The one thing all conscious parents must have, I’ve learned, is self-compassion. As we become increasingly aware of the deep impact of our words and actions upon our children, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of guilt and shame each time we miss the mark. We can put so much pressure on ourselves to be ever-present, aware, attuned, emotionally regulated, and self-controlled that anything less than perfection can feel like complete failure.
On her website, www.self-compassion.org, Dr. Kristin Neff defines compassion as having 3 parts:
- A notice of suffering
- A feeling moved to respond with warmth, caring, and a desire to help the suffering person, offering understanding and kindness rather than judging harshly, and
- A realizing that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of being human.
Therefore, self-compassion is acting the same way toward yourself when you fail or are imperfect. She says, “Having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness.”
Brene Brown, world-renowned researcher and author of The Gifts of Imperfection, says that self-compassion and forgiveness is one of the 10 guideposts of engaged parenting that emerged from her parenting research. She admits something that I can identify with very much, which is this: “I always thought that teaching [my children] self-love was mandatory and figuring it out in my own life was optimal but optional. This research has forced me to let go of that idea.”
I’ll be honest. I hate to let that idea go. I’ve already had to do so much inner work to be a conscious parent, and now I’m having to take on this, too. My inner critic is ruthless. She berates me on the smallest of things. Nothing ramps up feeling the need to be a perfect parent like being a parenting book author!
Even though my heart knows this journey is about progress, not perfection, my mind has a difficult time accepting that I’ll never get it 100% right. Yet there is one truth I know, and that Brene has reinforced, which is if I want my children to live it, I must show them how, not tell them how. With that in mind, I’ve turned back to Dr. Kristin Neff and her self-compassion exercises.
Exercise #1: Exploring Self-Compassion through Writing
In this exercise, Neff asks which imperfections make you feel inadequate – something what causes shame or makes you feel like you’re not “good enough.”
She advises to write about the issue that makes you feel inadequate and notice what emotions come up when you think about this aspect of yourself. Next, write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend. What would this friend say to you? In your letter, convey acceptance, understanding, and kindness.
The third part of this exercise is to then walk away from the letter for a while after you’ve written it, coming back later to read it again while letting the words sink in. Allow the compassion to pour in, comforting you.
Exercise #2: Self-Compassion Break
Think of a situation in your life that is causing you stress. Bring it to your awareness and actually feel the emotional discomfort. Say to yourself “this hurts” or “this is a moment of suffering.” This is being mindful of your situation. Next, put your hands over your heart and just acknowledge that you are not alone, and that we all struggle at times.
Then, practice repeating whichever phrase feels the most soothing to you. Examples are “may I be kind to myself,” “may I forgive myself,” and “may I be strong.”
Exercise #3: Changing Your Critical Self-Talk
Repeat these steps over a period of several weeks to transform how you treat yourself.
- Notice when you are being self-critical. Note your inner speech. What is the tone of your voice? Does this voice remind you of anyone in your past? Get to know your inner-critic well.
- Soften the self-critical voice with compassion. You might say, “I know you feel worried about me, but you are hurting me.” Then allow your compassionate self to speak.
- Reframe the observations made by your inner critic in a friendly, positive way. That might sound like this: “I’m feeling exhausted and need to rest. I snapped at my child because she got out of bed again and now I feel bad. I will go and apologize to her, give her a warm hug, and then I’ll set aside my to-do list and take 30 minutes to read my book. I deserve to be taken care of, too.”
It’s true that parenting is hard work, but it isn’t growing the children that is so difficult. It’s growing ourselves. If you and I put in the work now to silence the inner critic and cultivate self-compassion, not only will we benefit, but our children will to.
Wouldn’t it be nice for them to grow up and not have to work so hard at loving themselves?
**This post was originally published at Creative Child Magazine. For more of my positive parenting articles at Creative Child, click here.