We parents are quite busy taking care of things. One glance at our bulging to-do lists reveals references to kids, work, family and spouse (often in that order) as we try to get it all done.
We might be able to ease the stress temporarily, but that’s not going to solve the unease that often underlies it.
More and more I find myself turning to a new area of psychology research called self-compassion. It appears to go a long way towards reducing symptoms of stress and unhappiness.
Psychologist Kristin Neff spearheaded research that found “people who are more self-compassionate lead healthier and more productive lives than those who are self-critical… Many people believe that they need to be self-critical to motivate themselves, but in fact they just end up feeling anxious, incompetent and depressed.”
Self-compassion is hard for some people to embrace because it sounds self-indulgent. This is a misnomer because practicing self-compassion actually gives us an incentive to try, not because we want to be the best but simply because we care about ourselves. Interestingly, most people find it is easier to care for others then to be kind to themselves.
When I meet with parents, we spend time looking at the messages they are sending themselves. They are often saying things that they wouldn’t say to their own worst enemy. Phrases such as “What a stupid mistake” or “Can’t you get anything right?” pepper their brains and wreak a kind of personal havoc on their own inner world.
Identifying this negative self-talk is an important first step in self-compassion. Once you start noticing what you are telling yourself there is space to do something different. Ask yourself, “What would I say to my friend or my sister, if they made a mistake?” Often that is the very thing we need to start saying to ourselves.
In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brené Brown, a writer and research professor did an about-face when she discovered through her research that, “knowledge is important but only if we are being kind and gentle with ourselves as we work to discover who we are.” This finding caused Brown to rethink her life and her priorities. A glimpse at the chapter headings in her book can give you a sense of what she now values most: Authenticity, letting go, play and rest, calm and stillness, meaningful work, and creativity. Now that’s a to-do list I think we can all live with.
As parents, we have the best incentive in the world to start being kind to ourselves: Our children. Living a life where we treat ourselves well would be a wonderful example for them to see.
Guest blogger Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker in Northwest D.C. who works with parents.