Unpacking Mom Guilt and Mom Shame: How to identify the difference between guilt and shame.
Understanding the differences between guilt and shame can help us work through our negative self judgements. In this post we will better grasp the difference between healthy guilt, unhealthy guilt, and shame (see graphic). From here we can work on stopping self-criticism and reject shame messages.
Two important things to acknowledge:
Guilt is often experienced when we act against our values.
Shame is a deeply held belief about our unworthiness as a person.
Given the definition of shame from above, you can see that most shame is born from our childhood experiences. Particularly childhood experiences that may have been traumatic to us. Shame may display itself today as an “inner critic” who is desperately trying to keep you from getting shamed by the outside world. This is heightened when you become a parent, because we all know everyone has an opinion on how we should be raising our children, and most of the time they aren’t afraid of sharing this with us or showing their disapproval as our baby cries non stop during our weekly Target run.
As a new parent we suddenly become responsible for a new life, we are tired, stressed, overwhelmed, going through hormonal shifts, and for the first time in a long time we don’t have a clue what we are doing (that is totally ok by the way--none of us do). Babies don’t come with a unique manual individual to their unique needs.
Another important issue to note is that when we become parents we sometimes draw from the only experience we have with parenting, and that is from being parented ourselves. For people who have a lot of experience with shame as a child, that critic can often take the voice of a shaming parent. This is where the belief or worthlessness is born, that critic voice that said, “You’re bad AND if you do this one thing, you’re going to be even worse.”
The critic voice is desperate to get you to behave the way that parent wanted, in order to stop the shame. In some unhealthy relationships some mothers still have that parent in their life as an adult, continuing to create shame while “helping” with the baby. In these moments it is important to set healthy boundaries, we will discuss how to do this in future posts.
The most important thing to know about shame is that it’s an emotion, and all emotions have functions. Therefore, shame does serve some importance. Shame has evolutionary purposes, the main reason for it was to help people avoid being kicked out of their community, because they could not survive alone. However, today shame makes many new mothers avoid community, because they fear being shamed by other parents.
If you’re a mother and a part of an online mom group you have probably seen shame displayed in questions and comments on specific posts regarding the list below. Here are a few examples of shame topics that effect mothers today:
Breastfeeding or Formula feeding
Sleep Training or Co-Sleeping
Working Mom or Stay At Home Mom
Screen Time or No Screen Time
Cloth diapers or disposable diapers
Vaginal Delivery or C-Section
Rear Facing or Forward-Facing Car seats
In home Nanny or Daycare
How fast or slow a child is developing
How much weight a child does or doesn’t gain
This is ONLY a list of 10 examples of mom shamming, the list could go on and on. Experiencing shame over every decision when raising a child can be exhausting and will surely suck the joy out of parenting and create a disconnect within the mom community. Shame responses to these topics create a space to make us feel as if we aren’t good enough as mothers, as if we aren’t worthy. In turn repeating the shame messages we learned as children.
Many mothers will even be ashamed to tell their truth in therapy for fear of being judged. Therapy is a safe place to process your inner critic and that fear of being judged or being unworthy. You are safe at Charlotte Women’s Counseling.
The key to shame is to say it out loud and own it, join a community that will not reject you or shame you for how you feel or the actions you take. Challenge yourself to talk about these topics, the more they stay in our heads the bigger they get. The more we hold onto these thoughts the stronger they become. Tell someone you trust about the shameful thoughts you are feeling. It is highly likely they will share something similar with you. If we can start sharing our fears and our feelings surrounding motherhood and other areas in parenting women will feel less isolated and will experience shame less often.
We all have a responsibility to create an environment of nurturing, acceptance and respect. Being a parent is hard enough, we want to build each other up. My challenge to you is be vulnerable, express feelings of shame. In turn be kind to those around you who are being vulnerable too.
In addition if you are interested in facing some of that shame that stems from childhood so it doesn’t impact your parenting I highly recommend, “Parenting from the Inside Out."
“Taking time to reflect opens the door to conscious awareness, which brings with it the possibility of change.”
― Daniel J Siegel, Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive