We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love. Mother Teresa
Positive Uses of Guilt
- Guilt is our conscience talking. Just because we don’t like feeling guilty doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to feel guilty about. Guilt is a signal to take a look at our part in our relationship with our child and whether or not we have done what we believe in our hearts is good enough parenting. Guilt is our internal alarm system that signals that maybe we’re not living up to our own expectations of ourselves.
- Guilt can make us pay better attention to what we are doing as parents. Guilt is a thinking emotion. Yes, we feel bad. But along with the feeling is usually some version of “I should have, could have, wish I had” that can be useful in its own way. It makes us consider whether we really should have or could have done something different and, if so, what we can do next to better the situation.
- Guilt can be a motivator to do something. Nobody likes to carry feelings of guilt around for long. It can be the push we need to make some changes in our lives so we come closer to being the parent we want to be.
- When not over-done, showing our guilt can be a way to make the child we’ve let down (however unintentionally) feel better and can help heal the relationship. When the teen sees us feeling guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed, the teen feels heard and sees that his or her feelings or needs are respected.
On the other hand, guilt can immobilise the individual and distance people from one another.
Negative Uses of Guilt
- Guilt can let us off the hook from making change. If we look like we feel bad enough, the person we’ve wronged ends up feeling sorry for us and doesn’t feel entitled to ask us to do something we really ought to be doing.
- Guilt can be a passive-aggressive way to assign blame. Some mothers are masters at using guilt to manipulate. Our children want and need our approval. Because feeling disconnected from a parent’s love is frightening, children do respond to the “guilt trip.” Young children will do almost anything to get back into Mum’s favour. Teens, however, respond to guilt with some combination of anger and their own guilt, causing the relationship to break down further.
- Guilt can be a way to punish ourselves. If we can’t change what has happened; if we can’t figure out how to make things right; if we see ourselves as having been a terrible mother, we can at least have the decency to beat ourselves up with guilt for a very, very long time. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t repair a troubled relationship with our child. Atonement is a poor second choice to reparations but sometimes it feels easier.
- Guilt can be a poor substitute for feelings of self-worth. When a mum doesn’t believe she can live up to her own standards, she can at least show that she’s a good person by feeling guilty about it. Real self-esteem requires working on actually achieving those standards, not sitting in good intentions.
It is inevitable in family life, and especially in family life in the teen years, that our kids will at times feel misunderstood, and that we moms will over- or underreact to choices they make. When people are engaged with each other, it’s impossible not to step on one another’s toes now and then. When teens are doing the hard work of separating from family and asserting their individuality but at the same trying to stay connected, they may say harsh things, make poor choices, or push limits and get themselves into trouble.
Negative guilt ultimately gets in the way of doing what needs to be done to maintain healthy relationships while at the same time holding ourselves and our kids to healthy standards. Used well, guilt helps us feel empathy, connect to our child, and get busy making needed changes.