As a mom, there are five words you never want to hear at the start of a sentence…
“Does anyone know whose child…?”
When you turn in the direction of the sound of the adult voice, you hope to see a kind woman sitting with someone else’s child. Except it’s not someone else’s child…it’s yours. How did this even happen, I didn’t even hear her crying? I’d know her voice and cry anywhere. In a crowd full of noisy children, if she yelled “Mommy!” I’d know it was her with my eyes closed and ear plugs in, right? Not today. We were at a park, meeting several friends and their kiddos for a playdate. Some of us hadn’t seen each other in a couple years, so it was a time we were all looking forward to. The kids were excited, the parents were excited.
We hadn’t even been at the park for 5 minutes. My kids raced to the playground area and began climbing and sliding, having a blast. I was standing in the playground area where I could see them, and where I could watch for the others as they were arriving. I turned my back to hug the last set of friends as they arrived, and we began to chat. Then I heard the words…
“Does anyone know whose child this is?” I turned. She was crying. No, not crying. Bawling her eyes out. My daughter. MY DAUGHTER. I was just watching her, and she was fine. How did this happen? This kind woman helping her probably thinks I am a neglectful parent. My five year old daughter sat on the ground holding her chin, which was bleeding profusely. She was crying so hard she was gasping for breath and couldn’t make out any words. Ok, no big deal, I thought. I’m trained in first aid, so no need to panic. I know what to do. But the gash in her chin was too deep and it wouldn’t stop bleeding, so our joyful fun-filled gathering turned into a trip to an urgent care center.
In route to the medical center, my daughter finally stopped crying and calmed down enough to talk. I asked her what happened. She was climbing one of the miniature “rock climbing” walls that decorate the sides of most playground equipment these days. She got to the very top and was so proud of herself, until she realized she couldn’t get back down. She yelled for one of her bigger and older friends to help, but no one heard her. Then she spoke the second set of words no mom ever wants to hear—“I was crying and kept calling for you mommy, but you didn’t come.” Until then, I was calm and level-headed, but at that moment all I could do is cry my eyes out and tell her how sorry I was. I never want her to believe that I wouldn’t come for her, that I wouldn’t be there for her when she needed me the most.
Enter guilt, center stage.
Guilt is heavy. I mean, really, really heavy. It wears us down, tires us out and makes us feel like the worst (mom, co-worker, friend…you fill in the blank) ever. Right? Right—only if it is true and well-deserved guilt. You know, like the kind of guilt you have when you’ve actually, purposely done something you should be guilty of. You lied. You cheated. You stole. You flew off the handle just because you were having a bad day, and took out all your frustration on the poor innocent soul who was listening, unfairly tearing him or her down…and now you feel bad. You ruined a relationship. Your actions broke trust… That kind of guilt.
But what about the guilt that comes when we make an honest mistake, a miscalculation, or when something just doesn’t go the way we planned? That seems to be the time when we blame ourselves for our shortcomings and put ourselves down. Don’t get me wrong—I am all about personal responsibility, but sometimes we take the self-blame game too far. We heap heavy piles of guilt on our shoulders and expect to walk around for the rest of the day (or week) handling our business like nothing is weighing us down. We put on our smile, talk sweetly to our kids and answer all of our texts with a bunch of exclamation points and emojis. Who are we fooling?
No one, we think. We aren’t fooling anyone. Everyone can see I’m guilty. All the fingers are pointing at me.
Nope. Only your own finger is pointing at you.
I love the way Wikipedia defines guilt as an experience—“a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.”
Did you get that part…accurately or not. News flash-- what we think is not always accurate. What we believe about ourselves is definitely not always accurate. In order to shed the guilt, we don’t need look at the situation from a different perspective—we need to look at ourselves from a different perspective. How do we do that:
1. Pray. Being a woman of Christian faith, I know that if this is not my starting point, all I’ve done is hopped in the car and started circling the block over and over…and over. I don’t have the power to change my perspective alone. I need the help of the God who created me to show me who I am, the true intentions of my heart and the way He sees me. I’d encourage you to ask Him to show you who you really are. What He reveals to you may drastically change whether or not the guilt you’re feeling is warranted.
2. Stop. Just stop. Stop the self-pity. Stop the anger. Stop re-playing the situation in your head like it’s your favorite scene from a movie. Stop wishing you could go back in time and change what you did. Physically stop for a second, sit down and relax. Stop immediately blaming yourself and putting yourself down. If you messed up, own it, move in the direction to fix it, then move on. You can’t expect to be strong enough to overcome your faults if you keep beating yourself down. That’s called counterproductive.
3. Start. Repentance leads to healing. Maybe you need to apologize to someone, return the thing you took, explain the situation from your perspective to help someone understand why you did what you did. Talk to a confidant, someone who will listen to you, pray with you and be honest with you. Make a point to start seeing yourself as a human who will never will be perfect. Give yourself a little grace.
4. Do one thing that reverses the guilt. If you feel guilty because you worked late and didn’t spend time with kids, take a day off or plan a special fun family time for the weekend. If you were late, next time make a point to be super early. It may be the simplest gesture or act, but sometimes that’s all we need to feel we’ve mentally “gotten back at” the guilt we’re feeling. Three hours and three stitches later, my daughter was good as new. She was happy, completely trusting in me as her mama (even though the negative voice in my head was telling me I’d “failed her”) and asked if she could play on the playground when we got back to the park. And she did play, with no fear, no regrets and no holding back. Instead of letting her play, I could have told her we’re done for the day in an effort to try to protect her from being hurt again, but that would have been about my guilt and insecurities, not hers. So, she played, and I watched her (like a hawk), and her enjoyment and satisfaction of a “park well played” allowed me to leave with a little less guilt on my shoulders at the end of the day.
5. Believe that there are no coincidences. Everything we do, every mistake we make and every amazing thing we do, has its perfect place in God’s plan for our life. We truly were created on purpose (no mistakes), for a purpose (even if you don’t know it yet, it’s there) and with a specific purpose (your life has meaning). So “that thing” you feel guilty about—well, it happened for a reason. Did you learn from it, become humbled by it, grow through it? Will you remember that lesson when you need to in the future? Sometimes it’s not about the rock climbing wall or the mother’s back that was turned. It may not even be about YOU. Ever think of that? Just because you were the self-proclaimed star of the show doesn’t mean it was your name that was in lights. Just know that you don’t have to be defined by one event if you don’t want to be.
So next time you screw up—sure, take personal responsibility. Feel guilty? Yes, if it’s warranted and if it leads to repentance. But don’t forget to turn from it and move on. Living in guilt doesn’t help you live a life on purpose.