Guilt Vs Shame

As a parent, there will always be times where you do something or act on an impulse and later go on to feel guilty for it. These mistakes are normal and feeling guilty for them – to an extent – is a healthy response and part of the learning curve of parenting. If this guilt manifests into shame, where you begin to feel negative about who you are rather than just your actions it can become damaging. Thoughts associated with shame include feeling that you are, fundamentally a bad and incapable parent as a result of an impulsive action.

Shame is a feeling we often want to keep from others, and fear our actions being found out by others and others knowing we are not good enough. This makes shame a lonely feeling, leading to isolation, and the manifestation of this lonely emotion and unwillingness to share it with others can cause the problem to be internalised and worsened. Parents feeling shame tend to believe that they are not good enough or flawed, and do not deserve acceptance from others.

In addition to being a response that can occur as a result of impulsive actions, seeking perfection in your children which may not be fulfilled can also lead to feelings of shame. This is because, for many, their children are a reflection of themselves, meaning that their perceived imperfection – regardless of this often being normal – can lead to parents’ own sense of imperfection being reflected back to them, as they blame themselves for their children not living up to their own perceived ‘perfect’ standards.

If left unchecked, shame can over time become destructive. A parent’s self-esteem and self-worth begin to erode as a result of these feelings of parental inadequacy and irresponsibility, worsened by the urge to hide shamed feelings from others. Often, the harbouring of shame is a subconscious decision, meaning effects are worsened as parents do not realise there is an issue to confront.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many parents were around their children all day every day. Whilst some everyday pressures were lessened, such as commuting or even, for those who were furloughed, having to work, being around your child or children 24/7 led to more opportunities to slip up and, subsequently, feel ashamed. Furthermore, for two parent households where the mother is the main caregiver, there is often a dominance of mother-child relationships when the whole family are together, leading to feelings of shame among fathers and fears of their abilities as parents. The constant togetherness of many families over the coronavirus pandemic would have significantly worsened this feeling for men.

Whilst the aforementioned notion of guilt is less detrimental than shame, feelings of guilt are still unpleasant, and, when left unchecked can fester into shame. Negative self-talk in relation to your ability as a parent needs to be rationalised. One way of doing this is to think of your feelings towards parenting in relation to another activity you partake in. For example, if you were to start a new sport you would not feel negatively if, initially, you were struggling to grasp it. Equally, parenting is not something that anyone has any experience of prior to embarking upon it, meaning that it is entirely normal not to instantly excel. It is important when these negative thoughts arise that you are able to have some perspective on them. Guilt at mis stepping is important in order to ensure that your actions are not repeated, however it is important to remember that parenting is a learning journey and, as with a new skill or sport, making mistakes, flagging up mistakes, and learning from them is important for growth.

Shame, on the other hand, is, in a sense a more advanced version of guilt. Often, when parents are seeking help for shame, it tends not to be the presenting problem that they seek help for. Parents often seeking help for anxiety or depression often uncover feelings of shame that are leading to these feelings.

For men, anger issues are a common issue that treatment is sought for, says psychologist John Petersen, however, there is often an underlying problem leading to anger problems. Petersen believes that often men feel inadequate; a form of shame, leading to anger issues, as men hold the belief that their anger is something that Is simply part of how they are, and is an affliction that they are stuck with. Men are said to struggle to identify vulnerable emotions, such as shame, due to the social perception that men are only meant to feel either sad, glad or frustrated. This means that many men struggle to admit to feeling shame. An example of this is if a man loses his job, rather than admitting that this has led to him feeling inadequate and, subsequently ashamed, he will instead admit only to feeling stressed.

Shame can quickly spread and eat away at you, becoming something far bigger such as anxiety or depression, therefore it is important to learn how to deal with feelings of shame. One of the most important steps for combatting shame is to be able to recognise it. When you are in a situation where you begin to feel shame starting to seep in take a step back and realise what you are experiencing. Consider why you feel this way and consider your internal dialogue and how it is worsening these feelings. It is important to gain some perspectives on these feelings; consider whether you are simply enforcing unrealistic societal expectations on yourself and consider the likelihood that your actions and slip us are, in fact, entirely normal and, often can even be scenarios you have seen other parents going through. Speaking to others, such as a partner or another parent about how you are feeling is vital, in order to not let these feelings fester inside your mind. Often, speaking to others can normalise your feelings, as you realise that making parenting mistakes are entirely normal and simply part of being a parent.

If you struggle with perfectionism it is vital that you begin to let go of it and realise that having unrealistically high expectations of your parenting skills or your child’s behaviour will, most likely only lead to feelings of guilt and a negative perception of yourself. Negatively perceiving yourself or your child’s behaviour will only create an unhappy and hostile environment so learning to let go of shame and guilt, in the long run better for your family environment. Above all, the most important thing to remember when trying to keep guilt and shame at bay is to be kind to yourself.

Supporting Men & Dads in the workplace

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Supporting Men & Dads in the workplace

Download our free guide to help employers create a more inclusive and supportive work environment for men and dads.