How to Overcome Guilt When We Put Ourselves First

Jan 30, 2024 | Adult Toolbox, Counselor's Corner, Newsletters

By Andrew Lovejoy, LSWAIC
BYS Therapist

Published Feb. 2024

Parenting, while it can be enormously rewarding, is also a demanding and stressful job. There can be a great deal of pressure from both internal and external sources for parents to be “perfect.” As parents, we want to do the best we can for our kids, and this task can easily expand to fill every available moment of our lives. There will always be “more we could do” as parents, so taking time to prioritize our own needs can bring up feelings of guilt, or concern about inadequacy as a parent. But it is important to take care of your own needs primarily because you will be a better parent if you are healthy, happy, and not burned out.

Here are a few strategies for navigating these feelings of guilt and giving yourself permission to prioritize your own needs:

Clarify expectations and goals of parenting

Often, we expect ourselves to be great parents without stopping to define what that really means, and this can contribute to the feeling that we could always be doing more. It can be helpful to define what “good enough” parenting means to you and to your partner if you have one. This might involve writing things down, or a conversation with your partner or someone else whose values align with yours. Then you can examine these expectations and goals and assess whether they are realistic. It may be helpful to distinguish between things that feel non-negotiable to you, and areas where some compromise might be okay.

Having a clearer picture of what “good parenting” means to you can help you give yourself permission to feel that you are doing enough.

Be mindful of comparisons to others

Another common source of parenting guilt is comparison to others. There will always be someone who is doing something as a parent that you can’t or don’t want to do. Again, having clarity about what matters most to you can help you focus on what works for you and your family, without needing to compare that to what others are doing.

Communicate with your partner and support network

If you have a partner, it’s important to have open conversations about the expectations and pressures of parenting, and about your own needs. If you and your partner are not aligned in terms of parenting expectations or values, or if there are perceived imbalances in terms of contributions or responsibilities, these factors can play into feelings of guilt. Likewise, if you are feeling burned out and perceive that your own needs are not being met, your partner should know. They can help you figure out how to get what you need.

If you are a single parent, consider reaching out to your support network, whether that’s grandparents, friends, or childcare providers. See if they can help you create time to take care of your own needs while making sure that your kids are in a healthy environment.

If your partner or support network can explicitly affirm that your needs are important, and help you create time for self-care, that can go a long way towards reducing guilt. And you can do the same for your partner, or even your friends!

Have a conversation with your guilt

This might seem like a strange idea. But it’s important to recognize that your feelings of guilt are very likely coming from a place of caring. If you did not want the best for your family, and the best from yourself as a parent, you would not feel guilty! So, when feelings of guilt arise, you can remind yourself that those feelings are simply conveying a message, and you can respond. You might say (in your mind or even out loud) something like, “Thank you for reminding me that I care a lot about being a good parent. Right now it’s important that I take care of my own needs, and that doesn’t mean I am not committed to being a good parent.”

Accept and even expect feelings of guilt

Feelings of guilt may not disappear even if you do all of the things listed above. But you don’t have to let those feelings stop you from taking care of your own needs. Remind yourself that your needs are important, and that you can’t be at your best as a parent if your needs are not being met. Allowing yourself to prioritize your own needs, even if you feel guilty, will likely provide benefits to your personal happiness, your parenting, and other areas of your life. Seeing these shifts will help you see the value of self-care, and the feelings of guilt may diminish.

 ABOUT ANDREW LOVEJOY, Therapist.  Andrew grew up on Bainbridge Island and attended Bainbridge High School. His path led him to two rewarding passions: music, and coaching the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. Along with the pursuit of these passions came challenges, including a lot of work on his own mental health. From a desire to build on the skills of coaching, he decided to pursue education in mental health counseling along with sports and performance psychology. He is so excited and grateful to be able to put these skills to work at Bainbridge Youth Services!