In the ten years of raising my son, I have made a lot of parenting mistakes. These missteps range from small things, such as not knowing my son’s school schedule and missing school events, to bigger things, like being so depressed that I cannot even get him to school some days. I could write about any number of my parenting mistakes, but by far, the biggest mistake I make is forgetting to have compassion for myself for making parenting mistakes.
It does not matter how big or small the mistake is. My default is to believe I am a bad parent. I compare myself to the parents who take their four kids to multiple different extracurricular activities, as well as work a full-time job, while I struggle with having one kid and working from home in a job where I make my own hours. I also judge myself for having a mental illness and being a parent.
I used to think that the only way to change and be better was to punish yourself for your mistakes. Research shows that shame and negative self-criticism are entirely unhelpful and actually lead to dysfunction. As Dr. Brene Brown says, “You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.” I notice that the more I shame myself for my mistakes, the less functional I become. I feel like I can’t figure out at all how to be a good parent, and then I become immobile with depression and self-hatred.
I also notice that my lack of compassion for myself greatly affects my son. I have always promised myself that whenever I messed up with my kid, I would apologize. I never wanted him to think that my emotions or actions were his fault or that he is responsible for them. This approach is a good one to take as a parent, because our kids are not responsible for us, but it can also backfire if it goes too far. In the past, I not only apologized, but also criticized myself in front of him. My “apologies” went like this: “I am sorry I yelled at you over spilling your drink. You did not do anything wrong. It was an accident. I just have a bad temper sometimes, and I am a bad mom.”
Our kids want to protect us, and we all know that kids assume everything is their fault. So, when I have no compassion for myself and talk about myself as “bad,” it actually makes my son want to protect me and feel more responsible for my feelings. He loves me and does not think I am a bad mom. He will do whatever he thinks is necessary to let me know I am not a bad mom, such as still thinking something was his fault even if I told him it was not.
A compassionate response to a parenting mistake would have been much more healthy. I recently had a situation with my son over a parenting mistake that went much more productively than previous ones.
A few weeks ago, my son had a tooth that broke. It would not have happened had I been on track with his dental care, but I kept forgetting to make an orthodontist appointment for him to fix some of the baby teeth that needed to be removed. When half his tooth fell out, he was a little scared, and I immediately started to feel shame for my error. I felt the familiar drop in the pit of my stomach and the feeling that I am the worst parent in the world – one who has a ton of time and obviously must not care enough about her kid because she keeps forgetting to make a dental appointment.
Instead of my usual response, though, I talked to my son about it and told him that I was sorry I had made a mistake. I also said that making a mistake is okay, and that I have a hard time with scheduling appointments and other executive functioning tasks. I told him I would just keep working with my therapist to find out what works best for my brain so that I can complete more tasks over time. My son said to me, “Your new therapist must really be helping you because just a month ago, you would be saying you hate yourself right now.”
He was right. In the past, I would have said I was so sorry, that I was a bad parent, and that I hate myself for not caring enough about him. And I would have cried and become depressed and non-functional for at least the rest of the day. My son would have cried and told me it was okay, that I am not a bad mom, and that he could have reminded me to make the appointment. That kind of interaction is all kinds of messed up and unhealthy, but it happened because I had absolutely no compassion for myself. I believed that if I shamed myself enough, I would “learn my lesson” and be a better parent.
In truth, the reaction that was more self-compassionate was the one that actually made me a better parent. My son did not feel responsible for me at all or communicate any need to take over parenting tasks. I was also teaching him to have self-compassion when he makes mistakes. He will learn to manage his emotions and move on from mistakes rather than thinking that shame about them is a necessary life sentence for being a bad person.
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Practicing self-compassion is hard. If you were raised in an environment where people taught you that self-compassion was wrong, and that if you don’t beat yourself up, you won’t change, you will have a very hard time in the beginning. When you start practicing self-compassion, you may worry that doing so means you will not hold yourself accountable and you will do even more “bad” things. This is not true! You will be more joyful and more peaceful and thus able to handle more. You will also bounce back from mistakes much faster and create a new belief that you can improve over time. If being compassionate to yourself goes against the family system you were raised in and has led to abuse, you will have a hard time practicing self-compassion because as soon as you do it, your fight of flight response will be triggered. You will fight it or flee it because you have learned in the past that self-compassion is not safe.
I highly recommend having a therapist to help you with this work, especially if you have a history of emotional or physical abuse around this topic. You will want to look for a therapist who understands the current research around shame and uses mindfulness practices in their treatment plan. Some therapists also use Emotional Freedom Technique as a way to combat shame.
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You can start practicing self-compassion at home as well. The best way to do this is with a daily lovingkindness meditation. I like the way Jack Kornfield describes this meditation. He encourages you to see yourself as a child because that allows you to feel love and compassion for yourself. Below is the first part of that meditation. (You can click on the meditation link above for the rest of it.)
Begin with yourself. Breathe gently, and recite inwardly the following traditional phrases directed toward our own well-being. You being with yourself because without loving yourself it is almost impossible to love others.
May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.
As you repeat these phrases, picture yourself as you are now, and hold that image in a heart of lovingkindness. Or perhaps you will find it easier to picture yourself as a young and beloved child. Adjust the words and images in any way you wish. Create the exact phrases that best open your heart of kindness. Repeat these phrases over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind. Practice this meditation for a number of weeks, until the sense of lovingkindness for yourself grows.
Be aware that this meditation may at times feel mechanical or awkward. It can also bring up feelings contrary to lovingkindness, feelings of irritation and anger. If this happens, it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection. When you feel you have established some stronger sense of lovingkindness for yourself, you can then expand your meditation to include others.
We will all have a lot of parenting mistakes. Have compassion for yourself, apologize for your mistakes, and move on. Our kids do not need us to be perfect. They need us to be emotionally and physically healthy.