Why Do Moms Always Feel So Guilty?

Four of the most common complaints I hear from moms include their high levels of stress, poor sleeping habits and insomnia, a lack of me-time, and constant feelings of guilt. Out of all of them, guilt appears to elicit the most negative emotions of all of them.

Why does guilt have such a stronghold on us and what can we do about it?  Let’s find out.

What do we feel guilty about? 
While every woman has different triggers, it appears nothing is off the table. Here’s the shortlist:

-Our time (no matter where we spend our time, we feel guilty not tending to something else)
-Our actions (what we did, what we didn’t do, what we think we should have done or will do)
-Our reactions (we yelled too much, our punishment was too harsh, we said something wrong)



Why do we feel so darn guilty?
Genetics play some role. Studies have shown that testosterone appears to increase mood, decrease anxiety and guilt. Women have much lower levels of testosterone than men, perhaps one reason we’re far more prone to depression, anxiety—and guilt, and men suffer far less often.

While boys and girls show the same amount of empathy (the ability to understand and share in the feelings and emotions of others) as babies, this starts to change around ages 9 through 11, with girls becoming much more empathic than boys. It’s also interesting to note that women (starting in adolescence) “tend and befriend” other women, meaning we find support among each other, an additional sign of our ability to sympathize.

Society may be the largest driving force
-Girls are taught at a young age to be more sympathetic than boys. Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to suppress emotions—if they aren’t allowed to acknowledge their own emotions, how can they expect to recognize and sympathize with the emotions of others?
Women are expected to take on many roles, and do them well--including the extensive role of caretaker (whether it be for children, aging parents, friends, spouse, etc.).  Caretaking requires a large amount of empathy, time and energy. With the added career role, women expect a lot from themselves, as does society.

Other interesting factors:
Women not only recognize emotions in others, we physically take on the emotions of others.  Men often simply observe the emotion, without much attachment.

That’s right—not only are we aware of the emotions of our loved ones, we actually feel the weight of those emotions!  Don’t we have enough burdens to carry?

Even more interesting, is that although we are very good at reading the emotions of others, it’s just as easy for us to apply emotions to others that aren’t really there. Because we believe we are supposed to handle multiple roles at levels close to perfection, we assign disappointment or sadness that may or may not exist.

So tell me again why we feel so much guilt?
-Because moms are so good at recognizing the emotions of our loved ones: any signs of disappointment or sadness transfer to us.  We feel double the weight of emotions (our children’s, boss, spouse, etc., and our own).  And because we hold a societal expectation that we should be the perfect parent, and fill all of our roles perfectly all at the same time, we apply negative emotions to situations that don’t necessarily exist.  Virtually we’re creating mountains out of molehills, and mountains out of nothing.

So what can I do about it?
1) Recognize this type of guilt for what it is—a self-imposed feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. Sound ridiculous? Practice what you preach to your kids and drop this useless negative self-talk.

2) Recognize guilt induces stress which is not only bad for our health but endangers our children and follows them for life.  Our kids learn how to handle stress directly from us—and they carry these methods straight into adulthood to be transferred to their future children! If that’s not bad enough stress reduces our ability to be patient, impartial, productive, thoughtful, etc.—guaranteeing future scenarios that bring on more guilt.  Want to be a better parent, wife, daughter, employee, etc?  Stop feeling guilty all the time about being a bad parent, wife, daughter….

3) Working moms—research shows your kids end up just fine. In fact, moms—your career is more likely to have a positive impact on your child’s future by building independence and increasing their ability to succeed in their own career. Invest less time fretting and more time celebrating the benefits.

4) Value quality time, your kids do—again research shows, quality time (really focusing on or engaging with your children) far outweighs “just being there.” In fact, children are better off if a stressed parent is absent. If you’re exhausted, cranky or preoccupied, your child will benefit more if you take a break.  Instead of fretting, recognize the value of the time you do spend together, and take time out so you can recharge for your next quality moment.

5) Instead of telling yourself to feel guilty, tell yourself you have no choice.  According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, we feel guilty when we actively pursue our own self-interests. But when we’re told we have no choice, the guilt actually goes away! Research is virtually telling you it’s BENEFICIAL for you to tend to other activities in your life (career, personal or otherwise).  Remember, stress is your family’s enemy. If you want to help your kids, you MUST do things outside of the family.

6) Say no. Don’t add to your plate with unnecessary projects unless you feel like it. Teach your children, and yourself, that it’s okay to have control over your decisions.  

7) Say yes to all that you have accomplished.  Stop dismissing the quality moments you did have.  Instead of ruminating on guilt, ruminate on these momentslet them imprint on your long-term memory.   And recognize other successes too, big or small. Focus on what you’ve done, not what you haven’t done.

8) Say yes to what you can accomplish. Learn to recognize what you can and can’t control.  Change what you can (through goal setting) and stop worrying about what you can’t.

9) But don’t fret too much. Before you feel guilty for not setting any goals, remember: stress and guilt are not worth the stress and guilt.

If nothing else, do this:

10) When the guilt comes knocking, open a different door.  Bad habits are hard to break.  We’re so used to guilt we invite it in. We use it as a form of punishment, feeling comfort within the discomfort. Yep,  we actually revel in guilt’s familiarity.  Eliminate its power by changing your reaction to it. The next time guilt tries to settle in, immediately redirect your thoughts.  Don’t waste time feeling the guilt, do something.  Create a list of one-on-one activities you can do with your child when you get home, make a phone call, listen to a song, dance with your kids, or enjoy reminiscing on that time you [fill in the blank].

11) Seek Additional Support Have specific questions related to this topic including assistance finding local resources? Contact Susan directly (for free! Yes, free, and no obligations at all). I’ll do my best to provide the support you need.

A final note on guilt: Guilt does have some redeeming value.  Studies show that people who are guilt-prone are more sympathetic to other’s needs and more in tune to understanding other perspectives. They’re more likely to consider the future consequences of their behavior and value morals.

Sounds like a mom to me.