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Why self-compassion must come first: A note for parents

Although I usually write about useful ways to handle the challenges of parenthood to help parents shape their children’s behavior, today I want to talk more about the inner experience of parents with the extra weight of responsibility for other human beings on your shoulders.

As I often say, parenting is a very challenging job, a task with no defined end goal (children remain our kids for the rest of our lives and theirs). Oftentimes we as parents feel anxiety, insecurity, and immense doubt in the decisions we make for the sake of our children. We struggle when they struggle, and we are anxious because we see their difficulties or anticipate these. We often cave and feel not good enough compared to other parents.

In this context a very important concept in the attachment parenting seems particularly relevant: a “good enough parent”. The idea behind it is that our children do not need perfect parents; just good enough. This thought is very self-liberating as it reduces anxiety related to parenting, offers many second and third and fourth chances for repair and paves the road for self-compassion.

Self-compassion is exactly what we need to overcome anxiety and continue being good enough parents, the parents we would like our children to remember. When we can be kinder to ourselves, we are less anxious, more forgiving, and consequently, more patient towards others, first and foremost, to our family members and loved ones. The question is how does one learn to be kinder to themselves?

Compassion starts with allowing ourselves to feel the entire spectrum of emotions we may experience at any given moment. You allow yourself to feel anger, fear, grief, or annoyance, and not just happiness, joy or excitement. We teach our children or at least try to convey the message that all feelings are allowed and accepted. Yet, are you allowing yourself to experience and accept the more difficult emotions? Because the realization that you experience a difficult feeling is the first step towards the feeling of inner peace we seek.

The next step will be the recognition that such feelings are transitionary and are not permanent – they too shall pass. It is your lived experience at this moment in time, and thus there is no need to cloak it in exaggeration (“This is the worst thing that could happen”; “I will never be happy again”). If we believe that each emotional state is temporary, we will not surrender to fear and despair and will be able to tolerate the pain much better. Because once we can tolerate fear or pain, we are able to start self-soothing and move towards changing our response and behavior. Therefore, self-compassion is a much better alternative to self-criticism which not only releases stress hormones and lowers resilience, but also paralyzes us. In contrast, self-compassion allows us to be less afraid of failures and judgment, be more accountable and change our behavior. Furthermore, research shows that people who are self-compassionate are also less prone to anxiety and depression.

So how can you start practicing self-compassion to battle the inevitable anxiety that oftentimes threatens to flood our daily existence? Start with being gentler and forgiving to yourself: When you catch yourself thinking “I am a total mess”, silence your inner critic by allowing yourself to feel: “Everyone experiences anxiety at times; it does not feel good now, but I will feel better”.

Once you have allowed yourself to feel the emotion without guilt or negativity, ask yourself: “What do I need right now to feel better? What can I do?” Perhaps you need to be alone? To talk to someone? A hug? A relaxing bath or a walk outside? Something delicious to eat or listen to a relaxing music? To go out and help others by volunteering? Stand for what you believe in and make your voice heard? Reach out to friends or family who are struggling or suffering? Altruism frequently is the best remedy for feelings of loss, powerlessness, or anxiety. Even the smallest gestures can change our perspective and return the faith and hope we are losing.

Then remind yourself that everyone feels anxious or suffers at times and there is no need to battle, ignore or replace this feeling. Your feelings are valid, all of them, so give yourself a permission to live through this time with compassion and self-love that you absolutely deserve. By doing so, you will refill your depleting inner resources that are especially needed when you are caring for others. Just like on the airplane, put that oxygen mask on yourself first to be able to help your children and loved ones.

Finally, remember that children learn best from watching, not listening to us. If your child will see that instead of remaining angry, frustrated, or sad, you are accepting the feeling (talk about how you feel with them), and then doing something to make yourself feel better and perhaps even able to act to change the situation instead of giving up, they will follow suit. This is how emotional connections are strengthened and resilience is formed. Allow your children to grow with parents who are compassionate towards themselves first to be able to keep giving. It is in these moments that our most important parenting work being done.

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