In last week's post (get your butt over here y'all), I explained the self-serving mechanisms involved in mommy guilt: the ways in which guilt forms an addictive cycle. In this post I'm going to explain the guilt-triggering mechanism in more depth and - most importantly - suggest how to crack the cycle. Seat-belts, people!
Let's begin with a radical consideration: If you don’t want to feel a certain way, just don’t feel it. I know that’s far easier to say than to do, especially after a long time of forming habitual butthurt to certain things. Your brain has spent months, maybe even years, beating a neural pathway to butthurt, and you’ll need to retrain it. Let me explain..
The Voluntariness of Guilt
We humans are happy to take full responsibility for some of our emotions no matter how unbidden, so long as they fit into our personal agendas (pride, love, compassion, whatever). We deny responsibility for others (guilt, envy, lust) due to the most self-serving of reasons: to make excuses for ourselves. Our choices do not just ‘happen’ to us. Likewise, our emotions don’t just happen to us either. We practice them, cultivate them, and in many cases choose them, even if unconsciously (Check out the fabulous book by Professor Sheena Iyengar, ‘The Art of Choosing’).
Now, to say that moms choose to feel guilty is not to say that their guilt is a sheer instance of ‘will’. Circumstances may play a role. You may not have chosen to be on Facebook the same time an anti-formula article is shared, and after clicking the link and reading the content of the article you may begin to feel guilty about your choice to formula feed, and you now have to decide what to do with this feeling. You did not choose to be in this situation, presented with such an offensive article, but you chose to read it. Indeed, you may return to the source numerous times, maybe contact the author and tell her a thing or two. So you are not completely the victim here. Even if you did not know that this particular article was about to be shared, you did know about the reputation of the internet and the dangers that lurk in such an open, largely uncensored medium.
In this way, guilt is not a single episode, much less a sudden ‘burst’ of emotion aroused by stimuli. As the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Guilt does not just happen to us and it is not simply dictated by the circumstances. We don’t go from having zero guilt to being overwhelmed with guilt at the sudden trigger of an article. Our guilt is our responsibility, and so we should take responsibility for it.
Let’s look at the butthurt-development process:
Here you are, and here is the offending article. You feel yourself getting tense, but now, do you get guilty? You have a number of choices, though none of them feels good. You can leave the website, you can think about the content in a different way, you can stay and debate, you can get angry. Meanwhile in all of these responses, you sense in yourself a rising guilt. You grow more tense and irritable. You find yourself thinking all sorts of insults and defensive responses to throw at the author, the sharer, the liker, and anyone who agrees with them. But your choices are real choices, with real consequences, some of which further the guilt, while others tend to shift the guilt - perhaps further towards yourself or towards the author (“you should feel ashamed for writing this”), and other choices tend to diminish it.
Contagious Mommy Guilt
The issue of the level of control we have over guilt is much more complex than a black-and-white distinction between activity and passivity. Sometimes emotional choices are so easy to make that we don’t think of ourselves as making them at all. We go on auto-pilot. Indeed, it’s easy and effortless to feel guilty when we step foot on the hyper-charged battlefield of the Mommy Wars. When the majority of formula feeders are proclaiming to feel guilty, this general consensus spreads like a virus to other formula feeders. “If they all feel guilty, then I should too”. The more formula feeders that publicise their guilt the more socially appropriate, even desirable, this behaviour is deemed by others. A common chain-reaction goes something like this: a mother reads an offensive article, then she acts guilty because it is socially expected, from which genuine guilt may follow. Psychologists call this ‘herd instinct’ or ‘social proof’. The social climate dictates: the better a mother you are, the worse you should feel when you stray from virtuous choices.
Then there are the mothers who ‘set themselves up’, knowing the probable emotional consequences. An example is the many formula feeders that click ‘like’ on The Alpha Parent Facebook page and then pour over the updates that appear on their feed, triggering themselves with self-loathing.
It is, of course, very convenient for these moms to think of their emotions (which motivate a great deal of their behaviour) as beyond their control. That way, they can blame their silly outbursts on their anger, and not take responsibility for it themselves. Sneaky.
In a nutshell
We mothers would be wise to divorce ourselves from the self-pacifying belief that emotions are hijackers that render us victims and instead think of them as strategies we cultivate and put into play. Now here’s a random fact for the nerds amongst you: The Latin root of the word ‘emotion’ means ‘to move’. Emotions are vehicles for transforming or moving your life. When you feel guilty, try to identify what the emotion is telling you. Think of your emotions as helpful messages. Fear protects. Sadness releases. Joy uplifts. Empathy unites. Guilt teaches. In this sense, guilt is a call to action to correct our mistakes and to learn from them. Then we become better mothers/people/citizens because we are boosting our self-efficiency, banishing our anxiety and making new, better choices.
Truly understanding the nature of our emotions and how they express and embody our deepest values is the cornerstone message of my book Breast Intentions. In the chapter titled ‘Guilt’ I discuss how misunderstandings of our guilt lead to excuses that we use to duck responsibility. I explain that the road to emotional integrity involves resisting those excuses and taking responsibility, and most importantly, how to do this as a mother. Worth a look, if you want to understand (and overcome) the shackles of the reticent maternal mind.
To end this post on a philosophical-note and to give you something to ponder, I’d like to refer back to Roosevelt's infamous insight. The fact is, with the exception of our own minds, no power on earth has the consistent and absolute ability to make us feel guilty. Whatever happens, you have a choice as to how you interpret or react to something. You can’t control other people. Sometimes, you can’t control circumstances either. You can only control yourself – your own thoughts, your mind, and the attitude you take. However much we might be prompted by cues from other people or our environment, the choice to feel guilty is ours and ours alone. Owning one’s guilt includes recognizing that the source of the emotion and the reasons for it are part of our inner world.