Guilt vs. Remorse Compassion Self-Definition
I want to talk to you about guilt. It’s so ugly and destructive. It tears down every piece of you.
When you parent from a place of guilt, you are also parenting from a place of powerlessness and unworthiness. Have you ever met someone who operated from those spaces? Maybe a coworker, boss, fellow student, or just an acquaintance when you took your child to the park? What did you think of them? Did their persona elicit respect, admiration, or love because they were so humble? Guilt ≠ Humility.
It’s easy to look back on our life and ruminate on the things we’ve done wrong, and it’s even easier to beat ourselves up over parenting mistakes (some of those mistakes might be huge). But this is important: Carrying the burden of guilt around does not make you a better parent.
This is your permission, from a psychotherapist, to release your guilt.
Guilt is your mind thinking about you. How you feel about what happened. How you impacted someone else negatively. The guilt in your mind is pointing its finger at you, You, YOU (or me, Me, ME, however you read it).
Guilt is self-centered. Guilt says, “I did something wrong. I am bad. I am injured. I need to be nurtured to heal.” So… I did something wrong works its way around to I need compassion. It’s all about the person who did the wrong and is carrying the guilt. Guilt is greedy. We both know from experience that effective parenting is anything but greedy or self-centeredness.
Remorse, on the other hand, is other-centered. You mourn the other person. You mourn what happened to them and what they experienced. When you’re feeling remorse over something that has happened to your child/teen, then you’re also focusing on helping them heal. With remorse you can grieve the thing that happened, and you can move on to repair the relationship. Remours says, “I did something wrong. This person is hurting because of what happened. How can I make this right and help them?” Remorse moves you forward in your relationship, guilt keeps you stuck in a spiral of self-degradation.
So face up to it. Know that you are human, humans are imperfect, and imperfections can run deep. Apologize to your child/teen for what you caused and put the focus on how your beloved child feels (not how you feel). And when you are forgiven – allow yourself to forgive you, too.
Full disclosure: as I write this, I have a 15 year old son. I have a Master of Arts degree in Counseling Psychology, I provide psychotherapy and parenting skill-building for a living, and have a deep spiritual connection to God.
But just like you, I’m human.
And sometimes… my frustration gets the better of me.
From time to time, I’m tempted to ask my teen “WHAT were you thinking?” or, “I told you if you didn’t start your homework earlier you wouldn’t finish. That bad grade is all your fault.” Those thoughts have been known to go through my head for a split second. But what good would that do for my teen? How would that prepare him for interacting with the world when he’s an adult? That would be my ego wanting control and acknowledgement, and his error is about him and not about me.
As adults, how much do we need others to be there for us and to support us, even when we make a bad decision? How much do we need our friends, family and partners? Now, imagine being a teenager and needing that support equally or more.
There are enough “I told you so” people out in this world, our kids don’t need those at home, too.
What influences a teen’s ability to grow into a person who empathize with others is the amount of empathy and compassion he received when he made errors in judgement. When he operated from his humanness.
Connecting with the way it feels to mess up, let someone down, be let down, miscalculate a time schedule, feel unheard, be unable to articulate how you feel when you’re feeling lousy – connecting with those feelings within you as a parent helps to stifle the “I told you so” button that you want to press when your teen didn’t heed your sound advice and instead did it his way.
Remember how powerless you felt when you were under everyone else’s rules and expectations, and then something didn’t go your way or you messed up. It didn’t feel good.
Compassion during times of tumult will not only keep peace in your home, but it will also draw your teen closer to you. It makes you a safe person. It makes you someone they can confide in when they are angry, sad or frustrated. Teens feel resentful when the parent who was there for them as children is suddenly not as accessible because their expectations and reactions have shifted.
As a parent, swallowing our pride and letting our teen own their misery, being there to listen and gently guide them into an appropriate response, and remembering not to take ownership over their mistake or their feelings goes a long way (miles long).
Your child is now a teen, and all the goals and aspirations you had for him are on the cusp of being attained. It feels like he’s at the ninth hour and it’s make-it or break-it time. If he can just maneuver his way through these last couple years, make good decisions, then it will be smooth sailing and all those dreams you had for him will come true.
But guess what. You don’t get to define your teen. I know, it’s so disappointing. I’m there with you. I remember tucking in the little guy at night and just imagining all the great things he could grow up to become.
And while, this isn’t about my own son, but rather about that I can relate to those pulling, heart-breaking feelings when your teen resists and wants to do what he wants to do. Dye his hair blue. Quit track and field even though he’s loved it all his life. Play a lot more video games than you’d like him to play. Yeah, those were not the images I had of him as a teen when he was 8 years old.
He gets to define himself. He can be guided, and as parents we can (and should) put appropriate limits on the ways our teens choose to experiment with self-definition. But we don’t get to define our teenagers for them.
This portion of the article is not about defining our teens.
It’s about defining ourselves: as people (not as parents). You get to define you. Finally!
Who are you? What do you stand for? What are your non-negotiable values for this life? What goals do you have and what are you doing to achieve them?
When you, as a parent and person, have a strong definition of who you are and what you stand for, your teen can see you as a cornerstone. You can be the foundation that allows them to test the waters of their own identity. They can trust that your “yes” means “yes” and your “no” means “no”, and there is something very reassuring in knowing the ground beneath them is solid and holds their best interests.
When you have separated your self-definition from your teen’s you can stand back and allow them to make mistakes without the need to rescue (who are you rescuing, them or yourself?). You can respond appropriately without getting caught up in the teenage angst and drama. You know that your identity and your ego is not threatened by their lapse in judgement.
You can have peace. And best of all, you can provide peace.
While this article was primarily written for parents – it is also very applicable to the ways you relate in your romantic, friendship, and professional relationships. All people need these traits to be able to trust one another, and to be joyful beings enjoying their experiences in life. You deserve to enjoy this life!
This series continues: As Parents… (Part 3)
Written by Jessica Wilkerson, M.A.
You can find this, and other articles by Jessica Wilkerson at www.jessicawilkerson.com/blog
If you would like to schedule an appointment with Jessica, you can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (530) 921-5122.
Jessica works for Chico Creek Counseling as a Marriage & Family Therapist Registered Intern #IMF69783 under the supervision of Joe R. Taylor, LMFT #MFT46406.