How to Let Go of Single Parent Guilt

10 Ways to Short Circuit Self-Imposed Guilt

Mom hugging her son
Photo © skynesher/Getty Images

Single parent guilt plagues a lot of solo moms and dads. Whether you feel guilty that you didn't stay with your ex for the sake of your kids, or you feel bad about needing some "me time" once in a while, it's important to acknowledge and process your feelings. Otherwise, they'll continue to drag you down and get in the way of living up to your true potential. So the next time you feel that old sense of guilt creeping up on you, use these tips to short circuit those unwelcome negative emotions:

  1. Identify what you're really feeling guilty about. Guilt usually comes from a sense that we've done something wrong—either intentionally or accidentally—or that we've neglected to do something. Sometimes it's a sense that we've failed to fulfill an obligation or live up to a responsibility. Identifying what's really at the root of the guilt you're dealing with will help you decide how to move forward. 
  2. Consider whether the feelings of guilt are warranted. Be frank with yourself. Is what you're dealing with an issue that you should legitimately feel guilty about? If not, take steps toward letting it go. This may include retraining your thought process so that you don't try to "own" things you have no control over, like other people's actions.
  3. If the guilt is legitimate, identify steps you can take to rectify the situation. In situations where you know you messed up, apologize. It can go a long way toward restoring trust and alleviating the guilt you've been carrying.
  1. If the guilt is not related to something you can change, identify steps you can take to move forward. Particularly if you're feeling guilty about things that aren't yours to own, it may help to discuss your feelings with a trained therapist or counselor. A well-qualified professional can help you create new thought patterns to replace the old habit of taking responsibility for others' actions. 
  1. Differentiate guilt from sadness. Naming your feelings will help you deal with them more effectively. For example, if you're feeling sad for your kids because your ex canceled a visit, that's different from feeling guilty about your ex's choices. Naming how you really feel can help you avoid subconsciously taking responsibility for other people's behavior.
  2. Change your self-talk. Consider what you would say to your best friend if he or she were feeling this way. You'd probably respond with much more compassion than you have for yourself. Sit down and write a letter to yourself as if you were talking to that friend. What kind words of encouragement would you share?
  3. Ask yourself whether your guilt is helping or hurting your kids. As a single parent, guilt that paralyzes you can get in the way of meeting your kids' physical and emotional needs. So it's even more important that you deal with your feelings in ways that are healthy for your whole family -- all the more reason to speak with a professional if the guilt you feel either isn't yours to own or is getting in the way of living your life.
  1. Look for tangible ways to forgive yourself. If you've been beating yourself up about past decisions, be forgiving. You're allowed to make mistakes. And whatever choices you made, you made them in the moment with the information you had at the time, and you probably made them with the best intentions in mind. Even if there are things you wish you could change, be gentle with yourself as you heal and begin moving forward.
  2. Consider whether your sense of guilt is masking anxiety or depression. It's not uncommon for depression and/or anxiety to manifest as self-imposed guilt. Particularly if you're starting to realize that you're feeling guilty about things that aren't yours to own, seeking professional help could accelerate your healing.
  3. Focus on your kids. Ask yourself what your kids need from you right now. Dedicating your full attention to their emotional and physical well-being can redirect your attention in healthy ways.

Finally, allow yourself time to heal. The guilt you feel right now—whether it's warranted or not—won't always feel as intense as it does today. Spending time writing in a journal, going for a walk, or sharing your emotions with a friend will help to accelerate your healing, as well.