Don't Let Your "Divorce Guilt" be Your Undoing

Those of us who have been through divorce often struggle with low-self esteem, keeping ourselves stuck in a guilty, unworthy place.
05/10/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

"Ellen" knew it was wrong to not show up. Her daughter, "Sara," had so looked forward to this day. Ellen knew that helping Sara select a wedding gown should have been a special moment in both of their lives. In fact, Sara had made a special point of including Ellen, along with her father's new wife and the groom's mother. But Ellen was embarassed that she was not in a position to pay for the dress and could only make a paltry financial contribution to the wedding. Her ex-husband was hosting the nuptials.

Ellen was still blaming herself, not only for leaving Sara's father, but for neglecting Sara during that horrible time. Ellen had been terribly self-absorbed and couldn't find her way. She had been so caught up by her bitterness and personal problems that she had let her daughter largely fend for herself. It had bothered Ellen that she lived from paycheck to paycheck, and hadn't been a better provider. She had worked hard to provide for the two of them but she couldn't help but feel that the life she offered Sara never compared to the life offered by her ex-husband.

Sara had assured Ellen many times that she understood, and was proud of the steps her mother had taken. But Ellen could not forgive herself for letting Sara down. She had backed away from the wedding festivities feeling unworthy, ashamed and guilty.

Ellen clearly could not forgive herself for breaking up their family and causing hurt to her daughter at a formative time. What would it take for her to truly forgive herself? Ellen had held herself up to an impossibly high standard and had trouble believing the steps she had taken to improve her life would ever be sufficient to undo the damage she'd caused.

Sara had clearly reached out to her mother to support her on this special day. She seemed willing to let go of any hurt or lingering resentments, but Ellen's inability to forgive herself only served to further perpetuate the pain the two were feeling. Ellen's shame kept her locked in an unreachable place, shutting her daughter out.

Those of us who have been through divorce often struggle with low-self esteem, keeping ourselves stuck in a guilty, unworthy place. We have difficulty believing we are entitled to be forgiven, even if we make genuine efforts to address our wrongs and the other person is ultimately willing to let it go. Ellen clearly has had difficulty believing that she could be loved for herself. A person's worth is not measured by their financial successes. Much more important are the ways we give from our hearts -- something which cannot be measured in dollar signs.

All of us have made mistakes at some time or other. We can learn a great deal from our disappointments and failings. When a person, in fact, has truly hurt another with their actions, the guilt they feel may be appropriate and probably necessary. To accept responsibility for hurting others and to seek amends can be a tremendous healing process for all parties. And there are important steps one can take to let go of the self-loathing and regret. Giving the other person the opportunity to speak openly about the pain, and remaining committed to supporting them going forward demonstrates a true willingness to forge a more responsive, mutual relationship.

Guilt can be an important standard that helps us clarify a moral compass so we can stay on track and conduct ourselves in ways we feel good about. This guilt is actually healthy because it often guides us to behave in socially acceptable ways and curbs an impulse to act out in a way that could have dire negative consequences.

Excessive guilt can paralyze us and keep us stuck in a negative, immobilized place. While guilt may be a catalyst to focus on our behavior, shame emphasizes what we believe is wrong in ourselves. This may unfortunately lead to a path where people turn inward with self-loathing. They may then be stripped of tools that would enable them to have any hope that life could be improved, or that they would ever be deemed worthy of acceptance by others.

The irony is that holding onto guilt further intensifies the hurt, because the guilty person often retreats into an ashamed, shut-off place, further denying the other warmth and consideration going forward. If Ellen takes steps to forgive herself, she might be able to stand tall and reach out to Sara in a more loving way. Sharing in the joy of this special occasion can prove to be a powerful bonding opportunity for mother and daughter.

Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her office at 561 630 2827, or online at