The Newest Parenting Skill: Self-Compassion

If you take care of yourself, you’ll be happier and better at taking care of others

The work of parenting involves caring for and meeting the needs of another human being 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And like all demanding professions, burnout is a hazard of the job. That’s why parenting magazines and well-intentioned friends recommend taking care of yourself in order to be a better parent – the old, “put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others” line.

It’s good advice, but easier said than done. “Pamper yourself. Plan downtime. Exercise. Make a date night.” Suggestions like these have two big problems: First, you need free time (which is always hard to come by), and these ideas are really only helpful to you when you’re away from your child. As a parent of a child with special needs, I often need the most help when he and I are together. So that’s when I practice self-compassion.

When my son Rowan first received an autism diagnosis, I felt incredible grief and shame, and it was extremely hard to admit that to myself. How could I feel this way about the child I loved more than anyone else in the world? But because I had a long history of practicing self-compassion, I knew that the more I could embrace my own grief, the more quickly I could move through it and accept him for who he was.

What is self-compassion?

We are all used to working on our self-esteem by asking ourselves, “Am I being a good parent or a bad parent?” The problem is that having high self-esteem is contingent upon experiencing success. If we don’t meet our own standards, we feel terrible about ourselves. Self-compassion, in contrast, is not a way of judging ourselves positively or negatively. It is a way of relating to ourselves kindly and embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.

There are three core components of self-compassion:

Treating ourselves with kindness
When we fail to meet our own standards, we are often much harsher and more cruel to ourselves than we ever would be to a friend, or even someone we don’t like very much. Self-compassion reverses that pattern. In moments of difficulty or when making mistakes (especially when making mistakes), you treat yourself as you would treat a good friend in the same situation – with encouragement, sympathy, patience, and gentleness.

Sometimes when I get frustrated with Rowan I snap at him. Even after I apologize, I still feel terrible because it upsets him so much. Part of me feels mean and irresponsible, but beating myself up over it won’t help either of us. It will just take my focus away from him and preoccupy me with being mean to myself. Instead I give myself warmth, understanding, and sympathy about the difficulties of being an autism parent. This helps me to move on and put my attention back to being supportive and caring toward Rowan.

Recognizing our common humanity
When something goes wrong, we often view it as abnormal. “I shouldn’t have taken so long to get ready in the morning, making my daughter late for school. Parents like Karen are always on time.” You end up feeling isolated in your suffering when, in fact, our imperfections are exactly what connect us all. Self-esteem prompts us to ask, “How am I different than others?” Self-compassion involves wondering, “How am I the same?” And the answer is that we are all imperfect. There are probably many moments when Karen makes a mistake or gets things wrong, and that’s what makes you both humans and moms.

Being mindful
In order to be compassionate to ourselves, we need to be able to recognize that we are suffering. Paying attention to how we talk to ourselves and treat ourselves in challenging moments lets us see that we are hurting and that we need to give ourselves love, too. Think of all the self-inflicted turmoil and stress we cause by constantly criticizing our imperfections: “I’m such a slob and the house looks like a pigsty.” or “I’m too bad at math to help my son with his homework.” Once we notice and become aware of how painful and counterproductive these self-attacks are, we can take another approach - being kind and supportive to ourselves when we don’t meet our parenting ideals.

Self-compassion in action
When my son was 4 years old, I took him to England on a plane, and he had one of those raging, flailing tantrums that children with autism can experience. Everyone on the plane was looking at us like they wished we were dead. I knew they were thinking, “What’s wrong with that kid? Why is he acting that way?” and “What’s wrong with that mom? Why isn’t she controlling her child?”

I tried to take him to the bathroom, but it was occupied. So in that little space outside the bathroom door, I stood with my out-of-control son and waited it out. I knew the only refuge I had was self-compassion. I put my hands over my heart and spoke words of comfort, mostly to myself. “This is so hard, darling,” I said softly. “I am so sorry you are going through this, but I am here for you.”

It might sound a little mushy, but by treating myself kindly, I was actually doing something scientifically proven to help. One of the things unique to mammals is that we are programmed to respond to warmth, gentle touch, and soft vocalizations. That’s what keeps vulnerable infants close to their mothers and safe from harm. So when we provide that kind of touch and calm reassurance to ourselves, we actually reduce levels of stress hormones and boost the feel-good ones. Then we feel safe, comforted, and in the optimal frame of mind to do our best.

And that, of course, is every parent’s goal. One from which we will fall short time and time again. But that is the beautiful, messy lesson of human experience. And if we are able to recognize that and keep our hearts open to ourselves, we can be more open-hearted with everyone else, especially our kids.