How often do you beat yourself up for being a bad parent? Perhaps your son got a bad grade in a test and you regret saying something harsh. Or you missed your daughter’s school play and a voice in your head keeps telling you you’re an awful parent.
Being a parent involves taking care of another human 24/7. No matter how hard you try, you’ll inevitably find yourself struggling – leading you to do something that makes you cringe later. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes fail to meet your own expectations and that’s when our inner self-critic takes over.
By practicing self-compassion, one can break free from this cycle of negativity. Self-compassion is the practice of treating ourselves kindly, recognizing our common humanity and being mindful of our thoughts and feelings. According to research, parents of children who suffer from developmental disabilities have lower levels of depression and stress when they practice self-compassion.
So how does one practice self-compassion as a parent? Here are four ways:
Know the difference between self-compassion and self-indulgence.
A major force that blocks people’s ability to care for themselves is their misunderstanding of the term “self-compassion.” Despite the fact that we have an innate capacity towards empathy and compassion, people resist practicing self-compassion because they believe it means being self-indulgent. They assume self-compassion means being too soft on yourself, letting yourself get away with laziness and giving in to indulgences. To counter this, they practice self-criticism to keep themselves in check.
Here’s how the two are different: Self-indulgence involves suppressing or turning away from what you’re feeling by distracting yourself with television, food etc. in an attempt to feel better, whereas self-compassion requires turning towards what you’re feeling with care and love. The former approach is more short-sighted – it makes us feel good in the short term but results in negative consequences in the long term, whereas the latter is the opposite. Self-compassion helps you identify your feelings and recognize that you’re not the only one suffering.
Once you understand the difference between the two, it becomes much easier to respond kindly and honestly to yourself. So next time you feel like beating yourself up for a parenting mistake, pause for a moment and ask yourself about the most compassionate step you can take next.
Which brings us to the next point…
Acknowledge and accept your emotions:
When negative emotions such as shame and guilt arise, most parents respond by either suppressing them or by beating themselves up with harsh self-talk. Both are harmful for your and your children’s your wellbeing.
The first step towards practicing self-compassion is acknowledging your emotions. If you’ve just yelled at your child and are now feeling bad about it, say “I feel guilty” out loud. Once you become aware of your emotions, monitor how you feel non-judgmentally. Realize the impermanence of these feelings, observe and witness them with patience and kind attention. Try and go to the root of the feeling to gain insight and empathy. Understand that all parents go through this – you’re not alone. Learn to forgive yourself and learn from your mistakes.
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., self-compassionate people are less afraid of failure and thus more opening to learning. If you know your inner voice is going to berate and insult you every time you make a mistake, you’ll be afraid of failing. However, if your inner voice is encouraging and forgiving, you’ll not only be compassionate to yourself and your children, you’ll be more open to trying new things and learning from your mistakes. Research says practicing self-compassion as a parent not only helps parents’ own mental health but is also beneficial for the child’s development.
Change your critical self-talk:
You may have become so accustomed to belittling yourself that you hardly notice you’re doing it. So it helps to pay attention to your words when you speak to yourself during this time. Next time you catch your inner self-critic berating you, become aware of the voice in your head. Notice the words and phrases you use as well as the tone of your thoughts. Now ask yourself, would you ever treat a friend this way?
Soften your inner critic by doing this exercise: Imagine that a friend of yours made the same mistake you just did and came to you for help. Would you insult them the way you were insulting yourself? What would you say to your friend? Notice the difference between your response to yourself and your friend. Now replace your friend with yourself and give yourself the same kind and forgiving attention. Treat yourself the way you would treat a friend and see what happens.
Establishing a daily mindfulness practice:
We often get swept up in a barrage of self-criticism and give in easily to our negative thoughts. Mindfulness is the antidote to that. Mindfulness, or the state of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, is an innate capacity we all have. However, most people, especially busy parents find it hard to focus their attention on the present moment, always worrying about the next item in the to-do list.
Fortunately, you can train yourself to be more mindful by taking 15 to 30 minutes out of your day to establish a daily practice. Rest your mind, give space to just ‘being’ rather than ‘doing.’ Nourish yourself by paying particular attention to something simple, like your breathing. Simply observe yourself, without judgement or thought.
Once you make this a daily practice, it will begin to seep into the rest of your day and your approach toward yourself and your children will become more mindful and compassionate. This takes time and effort but can be enormously transformative, making parenting more joyful and less of a chore.
Know that the greatest gift we can give our children is our full presence. But we must begin with ourselves first. By practicing mindfulness and self-compassion ourselves, we can model this capacity for our children, helping them thrive in life.
By: Sania Lali