Guilt feels yuck.
But in some instances, guilt is healthy.
And it’s important to distinguish healthy guilt, from toxic guilt – because toxic guilt eats away at our wellbeing, our happiness, and our relationships.
Here’s the distinction. Healthy guilt arises from our own action or inaction – like when we yell at the kids or when we don’t follow through with a promise. We feel guilty because the behaviour goes against something we value. As unpleasant as it feels, this type of guilt is healthy because it compels us to act, in order to restore the balance (apologising, for instance).
Toxic guilt, on the other hand, occurs when we feel guilty for our benign actions (or inactions) – and/or the effect they have on others.
For example, I experienced toxic guilt when I returned to work after maternity leave – even though my decision to return to work was well considered and aligned with my values.
Often, toxic guilt arises from unrealistic standards – trying to be the “perfect” parent, spouse, friend, child, or employee.
Toxic guilt erodes our confidence and self esteem, contributes to feelings of stress and sadness, undermines our relationships, and can even affect our physical health.
Interestingly, guilt is an emotion that only develops in the early to mid primary years, coinciding with the development of the conscience – our internal moral compass. It’s a “social” emotion, rather than a “primal” emotion like anger or fear.
For the first 6-7 years of life, caregivers teach kids about guilt. We teach them through our words, and also in how we experience our own feelings of guilt (this is why patterns of toxic guilt can be passed through generations).
Many of us are extremely good at experiencing toxic guilt. And, we inadvertently pass this onto our children – often, from the unrealistic standards we hold for their behaviour.
Kids are often blamed (or shamed) for developmentally appropriate behaviour – behaviour that is impulsive, erratic, ego-centric, and indecisive. Young kids may “know the rules” but their young brains haven’t yet developed the self-regulatory capability of an adult brain. They often struggle to put the brakes on their impulses – particularly when they’re feeling angry, isolated, frustrated, hungry, tired, grumpy, or irritated.
It’s easy to think that there’s something “wrong” if our kids don’t feel guilty for their behaviour. It’s tempting to tell our kids that their behaviour makes us “sad” or caused us to yell or lash out.
In doing so, we teach them toxic guilt.
(And incidentally, trying to get a young child to “understand” abstract concepts like guilt, is like trying to get a caterpillar to fly. The caterpillar is just not ready, yet. But one day, he will be. )
Even for those of us who are highly attuned to toxic guilt, it’s too easy to slip back into old habits. Often, the reason we’re so attuned is because we experienced much of it ourselves.
Recognising our own habits of toxic guilt is the first step to changing them. It’s a process that takes time, as we undo our ingrained patterns by overwriting them with new ones.
I wish I had the magical solution to toxic guilt. Perhaps, like all aspects of parenting, it’s an issue that we revisit repeatedly.
In these moments where we slip into old habits of toxic guilt, perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves that our kids don’t have the cognitive maturity to feel “healthy guilt” – nor should they feel guilty for developmentally appropriate behaviour.
Perhaps it’s valuable to remember that our kids aren’t responsible for our feelings – and by placing that responsibility on them, we do ourselves a disservice by inhibiting the opportunity for self development and growth.
Perhaps it’s helpful to recognise our triggers for imposing toxic guilt onto our kids. Those moments where we snap, because we’re stretched too thin, when we’re at our wits’ end, or when we just don’t have the energy to deal with life’s challenges right now.
Perhaps we recognise that while our kids’ behaviour might indeed be frustrating or infuriating, our response has more to do with our emotional state than it does with them.
Perhaps it’s working on ourselvetaking care of ourselves, rather than placing shame or blame, that can be one of the kindest things we do for our kids.
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