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Does Self-Compassion Make You a Worse Parent?

Do you worry that if you start to be more compassionate to yourself you will become lazy, useless, and a failure? As a parent, do you worry that if you're a little more gentle to yourself, that you'll simply get things wrong even more? That you don't deserve to ignore your inner critic?

“Don’t get rid of me… you need me! Being kind to yourself will make you pathetic... You’ll mess up even more. Don’t even try it…”

For many of us, we’ve never known any different. As children, we never learnt how to be kind to ourselves when things went wrong. Maybe we were taught to criticise ourselves, maybe that's all we heard from others when we - or they - made mistakes. We’re so used to being critical to ourselves. We learn that it's the only way to motivate ourselves to "do better".

But does being self-critical actually result in more motivation and better "performance" than being self-compassionate? Do we get things right more often when we are harsh on ourselves? Let's look at the science.

Diagram to show how being self critical motivates you from a place of fear and doubt where as self compassion motivates from a place of safety and confidence

Self-criticism activates our Threat system, as well as our Drive (achievement) system (see diagram below). The part of our brain that operates our Threat system (the amygdala) processes thoughts as threats in much the same way as it processes "real life" dangers.

When our body and brain believes we are in danger, we operate in survival mode. Our “thinking brain” becomes impaired, impacting our decision-making skills and performance abilities. We may avoid risk, or take unwise actions. Then, of course, this can become a vicious circle as we feel stressed and criticise ourselves for any mistakes we make while in Threat mode.

When our body and brain believes we are in danger, we operate in survival mode. Our “thinking brain” becomes impaired, impacting our decision-making skills and performance abilities.

In survival mode, it is difficult to learn. We lose the ability to think in a nuanced way, and instead appraise situations and ourselves in black-and-white terms - success/failure, good/bad, perfect/disaster. These judgements feed back into our self-criticism.

As parents, this means that the more we criticise ourselves for getting things "wrong" with our kids, the more likely we are to make the same "mistakes" again. Our Threat system is on a hair trigger.

A diagram showing the three human systems, the drive, soothing and threat system. It comes from the compassion focused therapy model

If, on the other hand, we motivate ourselves toward achievement from a place of compassionate encouragement and support, we activate our Soothing system alongside our Drive system.

Because our bodies and brains are operating from a sense of safety, our thinking brain stays online. We are able to think more clearly, take appropriate risks, and perform to the best of our ability.

When we are parenting, this means we are more able to use the strategies we want to use, and act like the parent we want to be.

When things don’t go to plan, we are able to learn from it, and adjust our behaviour accordingly. This then fuels our sense of confidence and our self-compassionate voice for next time.

Imagine the best teacher you’ve ever had, and how they motivated you. Were they critical or encouraging? Notice that it was not a namby pamby, pathetic voice. It was a voice of fierce confidence. This is the voice we need to nurture within ourselves. And the voice we want to model and nurture for our children, too.

Does this resonate for you? Let me know what you think.

The Guilty Parent Club

If you are interested in learning more about how to break the cycles of stress and develop your self-compassion skills as a parent, check out The Guilty Parent Club. We'd love you to join us!


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