What’s really behind the mommy guilt? – An Adlerian perspective

Mom's favorite game!

Mom’s favorite game!

“Oops! I’m so sorry! I totally forgot to bring the testing materials back today, and I just remembered you needed to use them.  I feel so guilty.”

I was apologizing to my supervisor during my clinical internship at a Chicago prison circa 2007.  Unfortunately for me, Dr. Ray was trained in Adlerian Psychology.

“Bring the scoring materials tomorrow, Angelica.  And, by the way, you don’t feel guilty.  Alfred Adler says that guilt is not a primary emotion, but rather a compensatory defense.”

“Huh?”  Seriously lady, you couldn’t have just let me off the hook?

“You might feel regret, Angelica. You may even empathize with my being inconvenienced.  But guilt is a defense that serves a purpose. Inferiority  is what’s biting you.   You don’t want me to think less of you, and guilt puts you preemptively in a punished position.”

Ummmm….Dayumm, Dr. Ray.  I’ma just think about that one.

It wasn’t until years later, after having three children, navigating my own marriage, and working with countless individuals and couples in therapy, that I realized Dr. Ray and her psychological guru, Alfred Adler, were onto something.  When fears of disapproval and  inadequacy creep-in, guilt often serves to cushion the blow. I also noticed that statements of “guilt” are sometimes used to reduces accountability for the “guilty” party to change his ways.  A person riddled with guilt is more easily forgiven repeated mistakes.

This is pretty much my version of preparing dinner every night. But as long as I say, my husband and children simply look at me with well-earned pity and change the subject.

This is pretty much my version of preparing dinner every night. But as long as I say I feel guilty, my husband and children simply look at me with well-earned pity and change the subject.

Had he coined his psychological theory half a century later, Alfred Adler would have had much to say about the phenomenon of “mommy guilt.”

According to Adler, feelings of inferiority are at the root of all problematic emotional experiences and defenses.  

Children who are diminished/neglected/abused during childhood grow up to have exaggerated feelings of inferiority for obvious reasons.  Children who are elevated and/or coddled  fear inadequacy for different reasons: They are truly uncertain and unpracticed in navigating life’s challenges.

Theoretically, adults with exaggerated feelings of inferiority  compensate by using one of two “Adlerian safeguarding devices”:

1) Avoiding opportunities to face life’s challenges and potentially fail (by becoming emotionally incapacitated and requiring others to care for them, transferring responsibility for their own lives to others, and/or only entering into relationships and situations in which superiority is guaranteed) or

2) Operating as if they are overly-competent and superior (sometimes by grandiosity or narcissism, sometimes through control and criticism, and sometimes by creating unattainably high goals and/or pursuing perfectionism).

If a person enters Adlerian psychotherapy, the therapist will help her work toward the goal of tolerating her true self (limitations and all) and working toward realistic personal growth (as opposed to having to resort to one of the unhealthy defenses listed above).

Adler emphasized that one thing that greatly helps individuals to tolerate and triumph their own perceived-limitations is a connection to others that cultivates compassion and prevents “faulty logic” from setting-in.  “Faulty logic” (or “private logic”) is subscribing to a rigid sense that behaviors are categorically “good” or “bad” as opposed to subscribing to fluid compassion and tolerance.  It is “faulty logic” to say that “since I didn’t breastfeed for more than five months, I am a bad mother.”  It is making good use of community, appropriately fluid thinking, and compassion to discuss my never-full-beast-baby and petrified-pacifier nipples with other moms and neither feel judged nor deem myself inadequate if I supplement with formula.

Of all positions in life, motherhood (or parenthood, for all five of my male readers) is perhaps the one that most-reminds us of our limitations and shortcomings.  We get tired, and forgo bedtime reading in favor late night cartoons; We forget the field trip permission slip; The kid has a raging ear infection by the time she sees the doctor; We question if we dropped the ball by giving-in to the tantrum; There’s never enough patience or enough time…. And on and on.

And to make matters worse, motherhood is the position most isolating (especially when children are young, but even as they grow older, we rarely have REAL glimpses into other disastrous minivans and homework sessions) and most filled with faulty logic. (In case you need some examples of faulty logic in motherhood, here are some things that supposedly make you a “bad parent”:  Non-organic, working, not working, vaccinating, not vaccinating, too much screen time, not enough screen time, no extra curriculars, too many extra curriculars, circumcising, not circumcising, home-schooling, not home-schooling, being too helicopter, being too lenient, and the impossible list goes on and on.)

In other words, motherhood is filled with all the messages of inadequacy and none of the healthy defenses of community, compassion, and rational tolerance (and we are especially screwed if we go into the experience with an existing sensitivity to inadequacy from our own childhoods).

Now, here’s where my original story of guilt on my internship relates to motherhood:

Guilt serves a purpose, and is needed only during times when tolerating limitations is just too much for a fragile, isolated, and rigidly uncompassionate psyche to handle (the psyche that our culture ingrains in mothers).  Preemptive self-criticism can stave off other-criticism; Professions of guilt may offer a sense of protection from disapproval of self and others; Feeling lowly may elicit pity and caring as opposed to anger and accountability.  Guilt, according to Adler, may even clear the way for continuing regrettable behavior as opposed to correcting it, when correction is necessary.

When looking inevitable mistakes squarely in the eye is just too detrimental to a mother’s sense of self, the “safeguarding device”  most commonly used is number one above. We mothers most often lower ourselves into a position of “I already resigned myself to inadequacy so you can’t hurt me with your criticism, and I can’t risk failure by striving to improve.” Guilt is consistent with this sentiment.

Adlerian psychology would say, no such “safeguarding device” is necessary.  In fact, it’s okay to say “I don’t regret my behavior, because I have a fluid sense of right and wrong, that is subject to change depending on the circumstances and is driven by self- and other compassion.”  It is also to okay to say, when applicable, “I regret my behaviors, and I am going to rise to the challenge of correcting my behavior, AND I know that I can do-so only because I don’t feel bad about myself.”

In the case of my forgetting the testing materials during my internship, had I not been managing my own sense of inferiority and my supervisor’s opinion of me, I would have said, “I apologize for inconveniencing you, and will absolutely rise to the challenge of bringing the testing materials tomorrow. In fact, because I truly feel empathy, not because I am trying to soothe my inadequacy, I might even bake you some cookies to soften the blow of your inconvenience.” (My husband, knowing my track record for burned baked goods, sweetly points out that perhaps the cookies would have not helped my cause.)

Similarly, now, instead of continuing the same routine of watching three hours of TV every night and then saying “I feel so guilty” every morning, I could matter-of-factly rise to the occasion of reading to my kids instead.  Or not.  Because community, fluidity and self-compassion say sometimes a limitation is not a categorically bad thing..

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1 thought on “What’s really behind the mommy guilt? – An Adlerian perspective

  1. I needed to read this because I’m the first example of how the inadequacy placed upon me as a child has affected me throughout adulthood and right on into motherhood. My eyes have been opened and now I can find some small steps to take to help me change this guilty perspective around! I wish I could take you, Samantha, and Meghan from Megsanity and lock y’all in my closet as my own private therapists to go through life with me. 😀

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