By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Parenting and nurturing a child involves many things: How we speak to our children, how we treat them and what we teach them, to name only a few. How we engage in these behaviors can also apply to how we parent ourselves. Whether or not you are the parent of a child, if you are old enough to read this blog, you have more than likely adopted a style of “self-parenting.”
In my years of counseling clients, I have noticed that when it comes to self-parenting, most of us tend to adopt either our parent’s style of parenting (sometimes attempting to do an even better job than they did) or the exact opposite style. For example, the adult child of a neat freak might be extremely conscious of cleanliness or they might completely rebel and live in a pigsty. The child of a chronic dieter may strive to be an even more vigilant dieter or go to the other extreme and struggle with overeating. Usually, these patterns take shape without our awareness. Often people don’t realize until they are in therapy that they have either earned a PhD in their parent’s style of parenting or utterly flunked the subject.
One of the most important aspects of self-parenting is how we speak to ourselves, sometimes referred to as self-talk. This is so important because most of us engage in constant internal conversations. Self-talk dramatically affects how we feel about ourselves and thus plays a significant role in our day-to-day experiences as well as in the choices we make in life.
As you consider what kind of self-parenting you engage in, keep in mind that there are essentially three styles of parental communication: one is healthy and two are not. You can probably guess which one you should strive for.
#1 Critical Self-Parenting:
The voice you would hear if you employ this style of self-parenting is often unkind, angry and even hateful. Someone with this style of self-parenting constantly beats themselves up for not living up to their own expectations. Instead of learning from mistakes, a critical self-parent uses mistakes to confirm that they are not good enough and deserve to be punished. They are unforgiving with themselves and don’t recognize that all humans are imperfect. They use self-berating as a means of motivation. And even when they do succeed at something, they tend to focus on what they haven’t achieved.
#2 Neglectful Self-Parenting: This is the opposite extreme of critical self-parenting and often involves procrastination and depression. A person with this style might avoid tackling a problem or project, continually coming up with reasons not to do it. They also may speak to themselves unkindly, but their self-talk does not motivate them to take action.
Let’s look at how these two styles might play out in the real world using the example of a mother trying to get her child to clean his room.
• The critical parent might first criticize their child. If the kid doesn’t comply, the parent yells at him. And finally, the parent punishes the child if the room is still not cleaned up.
• The neglectful parent might just let her child live in a pigsty and ignore it. This might seem like an easier route, but failing to teach the child important life skills will likely lead to future problems and unhealthy consequences.
In the case of self-parenting:
• The critical self-parent berates herself until the job is done, feeling bad about it the entire time. Even when the job is completed she finds something wrong, telling herself: “I should have cleaned the house last week and I should have done all the windows too!”
• The neglectful self-parent lets her house go and uses excuse after excuse to avoid cleaning up.
# 3 Loving Self-Parenting: With this style, a person’s self-talk is kind and respectful. They don’t expect perfection — progress and process are sufficient. They encourage themselves by being supportive, rather than by beating themselves up as an attempt to self-motivate. On the other hand, they don’t just let things slide. They get things done because they feel encouraged and authentically motivated.
Being a loving self-parent is more effective than employing either the critical or neglectful styles because it leaves you feeling better throughout the process of pursuing a particular endeavor or goal. If you get stuck, you aren’t distracted by self-criticism or depression. Instead, you shift into problem-solving mode, trying to figure out what kind of help you might need in order to move forward. You treat yourself with compassion, rather than criticism.
What kind of self-parenting do you engage in? How do you speak to yourself throughout the day? How do you teach yourself when faced with a learning curve in life? How do you treat yourself during life’s many challenges?
Whenever I see the bumper sticker that reads, It’s never too late to have a happy childhood, I think about how a loving self-parenting style is how we can give ourselves the happy childhood we may not have had. No matter what kind of upbringing you experienced or what kind of self-parenting style you have adopted up until now, it’s never too late to treat yourself with compassion and kindness. By lovingly nurturing, encouraging, and motivating yourself, you can become the parent you always wanted.