Coping With Guilt

It was a bad day.

We have mostly good days in our house, but sometimes there is no other way to describe it. Everything goes to Hell in a handbasket, and I slink into bed that night, curling up in remorse and self-blame and doubt. We had one such day this weekend, and even knowing it’s over and nothing truly terrible happened, I can still note a clenching of guilt and shame in my chest.

That’s where I feel it; that gnawing, vice like tightness that feels like someone has wrapped giant bands of steel around my ribs. It squeezes me when I think anxiously, mostly when I dwell on the past, when I go over my mistakes. It’s enough to take my breath away and make me acutely aware of every one of my heartbeats. I’m not unfamiliar with this feeling. Many people can relate to it.

Still doesn’t make it any less painful when it’s there.

When I said it was a bad day, I mean it started bad and went worse. It was just one of those mornings where you wake up and can already predict you’re gonna be grouchy. I think I might have even purposefully rolled to the wrong side of the bed just to get up on it. I woke up angry at the world, a little miffed about a silly occurrence I couldn’t get out of my brain from the day before, and try as hard as I might to shake the mood, I just couldn’t. I was achey, tired, vaguely unwell in a general sort of drained way, and bitchy to boot.

This is probably where I should have asked for help; hindsight is spectacularly 20/20, as they say. I can see that I might have avoided a lot of the rest of what happened by simply telling my partner I wasn’t up for handling ANYTHING that day, that I needed time for myself, that I was feeling overwhelmed and over-stimulated.

In fact, he sternly pointed this out in the aftermath and had a few more well placed lines that would make any therapist proud. Note to self: stop teaching husband how to social work, because he can and WILL use it against you.

But I couldn’t admit those things that morning. Call it pride, stubbornness, or an inherited sense of independence that seems to have been passed down through the women of my family like a set of antique china tea cups. Whatever it was, I convinced myself I needed to just keep these feelings to myself, push forward and get over it. That I was weak if I succumbed and that bull-headed determination would get me through come Hell or highwater.

Some of you may remember a past post relating the need to check in with ourselves around our own thresholds for anxiety, for stress, to be mindful and avoid that point of breakdown BEFORE we blow our tops.


Did I mention I’m not that great at taking my own advice?

I ignored my own lessons and focused on being Mom, Wife, Therapist, Friend, and every other role in my life without having the energy or right state of mind to do them and ended up doing all of them quite poorly. I was short, angry, impatient and restless. I raised my voice over stupid things, I lost my temper and said words I couldn’t take back. I could barely handle being touched, let alone having little ones needing my attention. My clothes itched my too sensitive skin, I had a permanent frown in place all day, and I wanted to lock myself in a room and pretend I didn’t have any responsibilities. I forgot laundry in the washer, burnt grilled cheese on the stove, and snapped at my son when he tried to help me with the dishes. I sneered and snorted my way through a day and had to apologize so many times for my unfair attitude towards the kids but I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

I started piling guilt on top of all that too.

I felt guilty for yelling, even as I shouted at my son to get out of the kitchen when he dropped a cup of berry smoothie all over the floor.

I felt ashamed of myself for snarling at my daughter to stop trying to climb on my lap and use me like a jungle-gym/security blanket all at once.

I wanted to wallow in self-blame for my aggravation at my dog needing to go outside just as I had finally sat down, even though he can’t help it and has a medical condition that he can’t control.

I even felt badly for thinking uncharitably about my husband, who had double if not triple checked with me if I was alright for him to work in his shop that day, and yet I was livid he wasn’t there helping me.

So I felt angry at myself for being angry which made me all the more upset, which only made me even more snippy and nasty, and the cycle continued and grew. I was stuck in an endless feedback loop of worsening anger and resentment and guilt and then more anger. I was stuck, and couldn’t seem to stop losing it over every little thing.


Then my children went missing.

For a heart stopping few minutes, where I felt like my world collapsed, I could not find my kids.

They are at an age I can trust them to wander on our quite small contained property without much worry. They know the rules about staying in our fully fenced backyard, and my son is mature enough to watch out for his little sister (read; tattle on her) quite well. We had planned to go for a walk – although I felt awful and cranky and wanted nothing more than to curl up in self-pity for the rest of the afternoon, I prayed that a walk on our local trails would clear my head enough I could survive through dinner time. I sent them to notify their father while I used the bathroom and grabbed a pair of socks.

As happens with most mothers, my brief trip turned into me tidying up the bathroom, throwing a quick load of laundry in, searching for the misplaced leash and collar for my dog, and huffing about how nothing was ever in its place when I needed it. What was meant to happen in a handful of moments, took nearly 10. But the kids hadn’t come back in and when I peeked in the backyard, they weren’t on their swing set like normal.

I went into the shop, expecting to find them there with their father but when I received a blank look in response to me asking the terrifying question of “Where are the kids?”, I swear my heart passed out of my body through my shoes.

I rushed back through the house. Silent. I went into the garage. Empty. I looked again in the backyard, the front yard, the driveway. I called their names, by now close to panic.


And the last memories I had of them was this awful, horrible day where I raised my voice at the 5 year old for spilling a drink, scaring him so bad with my suddenly harsh tone that he ran to his father, tearfully trying to explain that Mommy yelled for no reason.

I don’t think I’ve ever had such a gut-wrenching, agonizing feeling as that. Believing they had left the property, perhaps gone out in the neighborhood or, God forbid, into the trails on their own. And that those would be the last things I’d remember of them.

The guilt swallowed me.

We live in a safe area, yes, and my children are well known around our street, but this was hardly the rational line of thinking I was capable of in that moment.

Then I saw a small face peeking out at me from the window of our back shed. A small building which locks from the outside, set into the corner of our backyard.

My time of raising my voice did not end yet, as I found my two children hiding among the fertilizer and rakes – safe, but grinning cheekily without any regard for the 10 or so years they took off my life. The volcano erupted anew, more out of pent up terror and grief than anything else. My husband luckily took over while I struggled to stop my body from trembling.

Every parent has one of these stories. It could be losing a child in a grocery store, a public place, or at a large event (I notably got lost at Seaworld once and I still remember the sensation of being confused why everyone was so angry, when I’d had a lovely time looking at sealions). The fear and guilt that grips us is real and tangible and takes hours, if not days to shake. It’s the Stress Response. That Fight or Flight Response, our nervous system giving us adrenaline to survive the threat that we are facing. That takes time for our body to process and bring us back to equilibrium.

I’m still shaken when I pull myself back to that heart stopping moment.

But when I review it, the worst part is perhaps the guilt I experience. The ‘What if’s and ‘Should Have Done’s that go through my head. I think that if I wasn’t already at the end of my rope and feeling so much already that day, I might have been able to let this mini-panic blow over. As it was, it knocked me out for the whole rest of the day and I ended up a big puddle of sobbing, snotty gasping heart-ache curled up in the bed, guilty and weepy and useless to everyone.


Guilt is a complex emotion

It is an unique blend of self-loathing and blame, and sorrow. We feel guilt when we believe we have done wrong, when we look back and regret our decisions or our actions.

I look back and experience severe guilt for many parts of that day. I feel guilt for waking up angry. I feel guilt I can’t always be happy. I feel guilt for not asking for help. I feel guilt for NEEDING to ask for help. I feel guilt I couldn’t just force myself into a better mood. I feel guilt I wasn’t better at every single moment of that day. I feel guilt I lost my children for the 10 minutes, that I did those few chores when I should have been with them. I feel guilty I then couldn’t handle them with any sort of calmness after the fact. I felt guilty for everything I felt and said and did that day.

Have you had these sorts of thoughts? Do they sound familiar? Notice how contradictory some of them are, how easily I could get pulled back into that self-depreciating loop. Does any of that seem irrational, or too critical?

It’s easier for someone else to read those thoughts and point out – of course you can’t just force yourself out of a bad mood! Of course you can ask for help! Don’t beat yourself up for being human!

It’s much harder to say that to ourselves.

One of my favourite pieces of wisdom to pass on to others is this: That a feeling of guilt does not always equal wrong-doing. That guilt is actually the expression that you wish things had turned out differently. Many times we actually feel guilty for things we can’t control, or actually had nothing to do with. Sometimes due to empathy. Sometimes because of a misplaced sense of responsibility or control.

I feel guilty I can’t adopt every cat and dog that comes on the SPCA commercials. I feel guilty I can’t help my friends financially or take their burdens for them. I feel guilty I can’t clone myself and do everything I want in a day.

Heck, I can even feel guilt that I feel guilt!

I’m always reminding my clients to check in with that sense of guilt, in whether it is actually because of a negative action of their own that they rightfully can judge caused a negative consequence, or if it’s because they just wish, somehow, that things had turned out better.

That’s not to say all guilt is misplaced. We need to take responsibility for our actions, and I’m no exception. I should have told my partner straight up that I was in a foul mood and needed support. He spent most of the day aggravated by needing to tip-toe around my mood, and asking me point-blank what I needed and getting no clear response from him when he KNEW I shouldn’t have been left on my own. But I gave him no other option aside from either watching me crash and burn, or forcing me into taking a step back and him looking like the bad guy.

I might feel guilty for needing help that day and not reaching out for it, but I am a human being, and I make mistakes. It’s not possible to be mindful every minute of every day, and it’s not always possible to make the best choices even when you SHOULD know all the answers. My guilt is because I do wish things had turned out differently. I do wish I’d had more patience or told my partner I needed a day off. I do wish I’d been more present with my kids.

And I need to start saying “I FEEL guilt”, instead of “I feel GUILTY”. Over-identifying with a feeling, as in defining ourselves by it, makes the connection in our brain that the feeling is justified or 100% true. In the case of negative emotions like anger, and guilt and jealousy, over-identifying can make those feelings grow stronger and reinforce a negative self concept, making it harder to shake.

We want to have what I call a Light Touch with our emotions. To note them, without drowning in them. We can give them a name, admit we feel them, but don’t use that emotion to define yourself. Especially with guilt. We go from experiencing a normal human emotion, to being judged Guilty of all charges by a jury of our peers, and that word is powerful in the imagery and connotations it carries.

So maybe if you’re like me, and experience guilt for a tough day that goes from bad to worse, let it offer you some perspective. Feelings, like guilt, are all just signals meant to tell us something. They’re not verdicts or labels meant to define us, but lessons we can learn from.

Guilt tells us we can maybe do a little better next time, but allow that feeling to linger just so long as you get the message loud and clear and then find a way to let it go and move forward.

I’m also going to be changing the lock on that shed soon too…

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