Working Moms Inside Out : Guilt Gone Wild

In the latest Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out, we are given insight into the inner workings of the mind of an 11-year-old girl, ruled by five distinct emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. We also catch brief glimpses into the mind of her mother, who is similarly governed by her own versions of those same five emotions. Yet, as a psychologist who studies women's careers and a mother of two, I couldn't help but notice the absence of an emotion that seems to dominate the minds, and consequently the behaviors, of many working mothers: guilt.

Both professionally and personally, I am frequently confronted by working mothers who feel a constant onslaught of guilt. We feel guilty about home when at work and guilty about work when we are at home -- not to mention the other things we regularly feel guilty about doing or not doing (cleaning, exercising or sleeping). Certainly, guilt is not an emotion reserved solely for working mothers, but research does indicate that women experience more guilt than men, as do individuals who report more work-family conflict.

The central message of Inside Out is that all emotions serve important functions in our lives, even those that we would prefer not to experience. So, what role is guilt playing in the lives of working mothers? And how can we use that knowledge to help manage it?

These questions can be answered, at least in part, by understanding the psychology of guilt. In particular, thinking about guilt from an evolutionary perspective can provide a powerful lens for interpreting and managing it. Psychologists refer to guilt as a social emotion, which means that it contributes to our ability to co-exist in groups with others (aka "social survival"). Anticipated guilt (that you might let someone down) serves as a warning signal that we might not be contributing enough to our group, and are at risk of potentially harming our social bonds. We look at the contributions of others and, if we feel like we don't stack up, our guilt drives us to contribute more. Importantly, guilt has a very sensitive trigger, it is likely to emerge with just the slightest suspicion that we might not be contributing sufficiently. From this evolutionary perspective, guilt is really useful because we want to make absolutely certain that we aren't going to damage important social relationships.

But, in a modern day context, guilt has ample opportunities to run wild, causing considerable dysfunction and disruption in our lives. In the past, women's lives have been more limited by narrowly defined role expectations and clearer standards for "appropriate" behavior. While there are obvious benefits to the freedom that women now enjoy, one downside is that there is much less clarity regarding when, where and how women "should" invest their time and energy. This is further compounded by the mounting access we have to filtered images of the lives of other women through social media. Given these unclear expectations and opportunities for social comparison, it is no wonder that guilt has gone wild. This trigger-happy emotion is more than willing to tell us all of the ways that we don't' stack up.

A typical response to guilt is to work harder and contribute more until the feeling goes away. And yet, working mothers can wear themselves too thin trying to alleviate the guilt from each role they play. So, what are alternative ways to manage this guilt?

The first step is to acknowledge that your guilt is born from a positive and natural desire to protect the relationships that are important to you. Just like Joy must come to understand and appreciate Sadness in Inside Out, we must recognize the essential function that guilt can play in our lives. But, that doesn't mean that we always need to let it run our lives. Guilt is like an over-protective parent. Gratefully thank it for its concern, but recognize that it's sometimes in your best interest to ignore it.

The second step is to generate clear and realistic standards for your contributions in each area of your life. You can define these expectations on your own, or even talk to those people who are important to you about what they want and need from you. We often imagine that others need more or different things from us than they actually do. If you define these expectations, you can give yourself a break from vigilantly scanning the environment for clues that you are not doing "enough."

Sometimes Steps 1 and 2 alone are sufficient to take the edge off of guilt. However, if you still feel excessive guilt (some guilt is probably unavoidable), it might be worthwhile to gather some data on how you're actually spending your time and energy. Once you can look at this information in a more objective way, you may realize that (a) you are doing enough, (b) the standards you have set are actually unrealistic or (c) you really do want to change your behaviors to more closely align with your goals and values.

By setting aside time to consciously consider these possibilities and adjust accordingly, we can challenge our feelings of guilt and possibly reduce them considerably. While guilt will probably always have a starring role in the working mom's version of Inside Out, we can take steps to reduce its unilateral domination of our minds to make room for all of the other wonderful and complicated emotions life has to offer.

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