Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Overcoming Mommy Guilt

In last week's post (get your butt over here y'all), I explained the self-serving mechanisms involved in mommy guilt: the ways in which guilt forms an addictive cycle. In this post I'm going to explain the guilt-triggering mechanism in more depth and - most importantly - suggest how to crack the cycle. Seat-belts, people!

Let's begin with a radical consideration: If you don’t want to feel a certain way, just don’t feel it. I know that’s far easier to say than to do, especially after a long time of forming habitual butthurt to certain things. Your brain has spent months, maybe even years, beating a neural pathway to butthurt, and you’ll need to retrain it. Let me explain..

The Voluntariness of Guilt

We humans are happy to take full responsibility for some of our emotions no matter how unbidden, so long as they fit into our personal agendas (pride, love, compassion, whatever). We deny responsibility for others (guilt, envy, lust) due to the most self-serving of reasons: to make excuses for ourselves. Our choices do not just ‘happen’ to us. Likewise, our emotions don’t just happen to us either. We practice them, cultivate them, and in many cases choose them, even if unconsciously (Check out the fabulous book by Professor Sheena Iyengar, ‘The Art of Choosing’).

Now, to say that moms choose to feel guilty is not to say that their guilt is a sheer instance of ‘will’. Circumstances may play a role. You may not have chosen to be on Facebook the same time an anti-formula article is shared, and after clicking the link and reading the content of the article you may begin to feel guilty about your choice to formula feed, and you now have to decide what to do with this feeling. You did not choose to be in this situation, presented with such an offensive article, but you chose to read it. Indeed, you may return to the source numerous times, maybe contact the author and tell her a thing or two. So you are not completely the victim here. Even if you did not know that this particular article was about to be shared, you did know about the reputation of the internet and the dangers that lurk in such an open, largely uncensored medium.

In this way, guilt is not a single episode, much less a sudden ‘burst’ of emotion aroused by stimuli. As the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Guilt does not just happen to us and it is not simply dictated by the circumstances. We don’t go from having zero guilt to being overwhelmed with guilt at the sudden trigger of an article. Our guilt is our responsibility, and so we should take responsibility for it.

Let’s look at the butthurt-development process:

Here you are, and here is the offending article. You feel yourself getting tense, but now, do you get guilty? You have a number of choices, though none of them feels good. You can leave the website, you can think about the content in a different way, you can stay and debate, you can get angry. Meanwhile in all of these responses, you sense in yourself a rising guilt. You grow more tense and irritable. You find yourself thinking all sorts of insults and defensive responses to throw at the author, the sharer, the liker, and anyone who agrees with them. But your choices are real choices, with real consequences, some of which further the guilt, while others tend to shift the guilt - perhaps further towards yourself or towards the author (“you should feel ashamed for writing this”), and other choices tend to diminish it.

Contagious Mommy Guilt

The issue of the level of control we have over guilt is much more complex than a black-and-white distinction between activity and passivity. Sometimes emotional choices are so easy to make that we don’t think of ourselves as making them at all. We go on auto-pilot. Indeed, it’s easy and effortless to feel guilty when we step foot on the hyper-charged battlefield of the Mommy Wars. When the majority of formula feeders are proclaiming to feel guilty, this general consensus spreads like a virus to other formula feeders. “If they all feel guilty, then I should too”. The more formula feeders that publicise their guilt the more socially appropriate, even desirable, this behaviour is deemed by others. A common chain-reaction goes something like this: a mother reads an offensive article, then she acts guilty because it is socially expected, from which genuine guilt may follow. Psychologists call this ‘herd instinct’ or ‘social proof’. The social climate dictates: the better a mother you are, the worse you should feel when you stray from virtuous choices.

Then there are the mothers who ‘set themselves up’, knowing the probable emotional consequences. An example is the many formula feeders that click ‘like’ on The Alpha Parent Facebook page and then pour over the updates that appear on their feed, triggering themselves with self-loathing. 

It is, of course, very convenient for these moms to think of their emotions (which motivate a great deal of their behaviour) as beyond their control. That way, they can blame their silly outbursts on their anger, and not take responsibility for it themselves. Sneaky.

In a nutshell

We mothers would be wise to divorce ourselves from the self-pacifying belief that emotions are hijackers that render us victims and instead think of them as strategies we cultivate and put into play. Now here’s a random fact for the nerds amongst you: The Latin root of the word ‘emotion’ means ‘to move’. Emotions are vehicles for transforming or moving your life. When you feel guilty, try to identify what the emotion is telling you. Think of your emotions as helpful messages. Fear protects. Sadness releases. Joy uplifts. Empathy unites. Guilt teaches. In this sense, guilt is a call to action to correct our mistakes and to learn from them. Then we become better mothers/people/citizens because we are boosting our self-efficiency, banishing our anxiety and making new, better choices. 

Truly understanding the nature of our emotions and how they express and embody our deepest values is the cornerstone message of my book Breast Intentions. In the chapter titled ‘Guilt’ I discuss how misunderstandings of our guilt lead to excuses that we use to duck responsibility. I explain that the road to emotional integrity involves resisting those excuses and taking responsibility, and most importantly, how to do this as a mother. Worth a look, if you want to understand (and overcome) the shackles of the reticent maternal mind. 

To end this post on a philosophical-note and to give you something to ponder, I’d like to refer back to Roosevelt's infamous insight. The fact is, with the exception of our own minds, no power on earth has the consistent and absolute ability to make us feel guilty. Whatever happens, you have a choice as to how you interpret or react to something. You can’t control other people. Sometimes, you can’t control circumstances either. You can only control yourself – your own thoughts, your mind, and the attitude you take. However much we might be prompted by cues from other people or our environment, the choice to feel guilty is ours and ours alone. Owning one’s guilt includes recognizing that the source of the emotion and the reasons for it are part of our inner world.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Skinny on Mommy Guilt

Everyone loves Roosevelt's motivational mantra: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. It adorns fridge magnets and keychains the world over. But it seems, there is one group of people who don’t appreciate this sentiment. In fact, they argue exemption from it. Yup, I’m talking about mothers.

For a group of people who celebrate so passionately their prerogative of choice, it is bitterly ironic that mothers are keen to dispose of this belief when their emotions are involved. “Stop being judgemental, I should not be made to feel guilty” is their mating call. It’s so common that almost everyone takes heed, lest they be seen as a kind of evil Morton Downey Jr.

Yet contrary to what some mothers and stand-up comedians may claim, women are not fragile simpering wallflowers at the mercy of iron-tongued tormentors. They are not passive pawns pushed around by the force of others’ words. The image of the female as a boiling pot of feelings, a puppet to her emotions, easily triggered and unable to control herself is a misogynistic invention of a culture that's still riding on patriarchal coattails. Sadly, many women continue to lap up this rhetoric, and when they become mothers, it becomes enshrined in their self-entitled, self-serving psyche. In this post, I’m going to demonstrate why ‘Mommy Guilt’ is the biggest farce since Nestle donned a nurse's outfit.

Guilt: The Narcissist of Emotions

Let me tell you a thing or two about guilt. Guilt is the quintessential self-conscious emotion. At its heart, guilt is a self-involved, egocentric experience. In parenting, it is a moral emotion that arises when a mom experiences discrepancies between her standards and her behaviour. As Dr Helen Lewis explains in her book “Shame and Guilt in Neurosis”:

“In the experience of guilt, the self is doing the judging; the experience is thus self-contained and self-propelled. Guilt is about something specific about which the self is critical”

In fact, mommy guilt has strategic functionality rather than being a mere reaction. The mother absorbed in her own guilt may discover, for example, that ‘punishing herself’ allows her to be irresponsible or unsociable. Or perhaps she views the feeling of guilt as neutralising the ‘wrong’ she believes she has committed.

When a mother feels guilty it means she can talk about herself and how she feels for hours. Because that’s what guilt is about: you. It’s a way of focusing on yourself that doesn’t feel self-indulgent because you’re shining a light in the shameful, dark parts of your psyche. It’s sort of a back-handed compliment to yourself because the fact you feel guilty means you have morals, so you’re basically a decent person.

When we understand that mommy guilt, like many emotions, has utility, we can begin to understand that...

Mommy Guilt is Self-Imposed

Picture the scene: I write a blog post about the risks of formula feeding/circumcision/whatever, which ‘makes’ you feel guilty. Let’s try thinking of it in purely logical terms: I posted something and you felt guilty.

Now take it further: I posted something. You felt guilty.

Now for the next step: I did what I did. You did guilt.

Why should me doing whatever it is I did have control over your feelings? Ahhhh, now we’re getting somewhere..

The reason why guilt is so pervasive in motherhood is precisely because it is self-imposed. Psychologists Dr June Tangney and Dr Ronda Dearing In their book, ‘Shame and Guilt’, define guilt as “a private experience arising from self-generated pangs of conscience” (2002, p14). One can to a considerable extent shrug off other people’s criticism and even their contempt, but one cannot shrug off one’s own. Guilt is blame of the self by the self. By its very nature, guilt assumes a wrong doing that one has committed. So in order to feel guilt, two components must be present: 1. A wrongdoing. 2. Personal blame. Now let’s apply this to an obvious example: failure to breastfeed. If the mother believed that breast milk and formula were equivalent, #1 would be absent in her view. Thus, she wouldn't feel guilty for not breastfeeding. If on the other hand, #1 is present but #2 is not, the result is merely shame not guilt.

Guilt is a personal judgement of culpability that is expressed in the attitudes the individual holds towards herself. When motivational speaker Chip Conley announced “Guilt is an emotional bouillabaisse. Its stock is your sense of choice and responsibility” (Conley 2012) he was maintaining that personal acceptance of blame is essential to the experience of guilt. You see, emotions are very much tied up with belief systems and thought structures, and cannot be separated from them. When a formula feeding mother personally believes that breastfeeding is optimum, guilt is aroused. If a formula feeding mother believes that formula is on par with breast milk, she won’t feel guilt, and no amount of ‘bullying’ from a lactivist blog post will arouse that guilt.

If you're feeling guilty right now (heck, you're a parent), look at your guilt with the idea that you are, or might be, responsible and ask yourself these probing questions: “What am I doing this for?” “What am I getting out of this?” If you do this, you can often see aspects of your strategic behaviour that would otherwise escape you. By contrast, if you look at your guilt with the idea that it is a force beyond your control, something inflicted on you by someone else, you'll be prone to make excuses for yourself. Sound familiar? Victimhood calling!

To believe that others can make us feel guilt is to adopt victim mentality (see my previous post: “How to Spot a Defensive Formula Feeder”). Yet we are not victims. We are not toddlers unable to regulate our emotions. We are active agents, we are parents for hells sake!, and we have responsibilities. How will you ever be free of guilt if you attribute its existence to the control of others? As long as mothers blame others for their guilt, they effectively rob themselves of their own emotional integrity and consequent empowerment. If you are not responsible, then you are not empowered to make changes. Being responsible means taking responsibility for your parenting decisions. That does not mean that you’re in charge of your environment and in control of all the stimuli you encounter. It does mean that you’re in charge of your own inner environment. 

The Blame Game

The experience of being guilt-stricken is so uncomfortable and threatening to a mother’s self-esteem that, more often than not, she experiences an inclination to shift that hostility and blame outward (Lewis 1987). A mother’s guilt can feel extremely painful and devastating. When she feels it, she is berating herself. To make matters even worse, with many maternal misdemeanours, there are very few options for remedying the failure. So there Mom is – hopelessly mired in an agonizing, ego-threatening state of guilt, with no obvious way out. 

How do moms, in the midst of guilt, attempt to cope or contain this hateful emotion? One strategy that is likely to be effective, at least in the short term, is to turn the tables and shift the blame. A lot of formula feeders for example, come to resent themselves for the vast discrepancy between how they wish they fed their child and how they actually fed their child. A lot of this self-condemnation is dealt with through a process of externalization: it is directed outward, against life, fate, institutions, or people, or it is directed against the self but is perceived or experienced as coming from the outside. Blaming others (instead of the self) can serve an ego-protective function. Breastfeeding advocates are ideal targets. As Tracey Cassels over at Evolutionary Parenting, has observed:

“I have to ask myself – why are you so offended?  Why are you saying I’m trying to guilt you?  That I’m a breastfeeding nazi or some other ridiculous moniker?  Why do you need to mount a campaign claiming you’ve been “made” to feel like a bad parent because I simply tell it like it is?  What you forget is that only you can allow yourself to feel guilt, and if you know in your heart of hearts that what you’re doing is good, then the guilt won’t follow.” 

By externalising blame, guilt-stricken formula feeders attempt to defend and preserve their self-esteem. Their anger is pushed towards others, but it is anger which results from one’s own feeling of helplessness.  

Furthermore, by attacking her ‘accuser’ ("You're a dick for judging my lack of breastfeeding"), the mother can divert the audience’s attention away from the original fault ("I'm a dick for not breastfeeding"). This sort of guilt-induced defensive externalisation is fairly irrational, even from the perspective of the guilt-stricken mother. However it is compelling to her as it allows her to enjoy many benefits - externalising blame in this way serves to reduce painful self-awareness, and, as a further bonus, the accompanying feelings of self-righteous anger can help the guilt-stricken mother to regain some sense of agency and control as well as solidarity with other butthurt mothers. Anger is an emotion of potency and authority. In contrast, guilt is an emotion of the worthless, the paralysed, the ineffective. Thus, by redirecting hostility, by turning their bitterness outward, guilt-stricken mothers become angry instead, reactivating and bolstering the self, which was previously so impaired by the guilt experience.

Rightyo! That's your lot for this week. In my next post, I'll be discussing how to overcome Mommy Guilt (yes, it's not a deadly disease, recovery is possible). Linky.

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