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DOWNTIME After slipping off your bathrobe and sandals, you immerse yourself completely in a hot tub at the spa. That moment you’ve dreamed of for so long! You spend so much time taking care of your family, trying to achieve goals at work, and of course, maintaining your social relationships that you’ve really been looking forward to this relaxation time. You slowly begin to relax and enjoy that rare and comforting silence, when suddenly, the guilt starts to emerge: “How is my partner managing with the kids at home? Should I cancel my massage to catch up on that urgent project at work? Is this ‘me’ time really necessary?” These questions stir up that emotion in your mind that everyone experiences, but which we still don’t talk about very much. Let’s take a closer look at guilt to tackle it in all its complexity.

guilt: an emotion that serves others 

We’ve all felt guilt at one time or another. While it’s true that this emotional experience is unpleasant, we don’t always realize that it serves humanity. In effect, guilt can be categorized as a moral emotion that aims to steer our actions toward the collective interest rather than the individual interest. It can also be described as a social emotion—that is, we may feel it when we are in contact with others. Concretely, we feel guilty when we assess that we have transgressed a moral norm by causing harm to another person (or even an animal). Guilt will lead us to repair the fault that we’ve committed.

Let’s imagine, for example, that you became a parent for the first time eight months ago. That little bundle of joy has a big appetite…at night! The lack of sleep will surely cause you to be more inattentive and distracted. In other words, you put the peanut butter in the microwave and your cellphone in the fridge. So, it’s not surprising that you forgot to call your friend on their birthday. It’s because you feel guilt that you will take the time to phone them, offer them your apologies, and maybe even invite them out for coffee.

This situation perfectly illustrates one of the benefits of guilt. Indeed, besides leading you to repair what you perceive as a transgression, the anticipated guilt that we might feel in certain situations leads us to refrain from taking certain actions. Let’s suppose you’re tempted to eat your child’s Halloween candy after they’ve gone to bed (classic!). It’s your guilt that will motivate you not to do so. Lastly, guilt is also useful for reinforcing social ties. More specifically, feeling guilty is associated with our empathy. Showing others that you feel uncomfortable with an action taken suggests to them that you value the relationship and that you are saddened by the harm that your actions have caused them.

StromMSH Enfants2020 HD43 - Does Parental Guilt Really Serve Us?

parental guilt under the microscope 

Only, guilt is not innate—it is acquired and developed over time. It is a learning process that begins in early childhood. Some people are therefore more likely than others to feel guilty. For today’s parents, feeling this emotion often arises from high expectations and an ingrained perception of what a “good” parent is. For example, mothers may believe that they should devote most of their time to their families. It should be noted that, although these words are often used interchangeably, shame and guilt are different concepts. While guilt follows an improper isolated action, shame refers to the feeling that our entire being is wrong, telling ourselves, for example, “I’m a bad person.” From this perspective, shame further weakens self-esteem and psychological health in general. Furthermore, while guilt may be useful in terms of parenting, such as when you apologize to your child for your impatience, shame felt repeatedly is more a symptom of a psychopathology such as depression.

Of course, fathers and mothers may both feel guilt in their parental role. However, the social expectations based on the images conveyed are different. To that end, some studies have shown that women feel more guilt than men. It is therefore not surprising that we hear the words “maternal guilt” more often than “paternal guilt.” In any event, when it comes to parenting, the challenge doesn’t always lie in the fault you may have committed, but in the guilt you might experience because you feel like you aren’t meeting the high expectations that you have absorbed regarding this role.

self-compassion: a remedy to reduce your feelings of guilt 

Self-compassion invites you to treat yourself with as much kindness and understanding as you would show to a friend. Indeed, self-compassion exercises show that the expectations that you have of yourself are higher than those that you have of anyone else. Developing your self-compassion is an opportunity to recognize and accept your own feelings instead of constantly seeking to put yourself in the position of “always doing better.”

Let’s return to the example of the guilt felt while taking time for yourself. What would you say to another parent who shared that same feeling with you? Your answer would probably be that it’s good to take some time to recharge your batteries, that they can trust their partner to take care of the children, and that the work project can wait. To support you on your path to self-compassion, take the time to write down what you would say to your friend, then what you would say to yourself in the same context. Do you notice any differences in the content? Do you feel that the tone is different between your inner voice and what you communicate to a loved one? Take note of the elements that support your self-compassion in order to apply (and repeat!) them consciously in your daily life.

Guilt is an emotion that is as healthy for you as it is for others. However, it’s necessary to be able to feel it in a balanced way rather than an invasive way. Take the time to observe it in order to better recognize and understand this emotion. This will allow you to see if it’s justified or if you’re simply allowing yourself to enjoy your wellness moment at the spa!