Let me explain.
You love your child. You are doing the best you can. In any given moment, you are juggling the multiple small and big tasks we take on as parents because that’s what we signed up for when we embarked on this role.
The challenge arises when you don’t feel like there is a choice in what you are doing. Maybe the choice you make to add on an extra day of after-school care leaves you feeling guilty. Perhaps it’s missing a parent-teacher event because you are away for work.
It’s ok to feel guilty. It’s letting you know that there’s a values conflict – two things that are important to you are colliding. It’s when that guilt feeling spirals and you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel guilty or worse still you turn it into a guilt trip, which intensifies the feeling – that’s when your decision-making is affected and you need to interject. Your mind is incredible and it will help you create lots of stories that may or may not be useful.
Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist has found an inverse relationship between the activation of amygdala (emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (decision-making). When the amygdala is active with blood and oxygen, there is less activation in the prefrontal cortex. Our thinking power is disrupted and there are deficits in our problem solving, because the blood and oxygen are in the amygdala versus the prefrontal cortex. Any strong emotion, fear, stress, guilt, anxiety, anger, joy, or betrayal trips off the amygdala and impairs the prefrontal cortex’s working memory and thus your decision-making.*
So, how do you stop the spiral?
Spiraling emotions are like running a race, backwards from the finish line. It’s taking you further away from where you want to be.
Assess whether the spiral is useful. If the spiral has you saying, “Ok I’m feeling guilty right now, I don’t like it but I’m feeling it. I want to work out how to address the components so this doesn’t happen again.” That’s compassionate and useful.
It’s hurtful and un-useful when you put yourself through a guilt trip “I’m a bad parent” “I’m not doing a very good job”. It takes you further and further away from the reality of what’s happening i.e. two things important to you have conflicted. Take time to pause, reflect on your self-talk and be compassionate. Then notice what happens to the feeling of guilt. It will likely calm you down and give you space to think about what to do next.