Mindful Parenting: Meet Your Inner Critic with Self-Compassion

With mindfulness practice, we can learn how to unhook from rumination and increase clarity and ease of being by cutting ourselves (and our kids) some slack.

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Ted was a parent I worked with who told me he “sucks” as a parent. “I can’t get through to my own kid and he has no respect for me,” he said.

Ted’s 14-year-old son would demand that he be able to play his Xbox whenever he wished. Even simple requests to brush his teeth could escalate quickly into “fuck yous” and slammed doors (and almost-crushed fingers). “I can’t even count how many times he’s told me he hates me,” Ted said, his head bowed, and tears filling his eyes. Ted spent countless hours replaying mental movies of his exchanges with his son, and his parental self always loomed dark and weak on the screen of his mind.

Research is increasingly clear on how destructive negative self-related thinking can be. Rumination (or repetitive and passive thinking about negative emotions) has been shown to predict the chronic nature of depressive disorders as well as anxiety symptoms.

With mindfulness practice, we can learn how to unhook from rumination and cut ourselves (and others) the slack requisite for increasing clarity and ease of being.

As a clinician, I have been trained to spot and address the unhealthy mental habit of repetitive and negatively toned inner chatter that broils our minds and bodies from the inside. Ted told himself over and over he was a “failure” as a father for having divorced his son’s mother. He eviscerated future versions of himself as “never giving him the opportunities he’ll need to have a decent life.” Rumination is the run-on self-talk of the mind that has physical and mental agitation as both its fuel and its output. Rumination is toxic to our well-being and clarity of mind, and it corrodes a parent’s ability to see and act from a growth mindset. In addition to mindful labeling of painful emotional reactions, parents (and their kids) benefit greatly by bringing self-compassion aboard the runaway trains of ruminative thinking. 

In a 2010 study that examined the levels of reported self-compassion, rumination, worry, anxiety, and depression in 271 nonclinical undergraduate students, results suggested that people with higher levels of reported self-compassion are less likely to report depression and anxiety. The data showed that self-compassion may play the role of buffering the effects of rumination. With mindfulness practice, we can learn how to unhook from rumination and cut ourselves (and others) the slack requisite for increasing clarity and ease of being.

Meet Your Inner Critic with Self-Compassion

Instead of amping yourself up with thoughts like “I can’t believe this!” or “I’m so sick of dealing with this,” or “I give up!” you can use mindfulness. You can take a mere moment, breathe in slowly and deeply, feel without getting lost in the body’s reactions, and say to yourself that you are “having the thought right now that this is hopeless,” instead of being that thought. Instead of “I’m a failure as a dad,” Ted learned to slow down, breathe, and recognize “my mind is saying I’m a failure as a dad.” It may sound like a mere grammatic shift, but that small, mindful shift can make an enormous difference. Seeing something as it happens allows us to see it as happening apart from us. I know I am not this computer because I can see it across from me. The same applies to our thoughts. As I like to tell patients, “If you can see it, how can you be it?”

Mindfulness can help you sidestep both the surge of initial reactive emotion as well as the ruminations of your inner critic. Going further, self-compassion can help you connect with how you are not alone—that many parents are suffering in the same way—and that you (and they) are worthy of compassionate care. Parents practicing mindful self-compassion have a much better chance of getting down into the engine of their emotions. It is there that a great deal of possibility exists for you and for your child.

Give Yourself Some Space with Self-Compassion

I’m not suggesting that you use mindfulness and self-compassion practice as a strategy for shoving your pain to the side or side stepping painful emotions cropping up in your parenting. Rather, I have recommended you use affect labeling of the sensations of intense emotions, as well as mindful noting of your thoughts, to allow you to stay put, as the emotions play out. Mindfulness gives you the psychological and emotional space to see the feelings without drowning in them. Self-compassion gives you the space to care for the wounds that parenting inevitably creates.

Underneath my patient Ted’s hopelessness and self-berating was a deep reservoir of sadness and fear. He benefited from mindfulness and self-compassion practice because it helped him recognize these deeper pain points. By labeling his bodily reactions and noting his thoughts (without being them), he became aware of the flashes of walled-off despair and fear. Until he got a bit of inner space from his initial reactions, he had not been able to access and learn from these underground reservoirs of suffering. He had never had the opportunity to (using the phrase that psychiatrist Dan Siegel coined) “feel felt”—to have the experience of his emotional pain points recognized by a compassionate other as valid. Parents like Ted, indeed all of us, benefit greatly when others take the step of leaning in compassionately to recognize our pain’s presence. And if others are not available, self-compassion practice allows us to offer this needed dose of compassion to ourselves.

A Mindful Self-Compassion Breathing Practice 

  1. Begin this practice by acknowledging the mere presence of upset—give a soft, slight internal nod to the thoughts, images, and sensations of angst.
  2. Rest in sensations of the breath. Let your attention drop gently onto wherever you feel the breath (e.g., nostrils, belly, or perhaps the toes for those who are lighter on their feet).
  3. Penetrate the feelings and their accompanying thoughts on a deep inhale into the belly. Visualize the breath coming into and through the restlessness. The breath is not forcing the emotion away; rather, it is moving into it. Slow, deep belly breathing is important because upset often pulls us toward fast, chest-level breathing that sparks more intense physical sensations.
  4. Acknowledge the pain just as it is on the exhale. Do not try to shove it out with a sigh or exasperated puffing. Again, stay with slow, deliberate breathing. Note the sensations and word images, as if jousting with them using a feather.  
  5. Going further, acknowledge that many parents are feeling this same pain. That you are not alone. Continue following the breath, circulating between penetration into the space of awareness with the in-breath and acknowledging what remains on the exhale.
  6. Try not force or control. Follow the upset just as it is, and simply penetrate through it with slow, deep breathing. Allow awareness to seep into and around these thoughts, sensations, and images.
  7. Take inventory of what remains after your allotted meditation time. What is there to be witnessed, felt, and acknowledged behind the emotionality? Take action to care for what needs tending. End with a kind wish that both you and all parents struggling right now know ease from this particular pain point in parenting.

Excerpt adapted from Prizeworthy: How to Meaningfully Connect, Cultivate Character and Unlock the Potential of Every Child, Shambhala Publications.