Don’t let guilt bring you down
I woke up this morning feeling a pang of regret for the large slab of chocolate I ate yesterday evening. I’m not on a diet, but I pride myself on being able to exercise some restraint when it comes to delicious creamy sugary things with zero nutritional value. But no big deal it was only a slab of chocolate. A little bit of what you fancy does you good, right?
If only other feelings of guilt could be so easily dismissed.
I’ve been thinking a lot about guilt recently after spending the last six months finishing the manuscript for my groundbreaking book Babyproof Your Career: The Secret of Balancing Work and Life So You Can Enjoy It All. It has been an interesting challenge churning out 45, 000 words while serving clients and making sure my brood of four boys remain fed, watered, schooled and put to bed at the appropriate times, not to mention spending quality time with them over the holidays and after school.
I say ‘not to mention’ because, well, the quality time bit kind of went out of the window these last few months. For someone who prides herself on being a work life balance expert, my life has been woefully unbalanced these last few months. I’ve got to admit I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about it.
Which is ironic, because one of the key issues I tackle in Babyproof Your Career is the issue of guilt, working mum’s guilt to be precise. It is is one of the Five Pitfalls of Working Motherhood tackled in the book, which cause many talented women to prematurely walk away from impressive careers after they have had a baby. When you have a baby and you have no work life balance, one of the hardest things to cope with is the guilt.
Working mum’s guilt
I am no stranger to working mum’s guilt. Before founding Babyproof Your Life I worked as a lawyer in the City of London for 8 years, 2 of them as a working mother. So Back then, I accepted guilt as an inevitable bi-product of being a working mother, like ball juggling and exhaustion. It bothered and upset and depressed me, but what was I going to do about it? Isn’t that what I’d signed up to?
But years later things are different. Not because I work less hours –the long hours I put in as a lawyer in the City were good training for the hours I work running the business. The reason it is different this time is because of how I feel about guilt. This time, when I feel guilty about neglecting my husband and kids because I am caught up in a huge work project, I know exactly what to do.
Guilt affects us all
It’s important to note that guilt doesn’t only affect working mothers. You don’t have to be a parent to experience the kind of guilt that can plague your thoughts on a daily basis and really get in the way of how happy and satisfied your feel about your life over all. You might be feeling guilty right now about any number of things: a relationship you’ve been neglecting; a promise you failed to honour; hurtful words you said in an argument; not going to the gym this week; drinking too much; or breaking a diet for the 4th or 5th time. The truth is, guilt is a regular human emotion that plagues us all, so we all need a strategy for overcoming it.
How to blast away guilt’s power
Whether you are a working mother or not, I know you’re going to find something of value in the lessons I’ve learned about guilt and the questions I ask myself to help overcome it. Here are three of the most important:
1. Is it good guilt or bad guilt?
Not all guilt is created equal. For example, guilt can be good when it acts as a moral compass. If you have treated someone badly, your guilt is what reminds you that other people’s feelings matter and gives you an opportunity to make amends. Another type of good guilt would be guilt that reminds you that you’re neglecting your health, such as when you haven’t done any exercise for weeks and you are surviving on a diet of processed food and fizzy drinks. This kind of guilt is good because it has good intentions: it wants you to change your behaviour so you stay fit and healthy and reduce your risk of illness.
Bad guilt, on the other hand, is quite different. The best example of bad guilt is guilt that arises when you make your own choices or decisions, however these conflict with other people’s opinions or expectations. Such as the guilt you feel when you say a polite “no thank you” when accosted on the street by someone trying to sell you a direct debit scheme Cancer Research, and how you feel every time you drop your two year old at nursery before rushing off to work. In many cases the guilt created by scenarios like these arises not because you believe you are behaving badly, but because you fear that society may judge you as such. This guilt through fear of judgement is most definitely bad guilt i.e. guilt that is both unhelpful and misplaced and which needs to be summarily dismissed. Give yourself permission to make your own choices and decisions, and then respect your reasons for doing so.
2. Am I being true to myself?
Look at the root cause. When you feel guilty because of something you are doing or not doing, understanding why can go a long way to helping you come to terms with that guilt. In Babyproof Your Career I talk about the importance of knowing your ‘why’ – what matters to you at the deepest level. For example, I am a working mother because it reflects my need for independence, financial freedom and a sense of achievement, which are 3 out of 5 of my most important values, the things that I need in my life to feel happy and fulfilled. These are the reasons I work and when I am fulfilling them I am being true to who I am. It would be plain wrong to feel guilty about that, even if others might deem it selfish. It is the concept behind one of my favourite Blogs: Selfish Mother, a concept I find reassuring and empowering. Stop feeling guilty and give yourself permission to be true to who you are.
3. Whose agenda is it anyway?
So much turns on your relationships with others and their expectations of you. It’s important to evaluate those relationships. Who is critical or judgemental of what you are doing, and who is supportive? Whether people are for you or against you they each have their own agenda. Understanding a person’s agenda can help put critical voices into the right perspective. I know that one of the staunchest critics of my decision to put my youngest child in nursery is a friend who is a stay at home mum. Being a stay–at-home mum and feeling that this is the right choice is her agenda. My husband Paul, on the other hand, knows that working makes me happy and so fully supports my decision, even though his life would be easier if I stayed at home. It goes without saying that I give more weight to my husband’s voice in this scenario, not because he is my husband, but because he is able to see beyond his own agenda and recognise the value that I get from continuing to work.
Authenticity and Ownership
The above three questions have two common threads: 1) authenticity: giving yourself permission to be yourself and make your own choices, and 2) ownership: taking control of your situation and rejecting feeling like a victim.
The next time you are feeling plagued by guilt, ask yourself these three questions and reflect on the answers. In doing so you will diminish guilt’s power by validating your own right to make choices that make you happier and more fulfilled. And when you are happier and more fulfilled, you’ll have so much more to give to those you love.
If you suffer from working mother’s guilt or any other type of guilt, I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can leave a comment here or on the Babyproof Your Career Facebook Page. And do share this post with anyone you know to be suffering from working mother’s guilt or guilt of any other kind.