gets tricky. Because out of that mush comes notions about how bad it is to be late to pick up your kids from daycare, how you should have your kids dressed appropriately for the weather, how firm your discipline should be, and how you should feel if you blow it and how you should fix it as well. The point is that these notions you come up with realistically fall somewhere on a scale between highly accurate and mostly off base.
I know you believe your guilt is accurate, meaning that you should be feeling badly that your daughter still picks her nose and shows her discovery to others.
I think it is fair to say that if you have done something legitimately wrong that guilt is an appropriate normal human response. Let me give some guidelines for how to sort out if your guilt is appropriate guilt or if it isn’t, what is referred to as false guilt, and how to handle each one.
1. True or False: The guilt is coming primarily from a sense of what I believe other people would say I should do or should have done, or directly from someone saying this ‘should’. – False Guilt
2. True or False: The guilt is primarily coming from a memory of the way my parents did something or the attitude and expectations they had about something, usually involving a level of performance. – False Guilt
3. True or False: I have done something that would violate the standards of an emotionally healthy, mature, and gracious person that I know. – True Guilt
4. True or False: I have violated a clear principle from the Bible (not only someone’s interpretation, but something I believe is a clear teaching). – True Guilt
5. True or False: I know in my heart that when I did this thing that I was motivated selfishly. – True, but this is the trickiest one. Some people are programmed to view themselves such that they interpret almost everything they do as being selfishly motivated and feel guilty and ashamed almost all the time. If that would be you, then this doesn’t apply to you. That’s because you have an issue with internalized shame, and I refer you to other resources to learn about this.
What to Do with False Guilt
If you identify that your guilt is false guilt, it means that you are feeling guilt you don’t need to be feeling. Maybe you were taught that something is wrong, but the teaching was either inaccurate, overstated, or maybe your interpretation was in error. Sometimes, letting go of this type of guilt is as simple as realizing that your guilt is misplaced or exaggerated. You talk through with yourself what a more balanced and accurate perception would be and you chose to accept this alternative way of viewing the situation. For instance, “Yes, it is unfortunate that I got lost on the way to the appointment and arrived late, but the person I was meeting was understanding and everyone makes mistakes sometimes.”
When it comes to parenting, people can feel guilty about all kinds of things: my child doesn’t know how their numbers or letters yet, my child has a bruise because they got hurt playing, my child’s hair is not brushed or their shirt is on backwards, my child bit another child at daycare, or my child has a tantrum in Walmart. It would help to sort out one’s emotions as well as beliefs. In some cases, it may really be that I feel embarrassed about something – but that does not mean I did something wrong, or I may feel worried or scared about what someone may think about me, but that is different than I did something worthy of guilt. When I sort this out in myself I can let go of the guilt aspect.
If you find that you feel guilt often and that you are having trouble changing your perceptions and letting yourself off the hook, then I would suggest that you may be struggling with shame underneath your guilt and would refer you to look to resources on shame.
What to Do with True Guilt
What about when my guilt is appropriate? Like the times I do something wrong and feel bad about it. Well, it’s kind of strange isn’t it: we often hold on to false guilt when we should let of it and we often try to shake off true guilt when we would be better served by not being so quick to dismiss it. I’m not suggesting that we should wallow in it. But I believe God designed emotions for our good, including the uncomfortable ones.
So, what’s the good that comes out of feeling guilty?
Let me begin by explaining that this process can be done poorly and can be done in a healthy way. I think that because we are all familiar with the lousy way that we are prone to avoid the process all together. The poor way is basically to just feel bad about ourselves and focus on our badness – which leads to shame. This is not the goal of guilt, and it prevents us from learning anything or growing. But, the healthy way is to allow our guilt to direct us to see how our choices and actions have affected other people and how they offend God, and lead us to confession, empathy and restitution.
1. Confession – I agree that what I did was wrong and why it was wrong. I acknowledge to the person I offended the wrong committed and I invite their forgiveness.
2. Empathy – I listen to the offended party and learn about how I affected them – without defense or excuses.
3. Restitution – Is there a way to make things right? Sometimes there is, like paying for something I broke, and sometimes there isn’t, at least not directly.
The point is that our guilt can lead us to develop more authentic and emotionally healthy relationships.
Applying the Process to Parenting
Parents I think are some of the most notorious users of the lousy way of dealing with their true guilt. Sometimes I suppose it is because we feel that our children are too young to go through the steps with and won’t understand them. Some parents I think fear being open with their kids about their flaws, believing they will lose respect or lose control. You won’t. The truth is that the process is good – good for the recipient and good for the guilty party. So even if your kids are too young to understand, do it anyway. You will be building a healthy pattern for yourself so that you’ll be ready for when they can. If you think your kids will lose respect for you, try it anyway, knowing that you’ll be modeling to them emotional and relational health. Because it is about cultivating a heart that is open to others, which helps a heart to let go of guilt.
What If I’m Still Feeling Guilty?
There are times when we feel so badly about something, or the effects of our error has changed things, and we just can’t get over it. Our guilt has become regret. The problem – we can’t forgive ourselves. And so we end up punishing ourselves as a form of penance. The only solution I see for this type of struggle is to go to God – the Father of compassion and the king of mercy. We’ve all fallen short and messed up. But if you believe you have messed up worse or more than others, then you probably aren’t going to God. You probably believe you are beyond his reach also. You need to see how Jesus decided that the man who was leading the crusade against his followers was the one he chose to be his greatest missionary and the writer of a lot of the New Testament (Paul). You need to see how Jesus responded to Peter’s denials – by seeking him out to reinstate him as leader of the movement in John 21. You need to ponder that by not forgiving yourself you are rejecting the forgiveness that God has offered through Christ.
Yes, there may be consequences of your error that are terribly difficult to accept. In that case, letting go of your guilt involves the process of grieving. I would encourage you to pursue learning about grieving and begin to work through it.
The Wrap UP
The prospect of parents being increasingly able to identify their guilt, and work through it effectively will be highly significant and impactful to their children. Imagine training your children to be able to free themselves from false guilt and how to resolve their true guilt and not wallow or drag themselves into despair and regret. Imagine all that you will have prepared them for in terms of emotional and relationship health by modeling this for them. I don’t know about you, but that’s motivation enough for me!
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