Coping With Guilt

Nov 26, 2014

with Miriam Levi (author of Raising Children to Care and participant in “Raising Our Children to Have Good Midot”: a Darche Noam Yarchei Kallah panel discussion on Tuesday, August 8, 2000)

Coping With Guilt

A major obstacles in dealing with wrongdoing is guilt. This is especially so concerning anger. Here we are, we just got angry and screamed at our child and now what do we do? We attack ourselves. “Why did I get so angry? Why did I have to lash out at him like that?” Attacks such as these aimed at ourselves bring on guilt.

Guilt comes in two varieties. There is the regret and remorse which arise from actual wrongdoing. This is constructive guilt and it is part of the process of teshuva, the Torah mechanism for behavior correction. Teshuva has three steps: Step 1 is viduy, admitting that we’ve done wrong. Step 2 is appropriate remorse and regret over the wrong. Step 3 is resolving to avoid repetition.

The guilt we’re talking about here though, is of the destructive sort. It, too, begins with an admission of wrongdoing. But now, instead of appropriate regret and a firm resolve to avoid repetition, we viciously attack ourselves and end up feeling spent and miserable.

Guilt is actually anger turned inward. When we’re angry at our children the gun is aimed at them–”They’re crummy kids.” When we’re feeling guilty, we’re under the gun–”I’m a lousy mother.”

Rav Wasserman has compared teshuva to a cleaning establishment. If a suit gets stained no one in his right mind would throw it out–we take it to the cleaners and afterwards it can be worn again. When we blame ourselves and tell ourselves we’re no good, it’s like throwing out the suit. We don’t need to do that. We can take that suit to the cleaners–do teshuva–and be assured that the spots will be taken out.

The trouble is that some of us are trying to be perfect–to never make any mistakes–to be the perfect parent. Yet nowhere in the Torah do we find any such requirement for perfection. In fact, our sages teach us exactly the opposite. “It’s not your obligation to complete the work, yet neither are you free to leave it.” While we’re required to invest the necessary effort to fulfill our obligations, that we succeed at this is not a requirement.

Shlomo Hamelech said, “There is no righteous man on earth that does good and never sins.” No one can achieve perfection. Yet many of us insist that, as parents, we must never make mistakes or do anything wrong. And why? What’s underneath this striving for perfection? We’re trying to prove our worth, to ourselves and to the world. We strive mightily to avoid making any errors, to maintain a good rating. “Yesterday I tried hard and succeeded in staying calm–so I’m a good mother. Today I screamed at the children, that means I’m a lousy mother.”

There’s a fundamental error here. We don’t have to prove our worth to anyone. It’s enough to know that every individual posseses great potential worth by virtue of his having been created in G-d’s image. As for our actual worth–this should not be our concern. No one is capable of determining his own, or anyone else’s worth–this must be left to Hashem. Judgment is His domain alone, because only He can rate a person’s merits against his failings.

Guilt locks us in. If we’re trying to change, but everytime we catch ourselves at some wrongdoing we begin to attack ourselves, we’re going to soon be feeling pretty hopeless about our ability to change. In an article about teshuvah, Rav Yechiel Schlessinger z”l, founder of Yeshivat Kol Torah, explains that a person should be careful to limit feelings of regret over wrongdoing. He writes:

“The sense of terrible pain over transgression may prevent the person from freeing himself of the sin. Instead of the effective and desirable regret over having sinned, there may come a sense of powerlessness regarding the sin and a feeling of inevitability….Judaism teaches us to approach the change of our ways with joy and good spirit….”

Imagine that you want to play the piano. But everytime you make a mistake, your teacher slaps you on the hand and yells, “You keep making the same mistakes! What’s the matter with you–can’t you keep your fingers on the keys!” I think you’d quickly become discouraged and probably give up the lessons. But that’s what we do to ourselves don’t we? When we strike the wrong educational keys, we give ourselves mental slaps and subject ourselves to verbal putdowns–”What’s the matter with me? Why do I keep doing this!” and so on. Small wonder that we become discouraged and quit making any more efforts.

So instead of reacting with horror–”How awful of me to scream at my children like this!”–let’s tell ourselves something else–”It was wrong of me to scream at my children–I’ll try to control myself better next time.” And we try to remind ourselves that as with our children, we, too, have bad habits, and it will take time to change them.

Your child wants to tell you something but you have a million things to do and you send him away with obvious irritationsnap at–”I have no time to listen to you now.” So he goes away –but now you’re sorry and you wish you’d been more patient. Don’t tell yourself off with “Why was I so impatient with him? Why couldn’t I have taken out just a little time to listen?”–this kind of thinking is not going to make you more patient. What could you be telling yourself instead? “I haven’t been too patient but I’ll try to improve.” If you want to succeed at becoming more patient with your children, you need to learn first to be more patient with yourself.

Often, however, we’re criticizing ourselves when in truth, we’ve nothing wrong at all. Suppose, for instance, the mother in the example just discussed would tell her child, calmly, “Sweetheart, it’s hard for me to listen to you right now. In a few minutes I’ll have some time for you.” There’d be no place here for self-criticism. It does the child no harm to sometimes have to wait a little for our attention–in fact, it may even be good for him to learn to tolerate postponement of gratification. Some of us manage to find fault with ourselves all the time. Nothing we do seems to be right or enough. If we were strict, we think we should have been more lenient; if we’ve been lenient, we tell ourselves we should have been stricter. If you have this habit, ask yourself the next time you feel guilty, “Did I really do anything wrong? If so, I’ll try to correct it. But if not, why torture myself with guilt feelings?”

In every workshop I find several women who have this idea that if they could just do everything right according to all the educational rules, their children would always be perfectly behaved. And so, when their children misbehave they automatically assume it’s their fault, judging themselves as bad parents and seeing themselves as failures. There are two mistakes here. First of all, no individual can be perfect–we’ve already said that. But even if you were able to really do everything perfectly–be a perfect parent–your children would still misbehave. Look, they’re not always going to want to do what you want–they’ve got minds of their own, Baruch Hashem. So they’ll scream, shout at you, kick at the furniture–does that mean you’re a bad parent? And we know that there practically isn’t a house where children don’t fight with each other. So should we see ourselves as failures whenever our kids fight?

Seeing ourselves as educational failures is one very common cause of anger toward our children. For instance, when we see perpetual disorder in our children’s room, we may jump to the conclusion that we are failures for not getting them to be neat. When this view of ourselves as failures seems too much to bear, it triggers anger. What’s behind the anger? Well, whose fault is it that we’re such failures? These children!

The way to eliminate this kind of anger is to stop blaming ourselves for our poor parenting skills. Instead, we should do what we can to improve, and in the meantime be patient, both with ourselves and our children.

Remember that the minute we become more aware of our mistakes, they are no longer failures in parenting. They become steps in the process of becoming better parents. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment. So we can profit from our mistakes, rather than criticize ourselves for them.

Substitute Teshuva for Destructive Guilt

Destructive Guilt                                  Teshuva
“I did something wrong.”                          “I did something wrong.”
“What a terrible thing I did!”                    “I’m sorry I did it.”
“I’m a terrible person!”                              “I’ll try to do better next time.”

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