I write this post about unhealthy guilt off the back of having a very sick child over Easter. Most people had booked time off, so I was on office duty with a few of my team. I was looking forward to some relatively quiet time in the office, allowing me to get some jobs done that had been sitting on the side lines for a while.
But then came the bump in the road. Well laid plans out the window when my little boy got sick. The fever kicked in while we were at the cinema on Good Friday watching Dumbo (I won’t blame Disney). From there it was a downward spiral. I remember thinking, well at least it’s happened before the weekend. We can have a quiet weekend of cuddles and movies and he’ll be good in time for Tuesday when I have to work.
Except the poor little man didn’t come good in anywhere near that time. He wasn’t eating or sleeping, so of course I wasn’t sleeping. He was the sickest he’s been and I was petrified. When our little ones get sick it’s so hard; the worry and feelings of utter helplessness can be overwhelming. What made this week of my life a thousand times harder than it needed to be was the added guilt of not being able to go to work.
The guilt goes both ways for working mums. We feel guilty for not spending enough time with the kids, and guilty for needing time away from the office.
Healthy vs Unhealthy guilt:
There are two types of guilt: healthy and unhealthy. Unhealthy guilt is a toxic emotion and often self-imposed, so it’s important to recognise the difference. Healthy guilt is proportionate or rational. It’s the negative feeling you get when you know you behaved inappropriately. Unhealthy guilt is disproportionate, misplaced and irrational. This is where you feel guilty about something, but you have no control over the situation.
Looking back on the week, I’ve tried to pinpoint why I felt so stressed about work when I should have been focusing solely on the wellbeing of my son and myself. Why was I making my life harder by finding ways I could duck in to the office in order to show my ethic when something had happened completely out of my control?
Queue negative thought train…. “My boss will think less of me; the team will feel like I have an easy ride; clients will need me to be there.”
I came to these conclusions all by myself, but as it turned out my team were sympathetic and stepped up to help me, my boss didn’t bat an eye and my clients all coped just fine for the three days I was OOO.
It’s time to overcome this inclination we have as working mothers to lean into guilt as some kind of permanent natural state. According to Diana Lalor, Psychotherapist from WA here’s some of the effects of unhealthy guilt gone unmanaged:
- Make you become over responsible, striving to make life ‘right’. You may overwork, give too much of yourself, or be willing to do anything in an attempt to make everyone happy .
- Make you over-conscientious. You may fret over every action you take as to its possible negative consequence to others, even if this means that you must ignore your needs and wants.
- Make you over sensitive. You may see decisions about right and wrong in every aspect of your life and become obsessed with the tenuous nature of all your personal actions, words and decisions.
- Immobilise you. You can become so overwhelmed by the fear of doing, acting, saying, or being ‘wrong’ that you eventually collapse, give in, and choose inactivity, silence, and the status quo.
- Interfere in your decision making. It may become so important to always be ‘right’ in your decisions that you are unable to make a decision lest it be wrong.
- Make you ignore the full array of emotions and feelings available to you. Overcome by guilt or the fear of it, you can become emotionally blocked or closed off and unable to enjoy the positive fruits of life, your attention always being with the negative.
- Mislead or misdirect you. As many irrational beliefs lie behind guilt, you may be unable to sort out your feelings.
So what can we do?
Guilt causes stress and can impact workplace effectiveness. So how can we overcome these unhealthy feelings of guilt? Here are some great tips from Mindtools.com that I found useful (granted, after-the-fact, but we live we learn, right?)
- Understanding what you can and can’t control.
- Challenging your own standards.
- Affirming the positive aspects of the situation.
- Being assertive with those who seek to make you feel guilty.
You can check out more here
I hope this helps, because honestly the life of a woman trying to balance corporate and mum life is hard enough. We do not need to be making stuff up in the process ensuring it’s even more challenging!