Going back to work: The difference between guilt and shame

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Today’s blog post is written by Roxanne Hobbs, founder and maternity coach at the Hobbs Consultancy. The Hobbs Consultancy offers maternity coaching to support mums in navigating the transition back to the workplace. Here, she explores the difference between guilt roxanne hobbsand shame that many mothers feel when going back to work after having children.

When working as a maternity coach, supporting women in the transition back to work, one of the most common presenting issues is guilt.  Women tell me how guilty they feel at leaving their children to go back to work, or how guilty they feel at leaving early (usually meaning ‘on time’) to get back for bathtime or, even, guilty that they don’t feel guilty!

Guilt seems to be an intrinsic and unavoidable part of being a mum, whether you are working in or out of the home.

However, I have noticed that sometimes when we say the word ‘guilt’, we are meaning something very different.

Let me introduce you to guilt’s evil big brother – shame.

Shame isn’t a concept we talk about much in our culture, so you’ll be forgiven for not knowing its exact meaning.  But I can guarantee that you’ve felt it.  Shame is that intense, visceral feeling that you are not enough.  That you don’t belong.  That you don’t deserve to be there.  For me, when I’m in shame, I experience a prickly sensation over my skin, a quickening of my breathing and heart rate and a shutdown of my brain.

Guilt self-talk is, ‘I’m doing something wrong’.

Shame self-talk is, ‘I am wrong’.

This isn’t just semantics.  Think about the potential to change. If you are feeling guilt about doing something, it suggests that you have made a mistake.  That gives you the room to make good that mistake, to do things differently, without sacrificing yourself in the process.  It was your action that wasn’t great, not you.  When you are feeling shame, there is no room for manoeuvre – as it is you, your essence, that isn’t enough.

Furthermore, shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown says shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression. Guilt, however, is not.   It makes sense that we would want to raise guilt prone children rather than shame prone children.  And parenting is the greatest predictor of shame or guilt proneness in children (http://brenebrown.com/2008/07/01/200871blog-series-understanding-shame-html/).

So what can we do about this?  If you are feeling guilt, it’s not that complicated.  You can change the behaviour.  If you can’t change the behaviour (e.g. family finances mean that you have to go to the office), then accept that we all have to do things that are less than ideal and, crucially, this doesn’t make you a bad mother.  As soon as you stray in to the Bad Mum territory, that’s shame speaking.

If you are stuck in shame territory, here are two key tactics suggested by Dr Brené Brown for developing shame resilience:

1)     Speak the shame.  Who sits in your support section? Who can you tell about this deep fear that feels unspeakable?  As soon as you voice it, shame will lose some of its power over you.

2)     Practice critical awareness.  This means, find the actual truth in your situation, rather than letting the shame win.  These questions, which I’ve tailored to the returning to work Mum, may well help:

- What do your children get that would be impossible if you didn’t work?

- What are you role modelling to your children by working?

- In what ways are you a fantastic mother?

- What do you do daily that shows your children that you are present to  their needs and love them?

I honestly believe that all mothers are doing the best that they possibly can do. And I’m convinced that your answers to the above will help you remember that too.


For a conversation about how the Hobbs Consultancy can provide support in your organization please contact [email protected]

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