Guilt feels yuck. But in some instances, guilt is healthy. And it’s important to distinguish healthy guilt, from toxic guilt – because toxic guilt eats away at our wellbeing, our happiness and our relationships. muse parenting expert Ash Nayate explores the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt.
Here’s the distinction. Healthy guilt arises from our own action or inaction – like when we yell at the kids or when we don’t follow through with a promise. We feel guilty because the behaviour goes against something we value. As unpleasant as it feels, this type of guilt is healthy because it compels us to act, in order to restore the balance (apologising, for instance).
Toxic guilt, on the other hand, occurs when we feel guilty for our benign actions (or inactions) – and/or the effect they have on others.
For example, I experienced toxic guilt when I returned to work after maternity leave – even though my decision to return to work was well considered and aligned with my values.
Often, toxic guilt arises from unrealistic standards – trying to be the perfect parent, spouse, friend, child or employee. Toxic guilt erodes our confidence and self-esteem, contributes to feelings of stress and sadness, undermines our relationships and can even affect our physical health.
Interestingly, guilt is an emotion that only develops in the earlyto mid-primary years, coinciding with the development of the conscience – our internal moral compass. It’s a social emotion, rather than a primal emotion like anger or fear.
For the first six to seven years of life, caregivers teach kids about guilt. Many of us are extremely good at experiencing toxic guilt and we inadvertently pass this on to our children – often in unrealistic standards we hold for their behaviour.
Many of us are extremely good at experiencing toxic guilt and we inadvertently pass this on to our childrenAsh Nayate - Muse Parenting Expert
Kids are often blamed (or shamed) for developmentally appropriate behaviour – behaviour that is impulsive, erratic, ego-centric and indecisive. Young kids may ‘know the rules’ but their young brains haven’t yet developed the self-regulatory capability of an adult brain. They often struggle to put the brakes on their impulses – particularly when they’re feeling angry, isolated, frustrated, hungry, tired, grumpy or irritated.
It’s easy to think that there’s something wrong if our kids don’t feel guilty for their behaviour. It’s tempting to tell our kids that their behaviour makes us sad or caused us to yell or lash out. In doing so, we teach them toxic guilt.
Even for those of us who are highly attuned to toxic guilt, because we experienced it, it’s too easy to slip back into old habits.
Recognising our own habits of toxic guilt is the first step to changing them. It’s a process that takes time, as we undo our ingrained patterns by practising new ones that overwrite the old.
In these moments when we slip into old habits of toxic guilt, perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves that our kids don’t have the cognitive maturity to feel healthy guilt – nor should they feel guilty for developmentally appropriate behaviour.
Perhaps it’s valuable to remember that our kids aren’t responsible for our feelings.
Perhaps it’s helpful to recognise our triggers for imposing toxic guilt on our kids – those moments where we snap, because we’re stretched too thin or at our wits’ end.
Perhaps we recognise that while our kids’ behaviour might indeed be frustrating or infuriating, our response has more to do with our emotional state than it does with them.
Perhaps working on ourselves and taking care of ourselves are among the kindest things we can do for our kids.