It was a clear fall day and time for a nap for my two-year-old. I crossed my fingers for an easy naptime because I had work to finish. Unfortunately, I had no such luck. She whined relentlessly. She came downstairs and I brought her back up—again and again. She was clearly exhausted and needed a nap. I needed this naptime. My temper rose. Upstairs, she started to throw things and open the door. Finally, I lost it. I went upstairs, shaking with frustration and feeling helpless. I grabbed her arms to put her on the bed—but I was too rough. Her fear was obvious. I felt her little arms beneath my strong hands and I realized, “This is how parents hurt their children. Oh. My. God.” Letting go, I left the room in tears.
As my tears flowed, my critical mind stepped in: “What’s wrong with me? How could I do that? I’m a horrible mother,” and on and on. My thoughts were harsh and bitter; I was saying things to myself that I would never say to another person. Did it help? No. It left me feeling weak, isolated, and incapable. We managed to get through the afternoon and eventually she curled up on the floor for a nap.
Our Inner Voice Matters
How we talk to ourselves after our mistakes can shape whether we shrink or grow from the experience. What we say to ourselves in the privacy of our own thoughts really matters. Why? To borrow a metaphor from best-selling self-help author, Wayne Dyer, “If I have an orange, what will come out when I squeeze it? Juice, of course. But what kind of juice will come out? Not pomegranate or kiwi. Orange juice. And like that orange, when we are squeezed, what’s is inside is what will come out.”
What comes out of you when you are squeezed? That inner evil stepmother? If your inner voice is harsh and critical, then, unfortunately, that’s what’s likely to come out with your children too.
Negative self-talk and self-shaming don’t make us more effective or more peaceful parents. In fact, it does the reverse. Shame leaves us feeling trapped, powerless and isolated. When we feel like that, we’re not able to bring a kind and compassionate presence with our children.
Shame Doesn’t Help
Researcher Brené Brown has helped us understand the difference between guilt and shame. Shame is a feeling of badness about the self. Guilt is about behavior—a feeling of ‘conscience’ from having done something wrong or against your values. Her research has shown that guilt can be helpful and adaptive, while shame is destructive and doesn’t help us change our behavior. As she puts it, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
When you feel like a terrible person, it’s almost impossible to empower yourself to make a change.
Furthermore, if we want our children to have self-compassion, we must model it. For example, if I have the habit of self-shaming, they will pick that up. Our kids may not be so great at doing what we say, but they are great at doing what we do. This is how harmful generational patterns are passed down.
The good news is that this harmful way of responding to ourselves is optional. We have a choice. We can choose to bring kindness and self-compassion to our suffering instead.
The Self-Compassion Cure
Imagine if, instead of self-shaming, we could offer ourselves the kindness and understanding of a good friend. How might that change things? Research is showing that this approach helps us grow and learn from our own mistakes better than the old paradigm of condemnation. Kristin Neff, researcher, author, and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has dedicated her life’s work to the study of compassion and self-compassion. She writes, “These are not just ‘nice’ ideas. There is an ever-increasing body of research that attests to the motivational power of self-compassion. Self-compassionate people set high standards for themselves, but they aren’t as upset when they don’t meet their goals. Instead, research shows that they’re more likely to set new goals for themselves after failure rather than wallowing in feelings of frustration and disappointment. Self-compassionate people are more likely to take responsibility for their past mistakes while acknowledging them with greater emotional equanimity.”
How To Talk To Yourself
Neff breaks self-compassion down into three elements: kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. We can start by practicing self-kindness instead of self-judgment. Instead of being your harshest critic, I want you to practice to be your own best friend. In those difficult moments when you’ve not lived up to your standards, practice offering yourself kindness.
The second element of self-compassion is recognizing that we are not the only one who makes mistakes. The truth is that we are all mistake-making humans and imperfect parents. Our imperfections are what make us human. As you know, there are certainly moments when I—a “Mindful Mama Mentor” have made mistakes with my children I regret. It’s time to recognize that none of us is alone in this.
Finally, in order to be compassionate with ourselves, we have to recognize, through mindfulness, that we are suffering. Practice noticing the thoughts that arise and to remain objective about them. Once we notice these thoughts, we can choose another way—offering ourselves compassion and kindness when we don’t meet our standards. Mindfulness helps us to not get caught up in and swept away by our negative reactions.
Cultivating awareness of your inner voice and practicing self-kindness (dare I say love?) can have a deep and lasting impact on your relationship with your child. We are half of the parent-child relationship. It’s time to take responsibility for what we are bringing to the table. Who you are as a person inside counts quite a lot in terms of who you want your children to be.