Episode 2: How Your Inner Critic Affects Your Child


How Does a Voice that Lacks Self-Compassion Affect Your Child?

Having a  tough inner critic affects our children because we model this whether we realize it or not.  Parents are often skeptical about this, we go to great lengths to encourage our children, and we think, "they are not hearing this."  But a critical inner voice leads to a critical mindset, it forms the way we view things- with judgment.   Something usually has to be someone's fault, and as parents, we often make it ours.  Let's say your child pulls down some toys and knocks over a vase with flowers, you may stop yourself from being upset with them, but when we are used to this pattern of criticism it will go somewhere, "That's not your fault, mommy shouldn't have placed that there, or your older sister knows better than to put those there etc."  Your child is still learning that criticism is the go-to during a stressful situation. Even if you do not criticize them, they learn how to self-criticize from observing you.   They may even see this as something expected of them in order to create or maintain relationships.  

Even if you think you do a good job of not vocalizing your self-criticism around your child, it is hard to turn off something that becomes an unconscious habit. The voice in our head cannot help but pop out at our partner, the clerk at the grocery store and, our children. Our inner critic affects the way we interact with others, our confidence level, how or if we will advocate for ourself, the decisions we make about our own self-care, and the risks we won't take.

And here are a couple other ways this directly affects our parenting. . .

We lack clarity about ourself and our behavior when we are not kind to ourselves.  Our negative self-view becomes so overwhelming that we may not acknowledge our actual faults! And we may be really tough on ourselves for honest mistakes.  Not only does this teach our children to beat themselves up when they get something wrong, it makes us harder to gauge. We seem unpredictable and they have trouble connecting our behaviors, our reactions and our values. This makes our expectations seem unpredictable as well, so learning what is an appropriate and desired behavior in the household takes longer. This lack of understanding around our own behavior makes us less accountable in our relationships, something we really need in order to earn trust.  

Our world view is also impacted by our critical thinking. Our children hold on tight to everything we say, as babies they are learning language and as they get older they are creating schemas for their feelings and experiences.  Anger? How do we feel about it in our family? Is it shameful? Powerful? Just let me know and I will follow your lead.  They are watching to see how we problem-solve things and what our values are.  When our kids are little, it's their developmental job to view the world the way we do, so they know what is safe, what is not and how to build relationships and be a member of their family and community. We are their narrative for the world.  If we believe the world is a tough place full of terrible things that make our life difficult, they will get the memo.

 This is what we do as parents.  Our voice becomes the voice in our children's heads.  If you listen closely, you can hear your own parents some where in there.  You know when you can't get that song off your mind?  Well, as a parent, think of yourself as the DJ.  What kind of dance party are you trying to start?

At the end of the day, you are a super hero in your child's eyes and they aspire to be just like you, or if you have teens they look to you for guidance even if they would never want you to know that.  Think about all the things your kids do (especially the younger ones) to try to emulate you.   When we see it, it can kind of scare us and recharge us all at once.  Those moments when our responsibility and importance are so clear. Take a moment and think, would you want your child walking around in your shoes all day?  What would that be like for them?  How would they feel about themselves when the day was over? Were they around kind and supportive people? If they walked around in your shoes, would they get beaten up all day by the voice in their head?  What feelings come up right now?  We so easily find compassion for our children, but we can have a lot of trouble finding self-compassion.  If in this moment you cannot find it for yourself, recognize this and then I challenge you to

Imagine your child when they are your adult age- the age you are right now.  Do you see them? Who do you want inside their head?  You are planting that seed now.

What does the research say?

Findings suggest that self-compassion connects us more to to others, not less.  It improves the reality with which we view ourselves, so people that have self-compassion are motivated and hold themselves to a standard, not letting themselves off the hook for bad behavior.  They are more able to confront and deal with their shortcomings.  Those that practice self-compassion actually have less self-pity or selfishness and greater compassion for others.

How does this affect our mental health?

One of the most consistent findings in the research literature is that greater self- compassion is linked to less anxiety, depression, and stress. When we practice self-compassion we let go of self-criticism, and self-criticism is a known predictor of anxiety and depression.  When studied, those who were found to have more self-compassion also had greater emotional intelligence, wisdom, life satisfaction, feelings of social connectedness, happiness, optimism, curiosity, creativity, enthusiasm, inspiration and excitement.

And individuals that practice self-compassion are shown to manage negative life events with more resiliency.  

What about how all this impacts our  physical Health?

Self-compassion activates our self-soothing system in the way secure attachment and a sense of safety do. If you had a secure attachment to your parent, a relationship filled with trust, imagine that every time you practice self-compassion your body feels the same relief and support as you did as a child being comforted by this parent.  Except now, you are walking around with the power to do this any where, any time for your self.   It lowers our level of the stress hormone cortisol and lowers our sympathetic and cardiac parasympathetic responses.  So we are feeling more positive feelings and our body is way less stressed out.

Remember when we were thinking, just a moment ago,  about our kids as adults?  Wouldn't it be amazing to know they had all this? Wouldn't it be amazing if you had all this resiliency at your finger tips?  Well you do, you just need to start listening.

alright, How can we foster this kind internal voice?

Identify your inner voice and say Hello!  This voice will not beat you up, they will not put you down.  So make some room to let them in.  For some of you this exercise will take a lot longer than others because you may not have allowed yourself contact with your self-compassion for a long time.  If you forget what they sound like- they are compassionate, they are funny, they take a broader perspective, and they are realistic.  I have found that for some people it helps to use the voice they use for their children for themselves in order to get in touch with their self-compassion.  Experiment and start the dialogue.

Practice a self-compassion exercise.  Let yourself be the criticizer, let it out.   Then imagine yourself as the criticized, what does it feel like to hear all that?  And finally, imagine yourself as the compassionate observer.  This is where you can practice what that kind voice would say as it witnessed all that self-criticism. You can find this exercise at self-compassion.comDr. Kristen Neff's website.  She  is a pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion and she is the founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. She talks about the importance of "taking care of the caregiver."  I love this exercise because she acknowledges that all the amazing self-care activities we need (they are different for everyone but could be- yoga, meditation, massage, time-alone etc). are not always possible when we are "on the clock" as a caregiver.  So what do we do, when we are on overload but cannot clock out? We can turn to our inner voice, always with us, to be our compassionate observer.  

Let's look at how the mindfulness tenets we discussed in Episode 1 can support us here:

Acceptance.  This helps us to acknowledge our disappointment or frustration.  By accepting vs. criticizing, we are in a more realistic and calm place, to start thinking about the changes we are motivated to make.

Non-judgement. Now this one will come in really clutch as being critical of ourself, being critical of ourself, is quite the rabbit hole.  Notice that you made a mistake or are being critical.  You can practice letting it go or being curious.  

Be aware of your Expectations. What are we expecting from ourself?  And when we don't meet these expectations, how do we treat ourself?  This is an eye opening journal exercise.  Seeing the list of what you, expect from you, on paper, will probably make you want to give yourself a big hug.

Fill your head with Gratitude- for yourself.  Example: I was looking for paperwork I needed and I was running late, I found it and it was more complete than I remembered- thanks self from 3 hours ago! This may seem a little ridiculous at first but try to think of what you can thank yourself for each day with sincerity.

Listen. When your friends and family try to tell you how important you are, how much they appreciate something about you, do you allow yourself to really hear this?  Or do you immediately minimize their feedback with a self-deprecating comment? I know that society trains us to do this as a form of being polite, but I challenge you to just listen.  Notice your discomfort with these kind messages, if it's there, and keep practicing.

Finally let's check in with what may be creating obstacles or abundance in our self-compassion.  

Nourishment. Is it easier to practice self-compassion when you are nourished?  For most of us this is a yes! Have you nourished yourself today? Ate well, slept well, got some gym time in?  

Connection. Are you connecting with people that support your self-compassion?  Do you have the type of intimacy in your relationships where you can express this? What about the media you watch or listen to, your community groups?  Do their messages support your self-compassion?

Inspiration.  Is there someone who inspires you as a parent or individual?  Music or art?  What do these things tell or show you about your self-compassion?

Transformation. Finally, how may your environment affect you inner voice?  Did your child get in trouble at school?  Did you get a promotion at work?  Think about all the changes that may affect how you feel about yourself and what you say to yourself.

How often do you make space for this kind voice?  Do you notice how you feel when you allow this part of yourself to speak?  Do you notice differences in how you interact with your children?  Is this something you want to commit to focusing on?  Are there areas in your life where you are kinder and accepting of yourself and areas where you are pretty tough on yourself?

For those of you that want to commit to examining your self-compassion, I have linked resources for further reading.  

Kirsten Kuzirian