Parents often feel guilty for having done something they believe they should not have done to their children. Whether or not both parents work outside of home, raising a child takes a village. Even those “lucky” few who live close to their extended family rarely have access to as much support as they need. It’s not surprising that we end of too stressed and too stretched to provide as high quality of care to our children as we yearn for. And we end up feeling guilty for “being a bad parent” – with our own individual versions for what that means.

One day I was assisting at an important workshop that I co-organized, and I wanted to be there on time. As I was preparing to leave my 3 year old with his grandma for the day, he asked me to play with him: “please, just 5 minutes,” he pleaded. But I did not have the time - if I stayed a minute longer I would miss the bus and be late for the event. Rushing out the door, I said that I will play with him when I come back. He began crying as I shut the door.

A short time later I began feeling guilty: “How could I be so insensitive to my child’s needs,” I tell myself. “I shouldn’t have left him crying … That workshop couldn’t be more important than my only child … and on and on.” This is my version of the “bad parent” that many of us are familiar with.

I believe guilt is a self-induced feeling, a result of judgmental thinking directed at ourselves; thinking of ourselves as bad, inept or unkind. Guilt is different from regret or sadness: fully experiencing these natural feelings allows us to mourn our unmet needs and learn from the experience. We often feel better after a good cry. However, there is no relief in guilt; in fact it makes us feel worse. It reduces our self-worth and diminishes our sense of value as a person. Guilt is violence directed toward ourselves.

To transform guilt we need to understand the needs we were attempting to meet by the actions that we now feel guilty about. According to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Live, all actions are attempts to meet needs.

Whenever we feel guilty, we need to see both sides of the situation. On one side we have needs that were not met by our actions. On the other side we have other needs that led us to the actions we chose. It is important for us to get in touch with both sets of needs.

In my case, my actions did not meet my needs to care for and contribute to my child’s well-being in the moment. On the other side, I was trying to meet needs that are also important to me – for reliability, community and contribution to others. As I understand why I made the choice that I did, I no longer feel guilty. I am in touch with both – my care for my son and my desire to make a contribution to the world.

The effort to understand the variety of needs that I have about the situation helps me learn how to choose my actions differently in the future. I see a strategy that would allow me to care for my child by playing with him for 5 minutes in the morning, and to be on time for the event that was important to me. All I need to do is to manage my morning time and allocate 5 minutes of play before I need to leave. I know from previous experience that if my son gets some play time with me, he is much more relaxed about my leaving, especially if we make it a part of the deal. So this simple strategy could allow me to meet my needs and still maintain the connection with my son.

Next time you feel guilty about something you have done, try these three steps:

1. Understand what needs of yours were not met by your actions and allow yourself to experience the feelings of sadness and regret, if they arise naturally.

2. Understand what needs you were trying to meet by your actions. Even the most “terrible” actions could be seen as ineffective and tragic attempts to meet needs. See past the actions and recognize the universal human needs that you were attempting to meet.

3. Consider the needs you identified in step 1 and step 2 and think what strategies you could choose in the future to better meet both sets of needs.

Instead of feeling guilty, we can learn to cultivate a sense of compassion for ourselves and for doing the best we can to juggle many needs on our plates as parents, and compassion for our children who are longing for more affection, play and nurturing. And as we learn from our mistakes, we move a step closer to be the parents we want to be.

Author's Bio: 

Inessa Love, Ph.D., is a trainer in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), also known as compassionate communication and she offers workshops and trainings for a wide variety of groups and organizations, as well as individual phone coaching sessions. Inessa is an editor of a monthly newsletter Connection Times: Communication Successes and Challenges. Read the full version of this article and subscribe to this free newsletter at www.ConnectionTimes.org.