Week Three / Day Three – Understanding Guilt


Click here for the audio version of the lesson

What causes guilt?

Parenthood and guilt often seem to go hand in hand.  As with any emotion though, guilt must first come from beliefs that we hold about life.

For some reason, parents (and more so, mums) seem to always be thinking about what they are doing wrong with how they raise their kids.  We are continually looking at how our children are missing out and how we should be doing something different from what we currently are.  It is this thinking that causes someone to feel guilty.

Here are just a few common statements that cause parental guilt:

  • I’m not being a good enough mother/father
  • My child is not being loved enough
  • I have to work and I’m not spending enough time with my kids
  • My child doesn’t have a brother/sister
  • I don’t enjoy being a parent
  • I got angry at my kids
  • I don’t have enough money for my kids
  • I can’t/didn’t breastfeed
  • My child does not have a traditional Husband/Wife family because of a marriage break-up

The process of how thinking can result in guilt

  1. I observe or think about how my child is experiencing his/her life
  2.  Through the lens of what I believe about how life ‘should’ be, I begin to assess whether they are living this way or not.  For example, you may believe that children should be raised with a mother and a father.  If there has been a marriage break up, then you may conclude that your child is missing out and their life has diminished in quality because they are not living up to your believed expectations of how a quality life should look.  Again you can see that this self-worth aspect creeps in, only this time it’s about the quality of your child’s life, not yours.
  3. You then start to reason why they might be missing out or not experiencing life the way they should and you conclude that it must be your fault.  You believe that you are to blame (because you are their parent and the ‘protector’ of your children) and that you ‘should’ be doing something different or that you could have done something different in the past in order for them to be living their ‘right’ life.

All of this thinking is what causes the emotion of guilt.  This thinking is in conflict with reality, which means two things when talking about reality and guilt:

  • You are in conflict with the reality that what is happening right now is happening because of all of the events that unfolded leading up to this current moment and it could not have happened any other way. 

You do the things that you do because it is a priority to do it that way.  In week six you will be looking at priorities further and understanding more about what governs the decision we make and the actions we take.  However, for now, whenever you are feeling guilty, know that it is because you are not aligned with the reality that life is the way that it is because of how it unfolded in the past. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t change your current reality (this is what we do in the Aim step), it just means that this is the reality of right now, and the past cannot be changed.
You can use your guilt as an indicator that your decisions might need to be looked at.  If you believe you ‘should’ be doing something different than what you are, then first assess why you are currently doing it that way and then change it if you need to.  Again, we will look further at this in week six.

  • The second part of being in conflict with reality when talking about guilt is the reality of the bigger picture of how life unfolds.  Often we feel guilty because we believe that our children ‘should’ be  having a good life all of the time.  If we experience our children upset, in pain or coming across a challenge as a result of something that’s happened in your life (for example, a marriage breakup) or because of something you have done, then you can often feel like your child’s quality of life is suffering and he/she is not having the ‘ideal’ life.

However the reality of life (as you will learn over the next 3 weeks) is that life is full of ups and downs and these ‘challenges’ that you are viewing as bad or wrong are the ways in which we learn about life.  They can often be our most valuable lessons too.  Your child’s life has not been diminished in quality. They are simply learning lessons for their life’s development.

Common misconceptions about life (memes) that can cause you parental guilt

My child should be happy

This meme is in conflict with reality because, as mentioned in yesterday’s lesson, we are never always 100% happy.  Happiness is an emotion that comes from how we interpret life with our beliefs.  Our children are never going to be happy 100% of the time.  Life is full of challenges that teach us about life.  The unenjoyable moments of our life are teachable moments that build character and teach us how to function in the world.

Rather than feeling guilty about your child being unhappy with events that occur in his/her life, you would be better to teach them the reality of life that it doesn’t always go to plan, but there is always learning that we receive and a ‘hidden good in the bad’.  Again, you will be learning how to do this in coming weeks.

For now, just know that your kids aren’t always going to view life in a way that makes them happy. They will inevitably experience challenges throughout their lives. Our job is not to make our kids happy all the time, but to teach them how to hold a healthy view about life that will aid them to move past their challenges without feeling stressed, depressed or anxious.

Of course you want your child to live a fulfilled and wonderful life, but if you teach them the truth about happiness and how to look at challenges in a healthy way, then you will help them to live that fulfilling existence more easily as they won’t be seeking that elusive happiness that society teaches us to yearn for in every moment of our lives.


I should be happy around my children

This is an unrealistic expectation to have that is in conflict with the reality of life.  We don’t want to be teaching our kids that if they aren’t happy then life is not valuable, because that would land them in stress or depression whenever they are not feeling happy. 

We need to teach our kids the reality that life doesn’t always go to plan and that this does not make things wrong, it just means that there is something to learn and that it’s an event to grow from. We need to teach them that it’s okay not to feel happy all of the time, that it’s normal not to feel happy all of the time and to look at the beliefs that are causing them to feel unhappy, rather than thinking the event is wrong. 


My child should come first

Some parents feel guilty for taking time for themselves, or when they have to put their children’s needs second instead of first.  What are we teaching our children about life if we are constantly putting ourselves second?  What are we teaching our children about life if we are constantly putting them in the spotlight all of the time?  We are possibly teaching them not to value themselves or allow themselves to be happy, or they could go in the extreme opposite and believe that the whole world revolves around them.

There has to be some balance in showing our kids how to respect themselves by showing them how you respect yourself.  They will learn a lot by their experience of you and if you feel guilty every time you do something that doesn’t involve the kids then you are teaching them to do the same – put everyone else first.

Sometimes you teach your children a much healthier lesson about life when you don’t always put them first.  They may be initially upset, they may miss you for that period of time, they may miss out on an opportunity they would like to have had, but what they get is so much more.  They learn that you don’t always get what you want, the world doesn’t revolve around me and that it’s okay to respect myself and do things for me as well as other people.

I would say that is a much more beneficial mindset to install in our children.


I should give my kids the very best that money can buy

As much as we would all like to give our children the best education, experiences, clothes, houses and material things that money can buy, if this is not possible in your life, then it does not mean your children are missing out and that their life is lacking.

We are always getting an experience in this life and all of our experiences add to our lessons and knowledge of life.  They are getting what they are getting because that’s what they need to experience in their life.

Kids don’t often feel like they are missing out until they are conditioned to believe that they can miss out, which society does a very good job of teaching.  Just look at how much fun a young child has with the box that came with the expensive present that you bought them for Christmas.

It is better to teach our children to search for what they are getting instead of looking at what they don’t or can’t have.  Of course you can only teach this when you know it and use it for yourself. However you will become better at this kind of mindset over the next few weeks.


I should enjoy being a parent

Again, is this the belief that we should have an exciting and interesting life?  Is this the belief that we should be happy all of the time?  Take a look at your past jobs, your past relationships, your past experiences.  Have you always enjoyed every aspect of your life?  No, you haven’t.  We are not always going to enjoy certain aspects of our experiences and that is the reality this belief is in conflict with.

Okay, I know that some of you really don’t like being a parent and I can certainly relate to feeling this way in the first 8 months or so of my second son’s life.  I didn’t handle the transition from one child to two children very well (which is when I started to learn about how to change my thinking) but I had to learn how to view being a parent in a different way.

Yes, it’s reality that sometimes we don’t enjoy aspects of being a parent, and I know that I probably won’t ever enjoy the piles of washing and the constant cleaning that I seem to do, but it’s probably some of the beliefs you hold about being a parent that are making you really resent it.

Rolling around in beliefs such as ‘no time for my life’, ‘life’s not how it used to be’, ‘it’s too hard’, ‘I don’t want to do all this work’ and finding more and more evidence of this in your life is causing more of a dislike of being a parent. It is the path of destructive thinking that you follow over and over again that is causing you to feel like you don’t enjoy all aspects of being a parent.  Remember, the more time you spend on these beliefs, the more evidence your mind will find of these beliefs being true. 

Liking the overall experience of parenthood will come with changing the way you look at it and aligning with the reality of life and all of its ups and downs.


The relationship between Guilt and Self-worth

Earlier I said that whenever you are feeling guilty the attention is now on your child’s quality of life.  You believe that because of what is happening their life is worth less than what it should be.  Well there is a little bit more to it.  

You see we are all selfish creatures as human beings.  We are always working in our best interests 100% of the time.  That is just what human beings do.

Stress does not come from us perceiving someone else’s life to be worth-less, it comes from perceiving our own self-worth to be less.

It may seem like you are feeling guilty because of what is happening for your child and because you believe that their quality of life is not what it ‘should’ be, but you are essentially blaming yourself for this experience.

If you weren’t blaming yourself you wouldn’t be feeling guilty.  You would simply be sad for them (like you might if a friend of theirs at school rejected them).  But you don’t feel sad, you are feeling guilty.  You believe that you ‘should’ have done something different or ‘should’ be doing something different.

If you are to blame for your child’s quality of life diminishing, then what do you think this says about you?

If you are following memes such as ‘My child should be happy’,  ‘my child should come first’,  ‘I should enjoy being a parent’ etc, then you believe that it is your responsibility as a parent to fulfill your child’s needs in this way.

What kind of parent does that make you (in your mind) if you cannot live up to these expectations you have on yourself to give your child the best life possible?  That’s right, it makes you feel worth….less – not as good a parent as you think you ‘should’ be.

This of course is not accurate, but in your mind, guilt has been activated because you believe that in order to be a good parent, you need to live up to certain expectations and if you can’t then this must make you a lousy parent.

It is this incorrect view of self-worth that underlies guilt.  All forms of stress come down to a feeling of worth-less-ness.  That is, you feeling less than 100% worthy.

In tomorrow’s reading, you will learn more about the emotions of blame and resentment.