Self compassion is a crucial skill for everyone, but especially parents. Life offers daily opportunities for us to screw up and fill the parent-guilt vault. Spill water. Miss a deadline. Yell at your kid. And when you do, what should your internal dialogue sound like?
- “What an idiot, you idiot.”
- “Shit happens. I’ll do better the next time.”
When put like this, the option for self-compassion (uh, B) should win in a landslide. It’s supportive and calming. “It puts you in the mind state to cope with stressful events,” says Kristin Neff, associate professor of educational psychology at University of Texas at Austin, co-author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, and one of the leading experts in self-compassion.
But, in the moment, this isn’t that easy. People are hard on themselves and A is often a popular choice. Self-criticism serves a purpose, sure. But self-compassion should, nine times out of ten, be the default option. We need to be easier on ourselves. If not, we create a breeding ground for shame, self-hatred, and other such emotions. In other words, we become our own worst enemies.
Where Does a Lack of Self-Compassion Come From?
In order to have a shot at increasing your self-compassion, it’s good to look at why self-criticism exists in the first place.
Part of self-criticizing is physical, a fight-or-flight response to a threat. “We go into freak out mode,” explains Neff. The sympathetic nervous takes over flooding the body with cortisol and adrenaline. Being harsh with yourself certainly makes you feel like you’re in control. But it actually makes you stressed, anxious, and disconnected.
A lack of self-compassion also stems from outside factors such as gender and socialization as well. A big part, too, is role models. It’s good to think about them, since they ingrained an ethic about performance and satisfaction, says Jeff Brown, Psy.D., psychologist and author of The Winner’s Brain. That ethic could have been to suck it up. It could have been to never be satisfied. Your role models could have just been unflappable types, so when you regularly lose your cool, the only takeaway is that there’s something wrong with you.
One more reason for self-compassion’s low favorability rating is bad branding, notes Laura Silberstein-Tirch, a New York City-based licensed psychologist. It comes off as weak, needy, and selfish, and the underlying fear is that you’ll have no drive or motivation.
“It’s confused with letting yourself off the hook,” she says. But it’s not an excuse. A compassionate voice in your head should be similar to a great coach or teacher, who was firm and held you to a standard, but helped you get to a future goal.
It’s also not selfish. Neff’s research on couples found that self-compassionate people showed more positive relationship behaviors and that it was an observable trait to the partner. Shame is actually the selfish feeling – the moment becomes all about you. With self-compassion, you’re recognizing that, “Hey, everyone suffers. We’re interconnected,” she says. Or, as Silberstein-Tirch puts it. “Fuck-ups are part of the human experience.”
How to Build More Self Compassion and Silence Your Inner Critic
Building more self-compassion comes first from making a few acknowledgments that shift your attitude: Mistakes are commonplace; your behavior came from people you had no choice about; perfection is a never-ending, unobtainable grind. The more doable goal is, as Neff says, to be “a compassionate mess.”
Of course, understanding this is one thing. It’s much harder in practice. So, how do you prevent that voice in your head from chewing you out when you make a few mistakes?
Neff runs self-compassion.org, which offers a variety of exercises to help. One simple exercise to try: when you’re giving yourself a hard time, ask “How would I respond to a friend who was beating themselves up over a mistake?” and writing down your response. Often, we provide for others which we don’t provide for ourselves.
Another exercise that Neff points to is, the Self-Compassion Break. It’s a simple three-step process that brings in the above conceit. It takes less than 60 seconds and helps you evoke the main tenets of self-compassion.
- Make yourself aware of the situation that’s causing you stress. Really acknowledge it. Say something like, “This sucks. I’m struggling.”
- Acknowledge that struggling is a part of life and everyone is dealing with something. “We know this logically, but we forget it. We need to remind ourselves,” she says.
- Be kind. Think of what you’d say to a buddy who just told you he lost his temper with his kid. Now say that to yourself in a warm tone of voice.
You can ask bigger or smaller questions. There’s no one method. You simply go until you find what resonates. But taking the time and asking something gets you out of fight-or-flight and into the calmer, parasympathetic nervous system.
“It allows other thoughts in,” Silberstein-Tirch says.
The best part is that none of the above has to be said aloud or broadcast to the world, notes Brown. “No one is nearly concerned as you are about your performance, so giving yourself a break comes with little consequence.”
But it also can be made public, and if you’re with your kids, they get to see how you’re handling a mistake, that you’re taking care of yourself, that you’re apologizing if needed, and trying to learn for the next time. That rubs off and becomes the new legacy, Neff says.
There’s another small exercise that can really help with self-compassion: Play with your kids. Perhaps, amidst the stress of the pandemic, this has been pushed aside. But a big part of self-compassion is being mindful and present. When you are, it’s easier to let go of thoughts and not treat every one of them as truth. Playing brings in joy and gives your inner critic a break. With your threat system turned down, Silberstein-Tirch says, you can feel safeness and connection.
The kids have fun, and when you’re going off-book, the pressure vanishes (it’s hard to have expectations for the just-created game of Monster Squirt Gun Battle.) They also get the “fun” you, and they see how to just try something and enjoy whatever happens.
“You can’t be spontaneous and also be perfect,” Brown says.