The first time my son Arthur fell off a piece of furniture, he was four months old. After a heart wrenching period of pained crying, Arthur was fine. But I wasn’t. The moment played and replayed in my mind. I couldn’t let go of the fact that I had failed my son and I was terrified to tell anyone — even the pediatrician or my husband. I was experiencing guilt… or was I?

“Mom Guilt” is a term so ubiquitous in media and social channels that, when not joking about it, most people seem to assume “mom guilt” is a normal, acceptable part of modern motherhood. Jump into a Facebook group or listen up at kids parties and you will inevitably witness women iterating the ways they’ve failed. I have participated in many of these conversations myself. It is a place to commiserate and relate to others. It’s a socially acceptable way of sharing and gaining access to groups.

In time, I began to notice a trend in myself and others. The conversations looking for validation repeated themselves as if we couldn’t get enough reassurance. Eventually repetition makes the exchange begin to feel similar to the mindless but urgent reach for chocolate or french-fries when avoiding emotions.

I started to ask, “Why?”

Why are mothers experiencing so much guilt? Why, if we are getting reassurance from peers and experts, does the guilt keep reoccurring?

That’s what led me to wonder, What if the emotion we are experiencing isn’t just guilt but the far more damaging and painful emotion of shame?

Brene Brown describes shame as, “the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”

What I hear, when I listen deeply, are women repeatedly asking one another high stakes inquiries about their worth,

“Am I okay?”

“Am I a good parent?”

“Am I enough?”

This is where the danger lies: the more we ask for re-assurance outside ourselves, the less we believe our own deep down wisdom that holds the truth of our worthiness; the place inside that whispers “You are worthy”, “you are capable.” “You are deserving of love just as you are.” All this chatter about guilt is contributing to the erosion of our secure, wise self. We become less capable, less confident and paradoxically more disconnected from others.

What then, is the difference between guilt and shame?

Here’s the thing, guilt is a useful emotion that allows us to take action when our behavior doesn’t align with our values. Guilt is the quiet voice asking, “Is this really who you want to be?” Guilt doesn’t punish, it empowers. When you say/do something that does not reflect your values, guilt nudges you to take action and repair the situation. Taking action is refreshing and allows you to move on, more intact emotionally and spiritually.

Shame is quite different. Shame makes you forget your value. It doesn’t let you move forward. Instead shame stays buried, like undetected cancer, affecting your daily life and relationships in profound ways. If you spend time ruminating about something you did or did not do but never feel any better; if you can’t stop telling person after person a story hoping they will side with you; if you can never tell the whole truth to people, even those you love, then chances are you’re experiencing shame.

How to change the pattern of “mom guilt:”

I have found most “mom guilt” is usually not helpful. “Mom guilt” is often put upon you by the expectation of “Others” (parents, grandparents, social media, experts).

To deal with this kind of “mom guilt” you need to take quiet time to:

  • Evaluate what YOUR values are. What is important to you (not everyone else!) and your partner/spouse for your family? What do you hold hallowed in your life?
  • Create a personal or family mission statement and post it somewhere prominent.
  • Be very intentional about where you want to spend your time, energy and emotional output and weigh feedback received from others against what you value. Don’t waste your precious resources.
  • Choose to let guilt go.

Healing Shame

If what we are really experiencing deep down is shame, what can we do about it? Here are some foundational steps.

  • Step One is allowing yourself to experience the emotion of shame. I wish there were an easier way. This is very uncomfortable and can be pretty scary for some. Allow the feeling and notice where you feel it in your body. Know that you are safe, that these feelings will pass as all feelings do. Once you’ve noticed the feeling, gently respond. Extend kindness to yourself.
  • Step two, according to Brene Brown, when you identify the feeling of shame, reach out to someone who has earned your trust. Share what is causing you shame. In that sharing you should feel connected and affirmed as an authentic person. If you do not have a trusted loved one in your life, consider finding a life coach.
  • Step three, practice believing in your own worth. One thing I have done is create 3X5 cards with my beliefs written on them. One such card reads, “I am a resilient, loving mother who knows how to get through hard times.” Every belief I write down comes directly from my wise self. It is something I know at the deepest core.

It may be that your sense of self has been so decomposed by trauma or by years of not trusting your inner truth that you cannot believe in your own worthiness. If this is the case dear mama, you will need a little help. I urge you to consider attending counseling- a therapist can truly help.

  • Step four, begin refusing to collude with the cultural dialogue that makes “mommy guilt” acceptable. You can do this in every day conversation by verbally sharing your choice to release guilt. Say something like, “I’ve learned that guilt is a destructive waste of my time and brainpower and I refuse to let it take more of my life.”

You might not make a new mommy friend immediately with this tactic, but you will be planting and idea that could eventually shift the tide from shame to worthiness.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if, when we get together with other mothers, we can spend more time conversing about our “Mom confidence” than “mommy guilt?!”

For all of you amazing, strong, courageous mothers out there, may you find yourself to be exactly as you already are: worthy.

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