Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Leaving Your Childhood Behind to Become a Better Parent

To be the best parents we can be, we have to understand our own past.

One mistake we make as parents is assuming that there is one way to parent that is better than all others. The reality is, there are countless methods of raising children, and many of them are perfectly healthy. Yet, no matter how many books we read, rules we make, or goals we set, there is one thing that will impact our children above all else, and that is how we feel within ourselves. How we feel about ourselves is naturally, though often unconsciously, extended to our children.

How we parent is based, not only on the conditions of our own childhood, but on how we adapted to these conditions. We may resolve to be different or do better with our own kids, then find ourselves falling into the exact same patterns that hurt us. Alternately, we may try to compensate for our parents’ mistakes and wind up treating our kids in ways that are misattuned or unreflective of our true nature.

In order to be the best parents we can be, we have to be in touch with the struggles we face within ourselves. Are we self-hating or self-denying? Are we limited by an inner critic or “critical inner voice” that we’ve internalized? What are the ways we hurt ourselves in our goals or interpersonal relationships? As we get to know our true selves, we can differentiate from undesirable qualities from our past. We can make conscious choices as parents that help us to offer our children the emotional stability and support they need to be strong and resilient. In this process of differentiation, there are several important questions to continually ask ourselves. The first is, how much am I listening to my inner critic?

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New parents know how easy it is to fall into moments of deep self-doubt or even self-hatred. It’s extremely common, as we hold our crying baby, to have thoughts toward ourselves like: “You don’t know what you’re doing! You’re a terrible mother/father. You can’t even make your own baby feel better. You’re going to fail at this.” Our critical inner voice represents a cruel thought process that criticizes us throughout our lives. It undermines our efforts and keeps us from achieving our goals. This “voice” can also be self-soothing: “Go ahead and forget about exercising this afternoon. You’ve had a hard enough day as it is.” And on a dime, it can switch to being highly sadistic, “You are so lazy. Look at you just sitting there. You never do anything you say you’re going to do!”

A friend of mine recently admitted to me that she was so self-hating when her son was born that she felt nervous to be alone with him. With no one around, she’d be flooded with fears and insecurities, so much so that her arms would sometimes shake when she held the baby. It wasn’t until one day when her mother came over that she realized where this self-doubt might have sourced from. As she went to change her son’s diaper, her mother peeked over her shoulder and quietly cooed at the crying baby, “It’s okay, honey. Your mommy doesn’t know what she’s doing. She just needs to listen to Grandma, and she’ll learn.” In an instant, my friend had a flash of being a child herself. She remembered constantly being questioned, corrected, and criticized by her mother, all of which left her feeling as if she was incompetent and stupid. She may have been able to laugh off the condescending comments and tone her mother used with her as an adult. But this feeling that she was incapable had been embedded in her head since she was a little girl, and it was causing her to feel extreme self-hatred in caring for her son.

When we are able to trace our emotional reactions to their early roots, it becomes easier to see how this critical inner voice is formed out of hurtful life experiences. Negative interactions or emotions we picked up from our caretakers can shape how we see ourselves as adults. If we had a parent who told us we were lazy or good-for-nothing, those words will stick with us. If we had a parent who was highly self-critical, we may, too, take on this point of view toward ourselves. If we had a parent who was overly focused or emotionally “hungry” toward us, we may feel we are never good enough or react adversely to attention.

All of these patterns form our critical inner voice. This voice is then there to attack us when we become parents. We may not even experience many of these self-critical thoughts until we have our own children, and feelings and memories from our past are stirred up. This is rarely a conscious process, which is why it is so important for parents to take time to identify their critical inner voice. What are you telling yourself about how you are as a parent? Where might these attitudes come from? How can you stand up to this inner critic and resist acting on its directives?

When my friend recognized where her feelings of self-hatred came from, she was able to stand up to this inner critic. One exercise of “Voice Therapy,” developed by my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, involves putting your critical thoughts in the second-person (as “you” statements.) My friend tried this exercise herself with journaling. First, she wrote down her most shameful feelings in relation to herself as a parent. Rather than writing, “I am a terrible mother,” she wrote, “You are a terrible mother.” She proceeded with, “Your son will grow up hating you. Why can’t you just get this right?” She then followed another important step of Voice Therapy, which involves answering back to these attacks. Adopting a more compassionate and realistic point of view, she wrote, “I may not know exactly what I’m doing all the time, but I am figuring it out. I care about my son, and I know that when I feel more relaxed, he does, too. These mean thoughts are holding me back. I am capable of being a loving parent.”

When we are able to separate from these destructive thoughts, we resist the urge to act on our critical inner voices. For example, my friend could have used her self-hating thoughts to distance herself from her son, which he would have experienced as rejection. We can also resist the tendency to imitate our parents less desirable traits. When we don’t identify the ways our parents hurt us, we run the risk of reenacting these patterns ourselves. In addition, by challenging our critical inner voice, we are less likely to overcompensate for our own painful childhood experiences. For example, if we grew up feeling neglected, we may try to make up for it and hurt our kids by being overly intrusive.

As parents, it’s incredibly important not to project our own negative life experiences onto our children. We must recognize our kids as the unique individuals they are. In doing so, we can accept that we too are unique individuals. By working on ourselves, overcoming our own short comings and standing up to our critical inner voices, we offer our children the greatest gift of all, a healthy, happy parent whom they are free to love, learn from, admire, and imitate.

To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone visit PsychAlive.org.

Read more about differentiation in Dr. Firestone's latest book, The Self under Siege.

The Self Under Siege

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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