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Guilt is a universal emotion, yet we all have a unique relationship with it.  The extent to which we take personal responsibility will impact on how guilty we feel.  Whilst guilt ensures we uphold certain values, an overwhelming sense of guilt can have a detrimental impact on a person’s life. 

Let us look at “Mum guilt”.  There are many expectations placed upon Mothers and it is impossible to meet every single one.  If you choose to prioritise family over work, people may write you off as someone only able to talk about their children, with nothing of interest to contribute.  Conversely, working Mother’s may be criticised for putting their children in childcare and choosing work over being 100% available to their children.

Journalist Annabel Crabb famously said, “The obligation for working Mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job”.

In Annabel Crabb’s book “The Wife Drought”, she explores how women struggle to hold high-power positions.  She describes how many women are faced with the dilemma of choosing whether they focus on their family or a meaningful career.  And for those working Mothers who do both, they are often left feeling compromised, overwhelmed with “Mum guilt”.  They are left feeling they are failing at both roles.

Guilt is a complex emotion which signals to us that our action or inaction may have caused harm to another person.  As a result, we can feel a sense of regret or take responsibility for something we feel is our fault.   Guilt is a conditioned emotion and some of us experience it more than others, particularly if someone was brought up in an environment where we were to feel guilty.  Or perhaps we experienced abuse/trauma and were left believing it was our fault.  For example, someone believing they were the cause of their parents splitting they may internalise the message “If I have been a better girl/boy, my parents would not have got divorced”. This sense of responsibility becomes a becomes a deep-seated belief which is applied to numerous situations.

Feeling overwhelming guilt can lead to deep feelings of failure or depression.   Quite simply, guilt can get in the way of enjoying life.

So how can you put a stop to guilt?  Guilt, whether it is Mum Guilt or other types of guilt, may always be there so it’s about how you manage it and take control:

  1. Don’t catastrophise – Ok, so you ate the cake when you should have chosen the apple. Or you chose to lie on the sofa when you got home from work instead of going for a run. That doesn’t mean your whole day was a failure.
  2. Saying no is not selfish – Saying no can be hard, especially if you are a sensitive, empathic person. You may be feeling guilty because you believe you have let someone down. Looking after yourself is vitally important and self-care is not selfish.
  3. You are not your feelings – You might be feeling guilty, that you have fallen short in some way and that therefore makes you are bad person. This is irrational.  Just because you have entered a spiral of self punishing thoughts, that doesn’t actually prove you’ve done anything wrong.
  4. You are good enough – Trying to be perfect is an exhausting and fruitless process. No one is perfect so don’t spend precious time and energy trying to be so.
  5. Think about why you are feeling guilty – If you answer starts with “I should/could have…..” that suggests the expectation set doesn’t come from you internally. It comes from an external person or source which has been imposed upon.  If it does not belong to you, don’t try attempt to take it on.

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Photos by Kaysha, Martin Olsen, and Fin MacBrayne on Unsplash.