08/10/2010 09:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Negotiating Mommy Guilt vs. Mommy Wisdom?

A few months ago I led a workshop for busy moms. As we talked about their lives, I started to notice a pattern: no matter what topic we discussed, at some point the moms would start describing how they weren't measuring up--not spending enough time with their kids or "being present" during that time, not being good examples for their kids on this dimension or that. They'd get this resigned, wistful tone as they lamented their mothering.

I wondered to myself: Were they just being perfectionists, beating themselves up for no good reason? Or were they realizing and sharing something significant that was truly missing in their mothering? Was this senseless Mommy Guilt or important Mommy Wisdom?

Both are real. Every mom experiences both -- harmful Mommy Guilt and helpful Mommy Wisdom. Discerning the difference is very important.

The Inner Critic and Mommy Guilt

We've all got a tough inner critic--a mean-spirited, lying voice inside our heads that judges us, tells us we are likely to fail and compares us unfavorably to the people in our midst.
If you are a mom, the inner critic likely sometimes shows up via Mommy Guilt -- through persistent critiques about how you are falling short in your mothering. Maybe it declares you don't spend enough time with the kids, or earn enough to give them all they deserve. Maybe it harps on you about not packing the lunches or pureeing the baby food or having a happier marriage for your kids to see.

Here are the clues that you are hearing the voice of your inner critic feeding you with Mommy Guilt:

  • You feel as if you hear this voice in your head, rather than that you are consciously authoring what it says.
  • The voice is often anxious and frantic.
  • The voice says things you know are untrue, but they still get to you.
  • The voice is repetitive, like a broken record.
  • The things you are hearing about yourself are not things to you would say to someone you cared about.
  • Ironically, this voice attacks you for having self-critical thoughts! That sounds like this: "Joan (or fill in your name here), you are failing as a mother. You are not being there for your kids ... Joan, get a grip. You know that's not true. You are so insecure! So neurotic." Or, this voice will beat you up and then compare your insides to other moms' outsides: "No one else is thinking these kinds of things. Just look at Eleanor over there relaxing and having a great time."
  • The voice may be a version of external critics from your life. It may echo mom or Aunt Susie or your mean second grade teacher.

Mommy Wisdom

Then there's Mommy Wisdom. Mommy Wisdom speaks in a different voice and it comes from a different place in you. Mommy wisdom brings you important information about what your kids need, what you need, and where something in your parenting needs course correcting.

Here are a few clues that can help you recognize Mommy Wisdom:

  • It's quieter. The inner critic blares in your head. Inner wisdom frequently needs time, space and downtime to emerge. It may require time in the tub, or a long walk, journaling or an honest chat with friends in order to rise to the surface. While the inner critic often speaks frantically or anxiously, inner wisdom speaks slowly, with confidence and calm.
  • It doesn't come from the left brain. Rather than being based in language and thought, inner wisdom often shows up as a gut feeling, a sensation in your body, an emotion in your heart, or a wordless knowing.
  • It's about solutions and moving forward. Inner wisdom swiftly moves you into action and problem-solving. The inner critic will say 500 times over "You should be spending more time with the kids. You should be spending more time with the kids." Inner Wisdom will quietly knock on the door of your consciousness and say, "Something is off. The kids need more time with you. Quiet, home-based unstructured time with you." Then you'll be free to go and make that happen -- not stuck in a hamster wheel of self-critique.
  • It's kind. Because it's about solutions, inner wisdom won't beat you up. It will just share the information and let you use it. It's about the insight -- not about an evaluation of you.
  • All may not be revealed. The inner critic tends to talk in definite pronouncements. It's a know-it-all. Inner wisdom sometimes reveals only fragments of information, feelings that aren't quite clear yet.

Cultivating Mommy Wisdom, Bypassing Mommy Guilt

Where is Mommy Guilt showing up in your life? What is that repetitive, mean-spirited voice saying to you about your mothering?

Once you know the voice of Mommy Guilt, you can identify it when you hear it. It's much easier to not take its critiques too seriously. More about how to do that -- how to quiet the inner critic -- here.

Where is Mommy Wisdom showing up in your life right now, whispering about something important that's needed in your mothering or for your kids? What is it whispering? What helps you slow down and open up to Mommy Wisdom?

This is the work of every mother: getting to know how her own inner critic shows up and what the voice of senseless Mommy Guilt sounds like in her head, so that it doesn't diminish her confidence, distract her from the real work of parenting or keep her from celebrating her life. And this is the work of every mother: to know what her own wisdom sounds like, to remember it's there, deep and pure and infallible, and to create the conditions in her life that allow her to hear it speak.

Tara Mohr is a coach, writer, and the creator of Wise Living. Her work focuses on helping brilliant women create knock-the-ball-out-of-the-park lives. You can receive her free Goals Guide, "Turning Your Goals Upside Down and Inside Out (To Get What You Really Want)" by clicking here.