Here’s a list of the things I felt guilty about today:
I woke up at 6am to my daughter crying “Up, up, UPPPPPP!” I was supposed to be up by now, ready for work!
I went to get her out of bed–her jammies were sopping wet, a diaper leak. How long has she been like this? Was she cold? How could I oversleep? I’m the worst mom!
Then while at work, I felt terrible about not getting more done. Why can’t I concentrate? I can’t believe this is how I’m spending my time, instead of with my daughter.
I skipped my workout. I just can’t justify “taking” yet another hour away from my daughter!
Then, my toddler had a meltdown at dinner and I snapped at my husband, which led to a fight later that evening. Why am I such a jerk to the guy who loves me the most and only wants to help!
It was a shit day. I failed as a mom, I failed at work, I failed as a wife, and I failed myself. I started off by feeling guilty for hitting snooze, and kept that negativity right by my side the rest of the day.
The worst part is, I subjected myself to this guilt needlessly. None of my thoughts were really true. I started a downward spiral that sapped my energy and stole countless hours of my day, for no reason. And now I’m mad at myself for making myself feel bad! I can’t win.
Oh, Mommy Guilt
Motherhood kind of took my life and my habits and routines and ran them through a blender. The first few months of motherhood are a blur of sleep deprivation, devoid of any kind of routine.
My husband and I joke that we won’t know what to do with our next newborn since we can barely remember the first.
Every parent knows that having a child introduces a whole new level of joy and happiness that you never knew before. But with motherhood comes a lot of new expectations, new ways to judge your self and new ways to fail. Through talking with hundreds of women, I know for most of us, guilt is a constant companion.
Guilt is not inevitable
It doesn’t have to be this way. A combination of mindfulness, self-coaching and an understanding of psychology have helped me to develop practices to pull myself out of a negative cycle and propelled me into a better place.
Let’s be clear–I still have my moments. But, using these skills, I learned to feel bad less often. I recognize when my mental state is getting derailed and to move myself back on track.
Um, self-coaching? You might be thinking, sounds kind of woo-woo.
Oh dear reader, you’ve got a functioning BS detector, and that’s what I love about you. Don’t worry,self-coaching is grounded in some of the best, research-based psychology practices we have. It’s the foundation of some of the most effective cognitive therapies. You don’t need a degree in psychology or years of therapy to put them into practice. Self-coaching is a skill that every adult needs in order to learn how to manage herself and her emotions.
This knowledge is so powerful for moms. It’s a skill we all need, that no one teaches us. I’m going to teach it to you today, and you can use it immediately to feel better. You can also use these techniques to coach your kids and teach them the skills of emotional health maintenance.
You actually have the ability, right now, to recognize when your day is headed south, and then get back in the driver’s seat of how you feel. You don’t have to be tossed about in the rough waters of your day to day life, or be carried away in the currents of negative emotion.
Here’s the basic model of how you make your emotions–also known as the cognitive triangle or cognitive model:
It starts with a trigger, which produces a thought, that causes an emotion (or feeling). These things happen pretty quickly, almost imperceptibly fast, and we might not recognize the cycle unless we examine it.
Your feelings affect your actions, and your actions influence your outcomes. The power in this model is that you can actually change your emotions and actions just by changing your thoughts. We’ll discuss outcomes later–but first, the model.
Trigger: In my case, the trigger was external: My daughter’s wet jammies. Other external triggers include criticism at work, traffic jams, your child’s needs, anything that is outside of you. Triggers can be internal as well–hunger, pain, and worry are all internal triggers.
Thoughts: The way you think about and talk to yourself about the trigger is how you assign meaning to the trigger. Triggers on their own take on meaning when we make them mean something. In this case, I made it mean bad mom but if I had been worried about her being dehydrated, for example, her wet diaper might have meant success.
In my case, wet jammies means my daughter was uncomfortable, and because I had been sleeping, I didn’t know for how long. My thoughts went something like this:
Oh no her PJs are wet. No wonder she’s crying. How long has she been awake? I was supposed to be up an hour ago. If I had gotten up, I would have responded the first time she cried out to get up and she wouldn’t have sat here for who knows how long in wet clothes. Ugh, I’m a bad mom. When am I going to get it together?
Feelings: The thoughts you have produce a feeling–reading my inner dialogue, how would you feel? I felt guilty, unworthy, and ashamed this morning. I felt I hadn’t met my child’s basic needs, and that I had allowed my own want for a few more minutes of sleep to pre-empt her need to be diapered, dressed and fed in the morning.
Actions: I had a rushed, distracted morning when I got up late, and I kind of threw in the towel for the rest of the day. I started off feeling like a failure, and I didn’t feel like I had any energy to put into my work and myself that I usually do.
The last part of the model is not actually a part of the model but rather is influenced by the actions you produce. The last part is the Outcome.
For me, the rest of the day continued poorly–I couldn’t concentrate well at work, and my negative self-talk, guilt and shame spiral continued to distract me. I felt guilty for failing to make my time away from my daughter “worth it.” I ended up skipping my workout because I felt that I wasn’t using my time well and needed to give it up to “make up” for wasting time earlier. I then felt worse for not exercising.
Side bar: It’s important to note that outcomes don’t always directly flow from actions–many outcomes are out of our control. I’ve got a lot to say about the relationship between actions and outcomes, but that’s for another post.
Let’s look at another example from that day:
Trigger: My toddler has a meltdown at dinner
Thoughts: I should be able to handle her outbursts by now. Why won’t you eat? I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not a good mom.
Feelings: Anger (Why won’t she eat?) Guilt (or feeling angry, for not being better), shame (for feeling angry), sadness (for not being perfect)
Actions: Snap at husband and unleash anger at him, because I wouldn’t take it out on my child
Outcome: I alienated one of the people I love most, my husband, and felt worse about myself.
So now that we understand the cognitive model a little bit better, let’s talk about how you can use it to feel better.
Not mindfulness meditation, but awareness of our own inner process. The trigger, thought and feeling happen so quickly that it feels almost simultaneous. But between the trigger and the thought is a tiny space. That space is everything.
It takes practice and awareness to recognize the space and then intervene. To start out, I recommend trying to develop an awareness of the process, without trying to change it. You can start by recognizing feelings and then identifying the thoughts that cause them. As you get better at this, you’ll start to see how your thoughts create your feelings as it is happening.
The next step is to investigate the truth of your thoughts, and identify another, more balanced, equally true (or more true) thought to substitute in. It’s that simple. And it’s also that hard.
Now fearless reader, that’s enough for one day. We’ll go into changing your thought process in a future post. Developing an awareness of how your cognitive triangle is at work in your life can create a major shift.