Tag Archives: guilt

Moms are Perfectly Imperfect!

 

Moms are easy targets for nearly all the psychological ailments that afflict their children … and our world for that matter. Consider for a moment, the troublesome members of our species who populate our planet. When it comes to assigning blame, doesn’t the finger get pointed at maternal rearing? So under the weight of such immense responsibility, why don’t mothers just hide out in a cave somewhere? Who could fault them?

In essence, hiding out in a cave is exactly what Denise—a mother of six—did for years.

She really didn’t have to. Why? Because perfection is impossible and therefore hardly necessary.

But because Denise never understood this, she would always steer clear of family gatherings that included her grown children. She found those visits almost unbearably wounding.

In our session, she expressed her anguish:  “I just can’t bear hearing their stories about what I did wrong while they were growing up. I look forward to seeing everyone, but the next day I’m literally tortured by all the guilt!”

Denise knew they didn’t intend to hurt her. Their tone while telling the stories was always lighthearted, so she recognized their innocence. But knowing all of that didn’t ease her elephant-sized guilt.

And her suffering was only amplified when her birthdays were celebrated.

“If they give me cards and gifts, I feel uncomfortable,” she said, “like I don’t deserve them.”

Denise’s exaggerated guilt has its roots in her past. “I wanted to spare my children the hardship I endured … and obviously,” she said with tears welling up, “I didn’t do a very good job at that.”

Lowering her head, she continued.

“I have this picture of what a perfect mother is supposed to be and do, and I always fall short of that,” she said.

Such standards are unrealistic.

If we expect perfection from ourselves we’re headed for unavoidable disappointment and inevitable internal scorn. The simple recipe for over-the-top guilt is to have zero tolerance for our own imperfections.

Denise needed to ease up on herself. I pointed out that she’s overlooking a vital fact: Children have a marvelous capacity for bouncing back or rising above negative circumstances. It’s called resiliency—a quality innately cultivated in an environment saturated with love. That love and acceptance is sensed by the child even when parents are disappointed or annoyed with them.

Since Denise had informed me earlier that she is “proud of the people my children have become,” I was convinced her children had always sensed they were loved.

“Yes, you made some mistakes as a parent,” I said, “but it sounds to me like you parented with love as the constant backdrop.”

I conveyed to her that guilt is a clear sign that a parent has a caring heart. One father told me: “Those of us who care are distressed by the things we’ve done wrong as parents.”

Perfection is unobtainable. Things are always falling apart, getting dirty, disappearing, dissolving and running amok. We can’t get everything right even if we try–at least, not for long. We will have burnt toast, traffic delays, a losing score, and botched recipes.

Since imperfection seems to be built into the system, isn’t it possible that it might even have a purpose?

I try to keep in mind something that Joseph Campbell said: “Out of perfection nothing can be made.”

Perhaps we need bumpy roads, rained-out picnics, derailed plans, stubbed toes, and yes, even imperfect parenting. Let’s face it, if Mother Nature wanted perfection, we women would be having babies once we hit fifty-five and older–way into our wiser years.

Denise was laughing while I explained my theory. We both were.

“When I look back on it,” she said, breaking into a grin, “I have told them that I did take my vitamins and stopped smoking while I was pregnant, so at least I waited until they were born before I started messing them up!”

We laughed some more.

She went on: “The weight of the future rests on our shoulders, but we mothers can only do so much. And for all the power we supposedly have, we’re not even getting paid!”

Denise walked away from that session a thousand pounds lighter. Later she wrote to tell me what her new outlook did for her: “I was able to invite my children to my home and enjoy the experience. It was Mother’s Day and I felt such love for them, for myself, and for my mother who must be looking down from heaven and smiling.”

She ended her letter with this:

“I think being a mother is a most difficult job, for which we have no instruction manual. Wise people over the ages have said that pain is the path to spiritual strength. Today, I am feeling much less guilt about the pain I’ve caused my children, knowing they’re strong and they’ve survived my-less-than perfect parenting skills.”

Denise has left her cave of shame and pressure–hooray! Lucky for her, and lucky for her children, too.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2020

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Advice from the Animal Kingdom

 

Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, pinpoints how perfectionism impacts us negatively: “Not being perfect, we reject ourselves,” he writes.

It’s true. Many people condemn themselves for failing to live up to the often inflated, sometimes impossible expectations they set for themselves.

This can include failing to get a perfect performance review, a perfect score, a perfect grade, or keep a perfectly neat house.

Many of us put ourselves down for our lack of discipline, for losing things, for failing to accomplish goals or make deadlines.

Momentary disappointment in ourselves is understandable … even endurable. What doesn’t serve us is the prolonged self-badgering and self-loathing–dwelling on our imperfections and mistakes.

Ruiz comments on how we differ from the rest of the animal kingdom.

“How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times. The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake.

“The rest of the animals pay once for every mistake they make. But not us. We have a powerful memory. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves.

“If justice exists, then that was enough; we don’t need to do it again. But every time we remember, we judge ourselves again, we are guilty again, and we punish ourselves again, and again, and again.

“If we have a wife or husband he or she also reminds us of the mistake, so we can judge ourselves again, punish ourselves again, and find ourselves guilty again. Is this fair?”

Where does perfectionism spring from?

Rick, a client, was told by his boss that he should learn Chinese. Doing so would result in a promotion and new opportunities. But fear of failure—any failure—stood in his way.

In one of our sessions, Rick and I took a look at his past.

“As a child, I wasn’t praised for trying, “he said, “I was praised for getting it right.” Consequently, he refrains from attempting new things. The fear of being less than perfect has handicapped his life.

New findings suggest that teachers get better results when students are praised for merely raising their hands—for trying—instead of nailing the right answer.

Mastering anything requires patience and practice. We seem to forget that even something as basic as learning our alphabet was an evolving process—one that started with nothing but a bunch of perplexing symbols on a chalkboard.

Check out this illuminating TedX talk by Carol Dweck, a Standford University professor of psychology and researcher on mindset. She shares her findings on a fresh new model that activates ambition, motivation and confidence. The success rates suggest that it has the potential for being a game-changer in the classroom as well as in the workplace.  The results are promising—kids persevere in the face of “failure” and allow mistakes to motivate them instead of paralyze them. The meanings of effort and difficulty can be transformed to create a pathway to success rather than discouragement.

 

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Don’t be Bullied by Guilt

 

Just as there are good and bad bacteria, good and bad cholesterol, there’s also good and bad guilt.

Good guilt guides us in making wise choices. Bad guilt is the bully in our head that has a knack for running our lives…and sometimes right off the rails.

Tessa is a perfect example:

She’s been embracing healthy eating lately. “I gave up gluten, dairy and sugar…and I feel better!” she said. Unfortunately, her restaurant options are limited. But she’s learned where to go—what works for her.

Now then, as we all know, life has an uncanny way of presenting us with challenges as soon as we make a decision to overhaul ourselves in some way.

Tessa is no exception. Not long ago, her family invited her out to celebrate her birthday. They chose a nice restaurant and made the reservations. But the restaurant they chose was on her no-no list. She had plenty of time to suggest another one, but guilt got in her way. You might say it sabotaged her better self.

“It was a gift,” she said, “I just couldn’t disappoint them…I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.”

That’s what bad guilt does to us—it makes us not matter to ourselves.

“So who got disappointed instead?” I asked.

“Ahh,” she said, “me!–of course.”

Disappointment was only one part of it. She went into detail about how miserable she felt the next day.

Clearly, Tessa’s birthday was less than it could and should have been. Her guilt was misplaced. Where was the concern for her body? For abandoning herself?

Bad guilt bullies us into saying yes even when it compromises our health—even when it compromises our integrity.

Warm-hearted people like Tessa are experts at meeting the needs of others but amateurs at identifying their own. Life is presenting Tessa with an opportunity to become an expert at both identifying and then honoring her own needs.

I predict that the guilt-bully is in for a surprise!

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2019

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

 

 

 

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Outsmart Your Guilt

 

 

Things go wrong when guilt’s the driving force behind our actions. That’s because guilt doesn’t do a good job of steering us in the right direction. It lacks intelligence.

Dru, 17, is a prime example. She didn’t want to hurt her boyfriend’s feelings, and as a result became pregnant. In our counseling session with tears streaming down her face, she expressed what was going on in her head the night she conceived:

“I didn’t want to do it! I didn’t feel right about it, but I would’ve been consumed with guilt if I let him down!”

The desire to give to others, the concern over disappointing or hurting someone, stems from a kind heart. That’s a good thing. It’s not such a good thing, though, when we hurt or disrespect ourselves in the process.

No question, Dru would be paying a hefty price for being dominated by guilt. Her future suddenly looked quite different, because the demanding responsibilities of motherhood would place her dreams, interests and much of her freedoms on hold.

Dru’s pathway for getting healthy entailed learning that self-neglect is wrong. She cared too much for her boyfriend and too little for herself. Her fear of letting him down resulted in letting herself down.

I remember her telling me that he would have acted hurt if she had said no to him on that fateful night. In the months ahead, Dru came to understand that hurting someone’s feelings isn’t always a bad thing. We all need to be told ‘no’ on occasion and to learn our limits with other people. How else do we become sensitive and respectful of others? We rob people of growing in these ways when we give in to pouts, angry outbursts, or other manipulative ploys.

Dru finally ended the relationship with her boyfriend.

I asked her: “In looking back, what did that experience teach you, Dru?”

“That I can’t let anybody have control over me again,” she said. “I can’t let someone suck my spirit from me. It drains me.”

“Exactly what drains you?” I asked.

“Worrying about people, needing to make them feel better,” she said. “I have this problem of wanting to make everyone happy even if it costs me my own happiness. It’s all so draining! But I’m getting stronger.”

I agreed—Dru was getting stronger. She found a new relationship and to her delight, she isn’t obsessed or burdened with worry about what he’s feeling, thinking, or needing. She describes the relationship as “freeing.”

“How will you know if this relationship turns unhealthy?” I asked.

She thought for a moment and shared her newfound insight—that pleasing someone else at the expense of her own well-being would be wrong. “If that happens, I’ll feel trapped and guilty for not taking care of him.”

She learned that guilt shouldn’t be in charge–she and her intellect should be running things.

It made me smile to see that Dru was “getting it.” Smart girl. 🙂

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2019

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Don’t Be Nice All the Time

 

Over and over again, while growing up, Kari heard: “It’s better to give and be nice than it is to receive.”  Valuing the other person more than yourself was expected. So, today, she tends to be nice to everyone but herself. No surprise. When people mistreat or take advantage of her, she gives them a free pass. But Kari’s been waking up to that unhealthy pattern—seeing how it’s not serving her very well. Her current relationship is a perfect example, and right now, she would like to end the relationship but guilt stands in her way.

Guilt over caring for herself blocks her from doing the right thing.

Doug, another client, received the same training. “The way I feel good about myself is by being a good guy … doing for others.”  He gave me an example.  When an acquaintance of his, John, needed a phone, Doug agreed to sell him his $250 phone for $80. He even agreed that John could pay him later. Doug didn’t hear from the man for several weeks. Finally, when they bumped into each other somewhere, John paid Doug … but he paid him $50 instead of $80. When I asked Doug how he felt about that, he said: “I wanted to do the right thing.”

“Is it right to let others take advantage of you?” I asked. “How do others learn the same morals you were taught if you rob them of that opportunity?”

We talked at length, then Doug arrived at a realization:

“I should have stood up for myself,” he said. “Sometimes it’s right to upset people.”

Several years ago, I created a little story for the sake of illustration:

Imagine a classroom of small children—crayons in hand—each thoroughly absorbed in his/her own drawings. Jenny is sitting beside Joey, and at some point, he reaches over with his crayon and marks on her paper. Jenny objects, “No Joey!” while pushing his hand away. He stops, briefly, then repeats the offense. Again Jenny protests but this time she briskly moves to another spot in the room, taking her sheet of paper with her.

This scenario would have played out quite differently had Jenny been indoctrinated with the directive to always “be nice.” In that case, she would have wilted when Joey marked on her paper, letting him have free rein. Believing that objecting is hurtful, she would be ruled by restraint. Striving to be nice is a worthy ethic to teach children, but it should be a two-way ethic.

Niceness should run both ways.

Yes, Jenny should be nice to others, but she should also hold the belief that virtue applies to everyone else as well. Joey wasn’t being nice and that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Jenny’s actions preserved her well-being and dignity, but she also did Joey a favor. She gave him the opportunity to learn an important lesson: If I mistreat people, I’ll alienate them. They won’t want to be around me.

Had Jenny folded, submitting to Joey’s will and disrespect, she would have sent the opposite message.

We humans don’t grow when others are placating or pretending to go along with us. The best mirror we have available is the authentic response given by other people. No, it’s not always easy to look at ourselves through the eyes of others. It can be painful, but some deeper—truer—part of ourselves finds it gratifying to be shown the truth.

Protesting isn’t hurtful if done correctly. Being enlightened by truth is quite different from being punctured by it. When Jenny voiced her protest, she wasn’t being hurtful.

If Joey was hurt, he was hurt by the truth—not by Jenny.

When someone crosses a line, our instinct tells us to be self-protective. It’s the same instinct that protects us from eating spoiled food, stepping out in front of traffic, getting close to a raging dog. Psychological well-being is no different. Inner distress is a signal announcing the need for change.

Instead of just enduring, we’re supposed to listen to it and take action. Doing so is an act of love, both for ourselves and for the other person.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

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Love Me Tender

 

Some people believe they’re detestable. In fact, the thought of being worthy of love and accepted–even cherished!–for who they are at the root level seems unfathomable to them. 

That’s not how it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be content with ourselves.

So where do low self-opinions come from? Children internalize or see themselves as mirrored in their parents’ eyes. If that reflection is a positive one, then they carry around a positive attitude toward themselves. If that reflection is negative, then they acquire a negative impression of themselves that can last throughout their lives.

Two former clients, Mike and Lori, come to mind.

“My mother hated me,” Mike said in one of our sessions. “It’s oppressive to be hated by your mom. It takes the color out of everything.”

He’s right.

Mike’s mother never came right out and said she hated him. She conveyed it in subtle ways–through looks and in her overall attitude toward him. It wasn’t warm, caring, forgiving and understanding. Not at all. When he got in trouble–even for little things–she came down hard. She also seemed to never want him around. “Go away, don’t bother me,” was one of her favorite expressions.

Mike grew up hating himself and hating his life. No surprise.

Lori was raised under similar conditions. She and her siblings paid dearly–physically and emotionally–if they failed to toe the line.

That early conditioning resulted in anxious perfectionism, and when she would fall short of that unrealistic expectation, she would spiral down into a grimy pit of shame and self-loathing.

Lori would spend days immobilized, unable to socialize and unable to leave her home. It was a pattern spawned in early childhood–one she couldn’t shake until she sought help.

Both Mike and Lori were afflicted with shame.

Shame and guilt go hand in hand, but there’s a fine distinction. Guilt is what we feel when we break the rules, laws or violate parental or societal expectations. With guilt, we feel it’s possible to clean up our mistakes, learn from our misdeeds and move on. But shame is different–mistakes and wrongs are unpardonable.

In John Bradshaw’s book, Bradshaw On: The Family, he writes: “Guilt says I’ve done something wrong; shame says there is something wrong with me. Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good.”

When we’re exposed to a steady diet of humiliating messages, those messages end up defining our being. Our pure sense of self gets lost in the contaminating process we call shaming.

Where’s the line between discipline and shaming? Healthy discipline guides and instructs. Shaming undercuts self-esteem. At an extreme degree it crushes the spirit.

Shaming communicates to children that they’re bad. How words are expressed is as important as the words themselves. For example, it’s possible to say: “You didn’t put the milk away,” but convey an attitude and tone that says, You’re bad!

I remember explaining to another client, Ethan’s father, that his son needed mentoring—not shaming. When 6-year-old Ethan kicked a cat, his father became furious. Among the nasty labels he shot at him was “cruel.” Instead of coming down hard on him, he should have viewed the situation as an opportunity to provide a lesson on kindness.

A non-shaming approach communicates that the action is wrong, not the child. It was appropriate that Ethan learned that it’s wrong to hurt animals. But he also needed his sense of self-worth to remain intact.

Ethan is but a tadpole–he’s just beginning to learn how to function appropriately on planet Earth. So the situation called for patient leadership, conveying: I’m at your side, son, ready to show you the ropes.

After all, it’s tender love that turns tadpoles into contented frogs.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

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The Love in Goodbyes

 

They share one thing: the tomb they inhabit called their marriage. It’s as cold and lifeless as a mausoleum’s marble walls. Merely coexisting in physical proximity to each other, they rarely utter a word—only when necessary. Long ago, they gave up occupying the same bed—even the same bedroom. Detachment characterizes their marriage.

Is it a marriage? Legally, yes—emotionally, no.

Years ago, Beth and her husband underwent a psychological divorce, a condition of disengagement and indifference. The original intimate connection they once shared and enjoyed is broken.

The growing gap between them became evident to Beth after their children left home. At that point, Beth realized that she and her husband live separate lives, each absorbed in pursuing their own individual interests.

Beth sought counseling because she can no longer endure the way she is living. “I’m lonely in my own house,” she lamented. Although they are mutually involved in various social functions, “we’re not companions,” she said. “There’s no life in what we do together.”

Her marriage has been reduced to a habit, not something she cherishes. Feeling stifled in such a cheerless and deadening existence, Beth wants a divorce. But fear of the unknown anchors her. Although hardly rewarding, her marriage is familiar territory, representing a comfort zone. So staying together assures security and keeps Beth from having to deal with the unknown.

Another roadblock is guilt. She’s tortured by the thought of hurting her husband. Yet, in reality, Beth is hurting him more by living dishonestly. Maintaining the illusion that all is well—merely going through the motions—is a form of deceit.

“If he knew the truth,” I asked, “would he choose to stay married? Would he really want to stay in the relationship if he knew you were there only because you can’t bear hurting him and because he’s a comfort zone for you?”

Beth suddenly got that distinctive “the lights just came on” look.  After a few seconds of gathering up her thoughts, she said, “I have never–ever!–entertained that thought before.” She relayed how she found that both “disturbing, yet strangely freeing.”

Physically she’s still married, but her spirit has moved on. “You didn’t cause that to happen, Beth, so it’s not something to feel guilty about. We can’t tell our soul what to accept, what to do and where to be.”

Divorcing her husband isn’t a hostile act waged against him. It’s an act of honoring truth, while also honoring herself and her husband.

Since Beth can’t be what she isn’t and can’t feel what she doesn’t, she should love him enough to release him to pursue more gratifying connections with others.

Call it a higher form of love.

“If the relationship is no longer rewarding for you,” I said, “it can’t be rewarding for him either.”

Yes, it will be painful for him, but better to experience the pain of truth, than to go on living a make-believe existence.

Fantasy doesn’t nourish—it leaves us empty and unfulfilled.

When relationships end, our knee jerk reaction is to cast blame—aimed at the other person or ourselves. Sometimes that’s  appropriate . . . but in Beth’s situation it wasn’t. In fact fixating on causes and blame can distract from the deeper truth:

Life is a flowing stream—change is an inevitable fact of life. Nothing stays put even if we would like it to.

We also tend to believe that divorce entails turning off the love. Not so. In fact, such thinking merely amplifies suffering because souls are tormented by estrangement.

Soul bonds never die—they undergo a metamorphosis.

Ironically, for Beth, living a lie has created more distance than falling out of love. The fearful and guilt-ridden side of Beth has clung to the status quo, while her more alive self is pulling her in the opposite direction—toward a life relevant to where she is now in her growth.

“Embrace your life, Beth, and go where your soul wants to take you.”

“Then what do I tell my husband?” she asked.

I told her to warmly convey her truth along with her heart’s regret. “You didn’t anticipate or plan this,” I said. “Something in you shifted. You’re not the same person you were twenty years ago. It’s something you hadn’t counted on. Tell him that.”

Sadness and grief always accompany letting go. I urged her to join hands with him and walk through the pain together.

It’s the loving way to say goodbye.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

 

 

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