Why do we do this to ourselves? Why are we so much harder on ourselves than we would ever be on a friend, our children, or any other loved one?
I am surrounded by amazing women in my life: women who are working full-time or building incredible careers; women who are battling everyday wars against hidden illnesses; women who are raising incredible children for our planet; women who give their all to everyone around them every single day to the point of self-sacrifice.
Yet, each and every single woman I know regularly expresses feelings of guilt about her self-perceived inadequacy as a mother. It is indeed the scourge of the modern woman.
1. Be honest about what’s important to you.
“One of the first things I do with moms is some values work,” says Scobie. “This involves getting really clear on what you actually care about for your family, and not what you think you should care about.”
Make a list of what is important to you as a family and parent, and order it by importance. This might include things like fun, health, adventure, gratitude, outdoor time, good food, exercise — or it may not. Maybe it includes giving back, or bilingualism, or strong extended family relationships.
Maybe all of these things are on your list, and it’s just a matter of organizing them by order of importance from what matters most to least. Maybe your list starts off including many things that you think are supposed to be important to you but, if you’re truly honest with yourself, aren’t really at all.
Find a way to let go of the things at the bottom of the list. That is okay. Say it: It is okay.
2. Every time you hear yourself say, “I should…” follow it with, “Says who?”
You’ve made your list, but here’s how to keep it going. Every time you hear yourself saying or thinking ‘I should…’ ask yourself ‘says who?’ and answer it. ‘I should be feeding my kids homemade meals from scratch every day.’ Who told you that? Was it a neighborhood mom, a magazine, your mother?
They are not you and they don’t make the rules. Their value list is different than yours. Perhaps ‘home cooked meals’ is lower on your list and ‘family time after supper’ is higher – and if you can’t do both, that is okay.
3. Start an “I don’t give an F” list.
You’re going to start another running list now. This one is your “I don’t give a *$@# list.”
“We only have so many #$%s to give,” says Scobie. “So, if you’re 10 minutes late picking your kid up from a birthday party and are feeling guilty about it, ask yourself if it really matters. No? Add it to the “I don’t give a f#$%” list and let it go. On the other hand, being late to her dance recital does matter. See Tip #4.
4. Be guilty, but don’t feel guilty.
Yes, sometimes you’re going to mess up. OF COURSE you are, buddy. I’m not suggesting letting yourself off the hook when you do something guilt-worthy. The key is figuring out the difference and if you are guilty, act like it.
If you were late for your kid’s dance recital because you stayed at work to pound out a few extra emails, own the responsibility. Model the behavior you want your kids to adopt when they mess up.
“If you are guilty, use it as a learning opportunity for your kids,” suggest Scobie. “Apologize for your behavior, show them you’ve learned from your mistake, and tell or show them what you will do differently in the future.”
5. Listen to the guilt.
As with any of our feelings, we need to honor the guilt. Listen to it: What is it trying to tell you? What is the take-away message?
“Pay attention to it,” says Scobie. “Lean into it, and try to figure out what it is you need to pay attention to it. Instead of taking it at face value, see it as a flashing light signalling you to look deeper. “
For example, I feel horrendously guilty when I allow my children to stare at screens on Saturday mornings for hours while I try to get some work done. If I dig into this guilt a bit, very little of it is actually about the screens. What I actually feel guilty about is not being more engaged with them, not spending family time together, not encouraging more outdoor and active play.
So, these are the things I need address instead of stewing in guilt over screen time.
6. Reframe the situation.
I have spent countless hours feeling guilty about my children’s schoolwork and grades in some way or another. My 8-year-old son has struggled with understanding lessons at school and then falls behind in assignments. My daughter, 11, understands lessons, but hates to do homework.
For the longest time, I felt guilty for not spending more time with my son every day to help him understand his school lessons, and for not doing a better job at making sure my daughter was getting her homework done.
Then, I reframed the situation. I realized that the education system as it is does not support my son and the type of learner he is; my son is not someone who does well in school and that is not my fault.
Feeling guilty about it was getting me nowhere. Instead of soaking in feelings of guilt, I worked with the school and other professionals to find a way to make his teachers and the school system work better for my son.
As for my homework-hating, temper-throwing tween, my problem-solving wasn’t so much a carefully thought-out plan as it was a waving white flag. I became tired, frustrated, and emotionally tapped out.
I realized I’d been taking on her responsibilities as my own and, in essence, was not letting her learn a valuable life lesson. I told her it was her job to do her homework and her choice. When she realized she’d have to explain herself to her teacher, she started to make choices that made sense to her and I ditched my sense of guilt.
7. Don’t shoulder responsibility for something out of your control.
Sometimes – lots of times – parents take on guilt that makes absolutely no sense. Let’s go back to the example in which you are late for your child’s dance recital. Except, this time you left work early, but there was a huge pile-up on the highway, delaying you by a good 30 minutes.
Yes, it sucks that you’re late. But, should you feel guilty? No, because this is not something you can accept responsibility for. Sometimes life just happens and we need to accept and deal with it. Explain to your child what happened, express your own dismay and disappointment, and empathize and validate theirs. Then, maybe you can arrange a private dance recital at home.
8. Separate guilt and natural consequence.
As a parent, it can be difficult to see our children fail, mostly because we hate to see them upset when they do. I have to admit that this isn’t something I’ve struggled with very much. With the exception of physically dangerous situations, I have never been afraid to let my children make mistakes or fail because I want them to learn how to cope and overcome, how to deal with bad feelings.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me being lazy, my not wanting to coddle them all the time, and I often joke about my ‘natural consequence’ parenting style as I watch my kids doing things that almost certainly will result in tears. But, the truth is, I don’t feel guilty for letting them learn lessons ‘the hard way’ because they will be braver, stronger people down the line.
9. Be okay with not taking all the responsibility.
You are amazing, full stop. However, as incredible as you are, your child’s world is comprised of more than just you. “Moms tend to take on the responsibility for their children’s futures and are worried that if they mess up, their children will be unsuccessful and unhappy,” says Scobie. “But, we are not the only influence in our children’s lives. Other parents/caregivers, peers, extended family, life experiences – all of these things also impact our children and we can’t control all of it.”
Again, this is perfectly okay. A myriad of influences, perspectives, and experiences – both good and bad – is what makes a person strong, interesting, and socially intelligent.
10. Use bestie talk: Practice radical self-compassion.
Most women are so much harder on themselves than they would ever be on a friend. I am guilty of this, too. Where I would be loving and gentle with my best friend (or any friend), I am relentlessly unforgiving to myself. If you are the same way, Scobie suggests using this rule: “Every time you start beating up on yourself and feeling guilty, stop and switch to bestie talk instead,” she says.
“Change ‘I can’t believe I yelled at the kids again. I am such a monster.’ to ‘I hardly slept last night and was feeling a lot of pressure to get out the door on time. I will apologize to the kids for breaking the family rule about speaking respectfully to each other, but we need to talk about how to work as a team in the mornings.’”
You are strong, wonderful, loving, and doing an incredible job. Be kind to yourself — you deserve it.