Guilt: the mother of all emotions

Welcome to our blog takeover to kick off 2022 with #dancemama Imogen Aujla PhD, Dance Psychology Lecturer, Researcher and Life Coach, danceinmind.org



Motherhood can be an emotional rollercoaster sometimes. Our feelings can be so much more intense than before we had children: joy like we’ve never experienced; a love so fierce and primal it’s hard to put into words; pride that makes us literally want to burst (and, let’s face it, new levels of frustration, rage and exhaustion). But we also get the emotional bonus prize that nobody wants: guilt. Lots and lots of guilt, about anything and everything.


In recent years it has become fashionable to describe guilt as a useless emotion, but I don’t subscribe to this idea. Guilt does have a role to play, because fundamentally we feel guilty when we have done something wrong, and making things right can be important for our learning and development. The issue is that we sometimes feel guilt when in reality we haven’t actually done anything wrong, and that is often the case with ‘mum guilt’.


What is guilt?

Guilt is a negative emotional state that occurs when we have done something we believe to be wrong: caused physical or emotional harm to someone else, or broken some personal ethical or moral rules. It can prompt us to review and reflect on our actions and seek ways to make amends. From this perspective, guilt is useful: it helps with self-awareness, holds us accountable for our actions, and encourages us to develop more pro-social behaviours. And, of course, making amends can mean a huge amount to those people we have hurt, and may be necessary in order to repair relationships with them.


You need to try and be kinder to yourself when situations are outside of your control

But there are two problems: firstly, when we ruminate on our guilt and struggle to move past it, even when we have attempted to fix the problem. In this instance the guilt becomes counter-productive and self-limiting. Secondly, sometimes we think we have done something wrong, but we are unable to fix the problem because there actually is no problem!


The unique challenges of ‘mum guilt’

I’m sure dads feel guilty too, but mums often seem to be shouldered with the ‘mum guilt’ burden. As mums we tend to hold ourselves to unrealistically high parenting standards and subsequently end up feeling guilty about anything and everything, including but not limited to:

- Our birth experience

- Breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or combination feeding

- Going back to work

- Not going back to work

- Feeding our baby or toddler shop-bought pouches and jars

- Feeding our baby or toddler family meal leftovers

- Going out or away without our children

- Negative feelings towards our children

- Screen time

- Needing time or space away from our children

- Not playing enough with our children

- Not doing enough ‘developmental activities’ with our children

- Not always being present with our children

- Shouting or snapping at our children

- Not being able to afford the toys, clothes, etc. we would like for our children

- Giving too many toys, clothes, etc. to our children and worrying we are spoiling them

- And on. And on. And on!


You may notice that there are several contradictory items on this list: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Many of these examples represent things we think we have done wrong, or that we should feel guilty about. But our thoughts are not facts, so we need to try and be more objective when dealing with our guilt. So how do we do it – how can we move past the guilt when it isn’t valid, and how can we learn from it when it is?


Guilt about things which are outside of our control

When you are feeling guilty about something, the first thing to consider is the extent to which what happened was due to your own thoughts and actions, and the extent to which what happened was beyond your control. Perhaps you had a difficult birth and were not able to do skin-to-skin in the early days as you had hoped. You may have read about the importance of skin-to-skin and feel guilty that you did not have that experience with your baby. This is a difficult situation and one which may have taken a physical and psychological toll on you. But how much control did you have in this situation? For example, did a necessary medical intervention prevent you from holding your baby immediately? Is there anything you could have done differently if you could turn back the clock? I’m guessing not – labour and birth rarely follow our carefully considered plans, so the guilt in this situation is doing you a disservice. There are also so many other ways to bond with your baby as they grow.


As a mother who works in the dance industry, there’s a good chance that your job is part of your identity and may be a huge source of fulfilment and satisfaction for you.

You need to try and be kinder to yourself when situations are outside of your control, because there is nothing you can do to change them – and, therefore, no reason to feel guilty. It’s not always as simple as this, I realise, and you may find yourself ruminating on the situation. To try and stop the negative cycle of thoughts, have a go at a though diary. A popular technique in CBT, thought diaries help you to gain some distance between your thoughts and feelings, to examine the evidence for and against the guilty thought, and to see things from a different perspective. Do a thought diary as often as you need to, whenever you feel guilty about something that is outside of your control, or that you know deep down you don’t really need to feel guilty about. You can find one here. Over time you should find that you are better able to distinguish thoughts from facts and diminish overwhelming feelings of guilt or rumination over these types of situation.


Guilt about our choices

Let’s think about another common source of guilt: returning back to work after maternity leave. This can be really hard. I found the guilt of returning to work (even after having switched to part-time, flexible working) almost unbearable after I had my first child. It was slightly easier after I had my second, but still difficult. If we return to work after having a baby, it tends to be for a variety of reasons. Maybe we have to, for financial reasons. Returning to work is a necessity, a non-negotiable, so again be kind to yourself because there is no reason to feel guilty here. You may find thought diaries useful in this situation too.


When we return to work because we want to rather than have to, we may experience more internal conflict between our love for our child and our need to be engaged in work. As a mother who works in the dance industry, there’s a good chance that your job is part of your identity and may be a huge source of fulfilment and satisfaction for you. This can be tricky, because you may feel selfish for wanting to spend time away from your children so that you can nourish this other part of your identity. But it isn’t selfish: if it will make you happier then you will be a better mum. It’s as simple as that. If you have made the decision to return to work because you want to, be confident in that choice. You love your child and you love your job, and nobody is asking you to choose between the two! Also, remind yourself that feeling guilty after a bad drop-off at nursery is natural, but ultimately won’t help your child (although having a good cry in the car park may help you, so let it out!). Be kind to yourself.


Feeling guilty after returning to work is completely natural, but it isn’t entirely without its uses. What can we learn from guilt in this scenario? Perhaps it prompts us to be more present when we are with our children, to make the most of the time. It may also help us to create stricter boundaries between work and home than we had before, which is good for everyone.


Guilt about our behaviour

A final example of guilt is another common one: shouting at your child. Of course, there are times when this is absolutely warranted – when they’re hurtling headfirst towards a busy road, for instance – but often we shout at our children over relatively small things when they have pushed enough buttons, or when we are stressed, sleep-deprived or under pressure, and we know in our hearts that we are reacting disproportionately to what has happened. Firstly, treat yourself with compassion and kindness. Everybody shouts, everybody loses control, and you are only human. Don’t tell yourself you are a “bad parent” because you had a bad moment.


Having said that, this is one example where guilt is well and truly helpful. What can you learn from this situation? What might you do differently next time? What steps might you need to take to stop this from happening again? Let’s say you need to get to work but your child has decided that they really don’t want to put their shoes on, thank you very much, and would much rather run around the house singing at the top of their voice than go to pre-school. You are under time pressure and feeling out of control of the situation. Will shouting really create the desired behaviour from your child, or prompt her to act up even more? If you do snap and shout, how will you both feel afterwards?


In this scenario, the guilt is probably warranted: yes, you are under time pressure, but if you weren’t, your child’s actions would be less likely to result in “mummy’s angry voice”. So you can certainly learn from this. Think to yourself: what could you do instead of shouting? You may come up with a range of ideas: get up earlier; make a game out of getting ready; set a timer for leaving the house; pretend it’s a race to see who can get their shoes on first. How might this change the situation for the better? How will you both feel afterwards?


Oh, and do apologise to your child if you have treated them unfairly. Even though you’re the grown-up and you’re in charge, you still need to show that you’re fallible and make amends.


Finding the good in the guilt

Next time you feel guilty about something, ask yourself the following questions: is this situation within or outside of my control? Do I need to take a step back and examine my guilty thoughts and their accuracy? Is feeling guilty helpful in this situation or unhelpful? Can I learn something from the guilt, change my behaviour or make amends? Can I do this while also treating myself with kindness and compassion? See if you can either move past unhelpful guilty thoughts, or find the good in the guilt, and be proud of yourself for making positive changes.


For more articles from Imogen, online courses, worksheets, and more, visit danceinmind.org


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