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Key Takeaways: Managing Guilt Q&A with Vanessa Zinke

April 16th, 2023  | News  | Resources


Many HIE community members are no strangers to guilt, which is one of the most common emotions people face in the aftermath of trauma. Whether it’s guilt about not doing enough to prevent HIE, or feelings of blame towards oneself or others, managing these complex emotions can be a significant challenge.

Fortunately, we held a live Q&A with our licensed social worker, Vanessa Zinke, where she lent her expertise on understanding and managing guilt [and all the other emotions that come with it!] Read on to explore some of the key takeaways from this session!

Key Takeaway 1: Guilt and trauma are best friends

As Vanessa explains, guilt and trauma are intertwined – they spend a lot of time together, and it is easy to understand why! Trauma is the occurrence of an unexpected or unfair situation outside of our control, and in many ways, guilt is a form of protection in the face or aftermath of that trauma. It helps us make sense of an unpredictable event by giving it meaning and providing us with a semblance of control. 

Trauma does result in common threads of guilt throughout this community. Survivor’s guilt is an especially prominent topic in support groups: parents who have experienced trauma related to birth or an HIE-inducing event in childhood often feel responsible for their child’s condition or outcome. Similarly, mothers may experience guilt about their birth choices or plans. This guilt stems from the feeling that they made the wrong decision or didn’t do enough to ensure a safe and healthy birth, even if these decisions were made with the best intentions and based on the information available at the time.

Key Takeaway 2: guilt can often internalize into shame

While guilt can be a natural response to trauma, it has the power to internalize as feelings of shame. These two emotions feed off one another and can alter the core values we have of ourselves. When we experience shame, it may prevent us from feeling worthy of love and support, making guilt even harder to manage in a healthy way.

For instance, guilt reads as:

  • “I could have made a different choice…” 
  • “I made the wrong decision about…” 
  • “If only I had or hadn’t done…”

Whereas shame reads as…

  • “I am a bad person…” 
  • “I am not a good parent…”
  • “I am unworthy of love, empathy, or support…”

Key Takeaway 3: To help minimize guilt, try and foster connection over comparison

In general, a culture of comparison is a social environment where people feel pressured to compare themselves or their children to others in terms of their achievements, appearance, status, and other attributes. HIE community members are particularly susceptible to a culture of comparison due to the nature and range of their child’s HIE condition. Vanessa explains that many parents compare their child’s progress to that of other children in the HIE community, leading to feelings of inadequacy or failure if their child is not progressing at the same rate. On the other hand, parents compare their own coping mechanisms and ability to manage their emotions with those of other parents, leading to a sense of guilt or shame if they feel they are not handling the situation as well as others.

Either way, this uncertainty leads to heightened anxiety, an increased desire for control, and additional stress for families who are already dealing with significant and emotionally-taxing experiences. Vanessa explains that a coping mechanism she has seen parents use is to purposefully alienate themselves or self-select out of social experiences that have the power to provide them with the much-needed support or empathy they need and deserve to have. 

It is important for parents and caregivers to recognize the impact of this culture and work to cultivate a supportive and non-judgmental community that emphasizes compassion, understanding, and shared experiences rather than comparison, competition, and guilt.

Key Takeaway 4: While it’s not always easy, guilt is manageable!

While guilt may be hard to overcome, it is manageable, especially with the right strategies and support systems in place! Vanessa recommends taking the following steps at home: 

  • Allow yourself to feel it. Suppressing or denying guilt can prolong the healing process and may even lead to more negative emotions, such as shame and self-blame. Recognizing guilt as a form of protection and an attempt to gain meaning and control can help you better understand your emotions and take steps toward healing.

  • Give yourself grace, kindness, and compassion. Understand that guilt coincides with grief and that you are entitled to hard days. When you are able or ready, try and practice self-love or self-care as a step toward healing or recovery.

  • Talk about it. Shame and guilt are fueled by secrecy and harsh internal thoughts. Vanessa recommends finding a trusted friend, family member, or professional to talk to and help provide you with relief, forgiveness, or understanding.

  • Reframe your mindset. Actively seeking out moments of meaning, gratitude, or joy in your day can help you shift your mindset away from feelings of guilt and toward more positive emotions. For more strategies to help with this, read our next takeaway!

Key Takeaway 5: There are tangible ways to help reframe your mindset, but choose one that you believe will set you up for success!

Reframing guilt with small and achievable steps is proven more effective when they match your personal style and preference. Vanessa recommends the following tangible steps you can take to help shift your mindset: 

  • Guided prompt journals or notebooks. These journals provide prompts that encourage you to reflect on your emotions, experiences, and values. Writing down your thoughts can give you insight into your feelings and can provide a sense of release. It can also help you recognize patterns and triggers that lead to feelings of guilt and shame.

  • Look for daily examples of gratitude. Finding and stating 3 things you are grateful for every day can help you build a positive outlook.

  • Take one picture a day of something that brings you joy. This programs your brain to purposefully and actively look for “good” in your life!

  • Engage in nightly reflection. This is a simple but effective way to manage guilt, as it can help you focus on your progress and provide you with a sense of understanding or closure.

Key Takeaway 6: When it comes to communicating your needs to others, be sure to acknowledge your energy and reserve

At the end of the day, you have to put your needs and your family’s needs first, but you can only do so much! Trauma is unexpected, and the aftermath of it does have the potential to hinder your ability to communicate your needs to others and to ask for help. When your energy or reserve is low, here are some ways to tell others what you need or how they can support you: 

  • Directly and explicitly state your needs. Clearly communicating what you or your family needs and how others can help leads to the establishment of healthy and necessary boundaries with others.

  • Offer concrete ways for others to help. This can be as simple as someone making you a meal or doing your laundry. For those who are unsure of what to do or say but still want to help, this is a great way for them to offer their assistance!

  • Remember that “no” is a full sentence at times. It is important not to feel pressured to justify or rationalize decisions others may not understand. Everyone has different experiences and perspectives, and it is okay to prioritize your and your family’s needs. 

  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable. While scary, this can open doors to support and empathy. Sharing your feelings and experiences with trusted individuals can help build relationships and foster a sense of community.

Key Takeaway 7: Guilt is natural, but when is it too much?

Guilt is a common and natural emotional response to traumatic events. It can be a healthy emotion when managed effectively; however, there are tell-tale signs that your guilt may be to the point of considering additional help or support. 

  • Consistently impacted day-to-day functioning. It is normal to take breaks and have bad days, but if guilt is consistently impacting your ability to carry out daily tasks, such as work or caring for yourself and loved ones, it may be time to seek help. This could include therapy, counseling, or joining support groups, which can provide you with tools and techniques to manage overwhelming emotions and improve day-to-day functioning.

  • Severely or consistently strained, tense, or stressful relationships. Guilt can strain relationships, particularly with family and friends who may struggle to understand what you’re going through. If relationships are consistently tense or stressful due to feelings of guilt, it may be helpful to seek more support from someone who can provide guidance on how to communicate effectively and repair these relationships.

  • Difficulty finding meaning and joy in your daily life. If you’re feeling stuck in negative emotions and find it hard to find and feel even small moments of happiness or joy in your day-to-day life, seeking additional help may be a great first step!

Key Takeaway 8: Besides Hope for HIE, Vanessa recommends these helpful tools and resources to manage guilt and grief:

  • Courageous Parents Network. Their mission is to provide comfort, support, and resources to parents and families caring for children with serious illnesses, focusing on improving their quality of life and overall well-being. They also have a wonderful resource on anticipatory grief for you to look at!

  • Centerstone. They strive to improve behavioral health and well-being through exceptional healthcare services, research, and education. They have a detailed blog on navigating survivor’s guilt, a common emotion/experience in the HIE community.

  • What’s your Grief? This organization offers grief articles, courses, and resources for community sharing to help people navigate their grief journeys.

  • The Dougy Center. This resource is more grief-based, as it aims to provide support in a safe place where children, teens, and families who are grieving a death can share their experiences as they learn to cope with their loss. The center provides peer support groups, training, and resources for individuals and communities.

  • Postpartum Support International. They promote awareness, prevention, and treatment of mental health issues related to childbirth. They provide resources, education, and support to families and professionals dealing with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including depression and anxiety during pregnancy, postpartum depression, and postpartum psychosis.

Be sure to watch the full LIVE Q&A on our Youtube Channel!



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