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Why Self-Compassion Is So Important for New Mothers

Normalize being kind to yourself as a parent. It affects more than just you.

Key points

  • Many new mothers say they would offer a friend compassion but can’t let themselves off the hook or be compassionate with themselves.
  • We do ourselves a great disservice by holding ourselves to different standards than we do our peers. We inhibit connecting with others when we need it most.
  • Being self-critical and expecting too much of yourself sets a bad example for those coming behind you and can be experienced as judgmental.
  • We’re putting too much individual responsibility on ourselves rather than acknowledging we exist in a system that puts unreasonable expectations on mothers.

Many of my clients are new mothers and just as many are pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion and sanity when they don’t need to be. They set high standards for themselves in parenthood, the same as they have in other areas of their lives in the past, but of course, find that they have far less control over the variables and outcomes when it comes to caring for a baby. Berating and working themselves ragged may have led to achievement at work, but relentlessly sticking with a problem or trudging towards a goal with fierce self-criticism does not translate to parenthood.

Nobody wants to talk to themselves harshly. No one consciously and effortfully adds to their mental struggles by berating themselves. But the negative consequences of not actively catching or noticing this type of thinking and offering self-compassion in response can extend beyond the individual and set other mothers up for struggle as well.

I often ask my clients who are struggling with doing too much or being too critical of themselves in their new role as mothers, “what would you say to a friend struggling in the same way?” They are quick to acknowledge the encouragement and compassion they would offer others. “I would tell anyone else [something totally reasonable and kind]. I would tell them that they’re doing their best, they deserve help/a break, and that it’s totally okay to stop [whatever extremely stressful and maybe unnecessary thing they are doing because they think they should] and do [whatever thing they are depriving themselves of or need to do to take care of themselves].”

But they are quick to follow up with, “But I can’t tell myself the same thing.” They can’t let themselves off the hook or be compassionate and realistic in their expectations for themselves. They acknowledge the irrational double standard they’ve set for themselves.

The difficulty in being self-compassionate is complex for most of us — rooted in fear, cultural conditioning, and sometimes trauma. It often needs to be carefully unpacked and examined (with the help of a professional if appropriate). I wholeheartedly encourage anyone brave enough to tackle this self-exploration to do so.

But I want to point out how the failure to practice self-compassion may be more problematic and far-reaching than it appears on the surface. It is not just an individual issue. When you fail to show yourself compassion (when you don’t honor your own suffering in a healthy way), it doesn’t only affect you.

When you’re judging yourself, you’re not connecting (and you’re robbing others of connection).

The Components of Self-Compassion

I recognize it is not as easy as flipping a switch and suddenly being kind to yourself. Even if you can craft statements to yourself in a self-compassionate tone, believing and absorbing the messages might be a stretch.

But self-compassion is not only about mushy feelings and being nice to yourself. Self-compassion is not self-care or being confident, nor is it indulgence or permissiveness.

Dr. Kritsten Neff, a lead researcher on self-compassion, breaks self-compassion down into three components:

  • Mindfulness (vs. overidentification): connecting to the present moment and noticing your thoughts and feelings without judging them.
  • Self-kindness (vs. self-judgment): talking to yourself the same way you would to someone you care about — with understanding, perspective, and acceptance of imperfection.
  • Common humanity (vs. isolation): recognizing the common human experience of suffering and the universal feeling of being inadequate.

This last one, common humanity, is crucial to the postpartum experience. Being cruel and unrealistically demanding of ourselves as new parents is all too common. It is a component of and exacerbates postpartum depression and anxiety.

The Negative Effects of a Lack of Self-Compassion

When you’re always trying to keep your ego intact, trying to show how good you are at something, or how well you’re doing all the things, you’re not open and connecting with others in a genuine way. When you want someone to respect or admire you more than you want them to trust you and enjoy your company, your relationships may remain shallow and you will find yourself more isolated.

When we need community, connection, and support more than ever—after having a baby!—we do ourselves a great disservice by holding ourselves to different standards than we do our peers. We disrupt or sever connections with others when we are unwilling to model acceptance and flexibility.

Being self-critical and expecting too much of yourself sets a bad example for those coming behind you.

If a friend of yours who has a baby after you is looking to you for guidance and sees you berating yourself and taking on way too much, they might assume that it’s normal, or worse, that they’re a bad parent if they don’t do the same.

It can feel insulting and judgmental to others to hold yourself to a different standard.

When you can be kind, encouraging, and accepting of others, but not yourself, you’re likely conveying, through your actions and sometimes words, whether intentionally or not, that you think you are better, you deserve better, and you are somehow more capable.

Of course, this is often the opposite of how you feel. You feel insecure and doubt yourself constantly. Your incredibly high standards for yourself and efforts to be perfect are more a reflection of self-doubt than feelings of superiority.

But when you expect more of yourself than you do of others, what kind of message is that sending? How is it coming off? When you let yourself off the hook, you can extend that same grace and understanding to others.

Practicing Self-Compassion Challenges a Broken System

Caring for a baby used to be much more of a communal effort. Mothers were not so isolated and overwhelmed. The system of modern motherhood and the expectations we put on ourselves because of it are unreasonable. It puts all of the burdens of caretaking on parents, rather than an extended network.

We’re putting too much individual responsibility on ourselves rather than acknowledging we exist in a broken system that does not support mothers. Social science research shows that humans generally have a hard time feeling compassion for someone we think is responsible for their problems, i.e., those we perceive to be responsible for their suffering we see as less deserving of empathy and kindness. It makes sense then that we struggle to be kind to ourselves if we feel this intense and exacerbated personal responsibility in the realm of parenthood. We can’t even see that the system is broken because we’re too busy blaming ourselves. Let’s shift that.

Be Radical in Practicing Self-Compassion as a Parent

Show others that it’s okay to be flawed and struggling, that it’s okay to adjust your expectations for now or change course. In fact, it’s a sign of strength and consideration. Because you know what’s really weak and unkind? Pretending that you can and should do everything and perpetuating a facade that makes other women feel bad about themselves, again, even if that’s far from your intention.

Show true compassion to others and lead by example. Make a new rule: If what you would suggest or tell a friend is good enough for them, it is good enough for you. Model flexibility for your fellow mother. Take your foot off the gas, don’t be sanctimonious, be a regular flawed human like the rest of us who are unsure and not always doing everything exactly right all the time.

Normalize actually being nice to yourself. Normalize acknowledging the context in which you are parenting rather than taking on an unnecessary amount of personal responsibility. Normalize living as if you think you deserve the kindness you quickly and unquestionably offer to others — not only as a life-changing gift to yourself but as a generous paradigm-shifting act to others as well.

References

Goetz, J., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010, May). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864937/

Neff, K. (2020, July 09). Definition and three elements of Self COMPASSION: KRISTIN NEFF. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/

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