I’ve talked with many frazzled parents in the past few weeks. Mums and dads who have been grappling with the transition to life with a baby at home, or returning to paid work after a period of time away. Young children starting kindergarten. Older children anticipating and adjusting to the new demands of school life.
Mums and dads have spoken of the flow of life being turned upside down. Tears, sleepless nights, anticipatory anxiety, self doubt and exhaustion. It has struck me that much of the stress we parents feel around these transitions comes from expecting things to go smoothly.
Many of us approach these life changes with expectations that are unrealistic and unfair. Then, when we experience adjustment struggles, often trying so hard to get things ‘right’, self criticism and self blame can quickly follow.
For example, adjusting to life with a baby. The antenatal classes, the reading and the daydreaming don't prepare us for the upheaval, chaos and sleeplessness that inevitably occurs. Stepping into parenting for the first time is one of the biggest transitions we make in life, and many of us expect to move seamlessly from one stage of life to the next, without missing a beat….or perhaps we do allow ourselves a period of adjustment but soon start saying things like, "I should know what I’m doing by now!"….and feeling inadequate as a result.
Then there are the unexpected, unwanted events and experiences that arise…the ‘curve balls’ that life throws us from time to time and the ‘adjustments’ that are made to accommodate these experiences. Infertility, loss, illness. Interestingly, even these events seem to come with a set of expectations or judgments; “I should be over this”, “what’s wrong with me”’ “I should be able to cope with this.”
Transitions, losses, unwanted experiences will continue to happen for all of us…these things are part of being human. However, there is a more supportive way to approach these experiences which can ease the associated suffering.
There is a growing body of research behind self-compassion, demonstrating that it can be extremely helpful at times of struggle. Self-compassion is the antidote to our inner critic. It is the kindness we bring to ourselves when we feel like we’ve failed, or when we experience pain or loss due to forces beyond our control.
You may be thinking thoughts like these:
“I should love being a mother, what’s wrong with me?”
“Why am I the only one who’s not coping?”
“I should feel better by now ”
“My child is never going to be happy at school”
”I hate feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing”,
Self-compassion (with a deep breath and a kind voice) sounds like this:
“There are no rules about how parenting should feel”
“We are all learning as we go”
“I can cope with making mistakes and learning from them”
“Most new experiences are stressful at first. My child will adjust over time”
“I can cope with not knowing what I’m doing, and can ask for help if I need to”.
An important ingredient in taking a kinder, more compassionate stance towards ourselves is acknowledging that it is part of being human to sometimes make mistakes, to not be who we wanted to be, or to have unwanted experiences happen to us. Tapping into this universal experience of human suffering or struggle can be comforting and reduce feelings of isolation…”why am I the only one not coping?” becomes “we all feel like we are not coping at times.”
Self compassion can be as simple as thinking about what you would say to a friend or a loved one who is experiencing the same struggle or difficulty as you, and applying your kind words to yourself. It won’t change the difficult situation, but it will remove the added pressure of self criticism and increase your capacity to adjust to whatever it is you’re struggling with.
If you’d like to learn more about Self Compassion, Kristen Neff (a self compassion researcher) has a great website: www.self-compassion.org