Quit Bullying Yourself, Mom!
Treat yourself the way you want your children to be treated
"You're a terrible mother."
"You suck at this."
"Well, you screwed up again."
"Everyone else has it together. Why don't you?"
Would you say these words to your friends? To your kids?
Of course not. You wouldn't even say them to a stranger. But I'm guessing you've said them, or something similar, to yourself at some point. I know I certainly have.
Every time I yelled at my daughters, fed them mac and cheese for dinner yet again, or forgot to put a change of clothes in their cubbies at school, I would think those very thoughts. I would regularly berate myself for my parenting failures, both real and imagined, often without even realizing it.
In effect, I was trying to bully myself into being a better parent.
October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. It's easy to imagine a stereotypical bully as a thick-necked boy on the playground who steals lunch money, but the reality is that bullies come in all shapes and sizes – including mothers. Bullying is fundamentally about using your influence to intimidate or force another person into doing what you want.
Each time I tell myself what a terrible mother I am, I'm essentially trying to coerce myself to be a better mother. And when I do it to another mother, either with my thoughts or words, I'm doing so to make me feel better about my own parenting.
This approach stinks. First, it feels awful. Most of us already feel bad enough after an unpleasant or unskillful parenting moment, so we don't need to pile on more blame or shame.
Second, negative self-talk does nothing to help us heal, grow, or change. I'm going to assume that you've never once thought to yourself, "Oh, what an excellent point! I really am a disaster at mothering! But I feel so much better now that I'm clear on that particular issue, I'll just go right ahead and make big positive changes." More likely you poured yourself a glass of wine, searched the house for hidden chocolate, or went on social media to berate yourself some more (#parentingfail). That's because shame isn't motivating or energizing. It's the exact opposite: Each time we bully ourselves, we end up feeling even more stuck, helpless, and hopeless than we did before.
It would be one thing (and bad enough) if our bullying stayed inside our own mind, but unfortunately it rarely works that way. Our mean, shaming thoughts are insidious, and they change the way we think about others, including other moms. Over the years, I've noticed a direct correlation between my own negative self-talk and how likely I am to judge another parent. It's not that I'm consciously trying to make myself feel better by belittling someone else, it's just that once my brain gets in the habit of thinking a certain way, it just keeps doing it, regardless of who happens to be on the receiving end. And if I'm not careful, those thoughts can turn into words.
Bullying begets bullying, and the end result is that we all feel worse.
Fortunately, we can stop the cycle of parental bullying, and it starts with our own experience. Here are a few ideas:
Pay attention to your negative thoughts – whether they're directed at yourself or another parent – whenever you can. This may sound fairly obvious, but we are often unaware of what we are thinking, especially if we are in the habit of thinking such thoughts. Either way, our negative thoughts impact how we feel about ourselves and others.
Remember they are just thoughts, and you don't have to believe them. We don't know always know where our thoughts come from, and we don't need to believe them just because they happened to pass through our awareness. Rather, imagine that your thoughts are like cars driving down the road – you can choose to go along for the ride or not. Some thoughts are worth cruising around with for a while, and others you should let go on down the road.
Make a conscious effort to say nice things to yourself. Once you notice all those critical, blaming thoughts and let them go, you can replace them with kind thoughts. This is going to feel extremely awkward at first. Self-deprecation is a reflexive response, but self-compassion is a learned skill. If you can't come up with anything nice to say to yourself, think about what you might say to a good friend who is having a bad day. At the very least, remind yourself that parenting is hard for everyone, not just you.
Remember that kindness is a practice. The more you do it, the better you'll get. If you've been treating yourself horribly for years (as I had been), it's likely that you're likely excellent at it, whether or not you're aware of it. The good news is that you can become just as good at being kind, and that kindness will extend beyond your own experience and into the lives of your family and friends.
Check out more tips on practicing self-compassion as a parent.