Question: When my kids were younger, I had very little patience and lots of stress in my life. I used to vent all my frustrations in fits of screaming and rage. (I know, I know. So awful.) I’ve learned some better ways to deal with my stressors, but I still find myself getting loud occasionally, and I get scared of the “mean mommy” coming back. I’m carrying a lot of guilt for my past parenting; how I can move on from being self-critical?
Answer: It is good to hear you’ve learned some better ways of coping with stress. I’ll tell you what has helped me the most in life to stop beating myself up – self-compassion. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three parts: first, you notice your own suffering (especially when it’s coming from our own self-criticism); then, you are kind to yourself in the face of that suffering; and finally, you remind yourself that suffering is part of the human experience and that your feelings are totally normal.
Too often we judge our own needs harshly. We say to ourselves, “Why is this so hard for me?” or “I have no right to complain.” This kind of self-talk shuts us down by disconnecting us from our feelings. I’m not suggesting we whine or wallow in our struggles, merely that we acknowledge them in a non-dramatic way; take a moment to just notice what we are feeling and what we are saying to ourselves about those feelings. A great analogy I heard about this was from Teresa Graham Brett. She says, when we need a drink, we don’t judge our body for being thirsty. So, when you feel like you need a break or you’re at your limit with something, why judge that need? Treat it like you would your thirst. If you’re thirsty, you get a drink. If you need a break, you give yourself a break. By acknowledging what you need, you can then give yourself some self-care or self-love. It’s about taking responsibility for meeting your own needs in a mature and gentle way. That acknowledgement takes care of the first step in self-compassion; noticing your suffering.
The truth is, we can’t always get what we need when we need it. But we can always take care of ourselves by accepting what our needs and limitations are. I call it Mothering Myself. I recognize those times when I have to nurture and take care of that child/person inside me who is kicking, screaming, scared, hiding, sad and/or resistant. There is an aspect of visualization to it for me. I actually see and hear a mother-self who speaks gently and reassuringly to me. I think this technique works so well because it offers a witness to my struggles. Since I do the bulk of my parenting at home with no other adult there with me, it can feel extremely isolating at times. There are times that I desperately want to turn to someone and say, “You see? You see what I’m dealing with? How hard this is!” My “witness” to these difficult moments is the wise mother-self who is not attached to my anger, frustration, or sadness. She is there to calmly perceive the whole situation and to offer her clarity, calmness, and centeredness. The idea of a Witness Self is common in many religions, though for me at this point in my life, its purpose is more functional.
I may use this technique whilst in the middle of a major toddler meltdown. I hear the voice telling me, “This is really hard right now. It’s going to be OK. You’ll get through this.” That fulfills the second aspect of self-compassion: being kind to yourself in the face of suffering. I may use it at the end of a long, exhausting day when all I want to do is run away. I hear the voice telling me, “Everyone has days like this; you’re not a terrible mom for thinking this way.” There I have used the last aspect of self-compassion by connecting my experience to the human experience we all share.
Somehow – and I don’t quite understand it – that ability to notice my own feelings and give myself comfort expands my capacity to respond to the needs of my children in calm, comforting ways – without judgment, impatience, resistance, or urgency.
It is the single biggest thing that has helped me as a parent.
If your inner-voice leans toward the self-critical or if you just need to be a little gentler with yourself, I urge you to try self-compassion. The great thing about it is that it is always there and available to you.
Julia Cadieux, a PCI Certified Parent Coach and Capital District mom, helps other parents look within for the answers they seek and believes there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to child-rearing. Send you questions and comments to [email protected].