Dr. Laura Markham
“I was born perfect. The rest is just beliefs that I picked up…I don’t believe them anymore. I choose to believe that I am perfect and whole.” – Caron Goode
Ever wondered why some parents can keep a sense of humor in the face of their child’s challenging behavior while another parent starts yelling? Why some parents plague themselves with criticism, worry and doubt while others seem more able to just relax and enjoy their children?
Yes, some children are more challenging than others. But whatever our child’s behavior, some of us find it harder to stay calm than others. Why?
Sometimes, it’s just our stress level. We all know that when we’re under stress, we’re less patient.
But most often it’s our own thoughts and attitudes, which means the way we’re interpreting the situation. So where one parent might respond to a child’s rudeness with quiet dignity and curiosity about why the child is so upset, another might get triggered, believing that defiance is dangerous.
We don’t even notice such beliefs, which are usually unconscious and were often shaped in early childhood. For instance,
- If our parents reacted harshly when we got upset, we concluded that getting emotional is an emergency, and we go into fight or flight mode when our child gets upset — so our child looks like the enemy.
- If we weren’t treated with respect when we were young, we may grow into adults who perceive others as disrespecting us — and we often react with anger to the slightest defiance, even from a three year old.
- If we never felt really seen and heard and appreciated for who we are, we may think that children who are being emotional or acting out “just want attention” — as if that’s a bad thing!
- If we concluded as children that we simply weren’t good enough, then we’ll set impossibly high standards and torment ourselves with self-criticism.
- If our experiences with our own parents made us suspect we weren’t lovable, we may doubt our ability to unconditionally love our own children, and we may withhold love from ourselves.
We often talk about thoughts and beliefs as if they’re interchangeable. Actually, beliefs are more like a subconscious worldview that shapes how we perceive our experiences, and gives rise to our thoughts. So our beliefs are what lead us to get so upset at our kids, and ourselves.
Why is the mind so self-critical? One of the core beliefs of most minds is that until we’re perfect, we don’t deserve to be loved, and if we aren’t loved, we’ll die. So the mind has a big incentive to bludgeon us into perfection. Guess where the mind formed that belief?
- When we were infants, and would have died if we couldn’t get our parents to love and care for us.
- When our parents, because of their own issues, couldn’t unconditionally love us, so we concluded that we weren’t lovable.
- When we were punished as children and secretly gave up on being able to please our parents.
- Anytime we felt criticized, and judged ourselves as not good enough.
Want to heal your self-criticism? Six simple steps. (Okay, not so easy. But simple. You can do this.)
- Say aloud: “I have to be perfect to be loved.” Notice your emotional and/or physical reaction. (For me, this phrase makes me crumple.) This is what we’re going to heal. Now just put that aside for a moment.
- How did your parents react when you displeased them?Imagine a particular incident from your childhood. Play the scene out in your mind with you as the observer. Notice their reactions. Notice your reactions, inside and out. What did you conclude?
- Can you see why you concluded that you weren’t “good enough”to be lovable, just the way you were, from this interaction and others? After you “learned” this belief, you applied it to many other situations. Thoughts derived from this belief create your feelings in interactions even today.
- Imagine a compassionate observer. Might someone watching have formed a different interpretation than you did? For instance, might they have concluded that?
- Your parents were well-intentioned and loved you, but were misinformed about bringing up emotionally healthy children?
- Your parents’ expectations were unreasonable?
- Even if you had been perfect your parents might have found fault with you just because they were human and hadn’t been unconditionally loved themselves?
- Humans are by definition imperfect, but you were then and are now “more than enough” and completely lovable?
- Give your younger self an alternate explanation for your parents’ behavior. Tell yourself: “You are lovable and more than enough, just the way you are.” Say it aloud. (Yes, aloud. That’s an important part of reprogramming your subconscious.) How does that feel? Say it again. Let that good feeling sink in. Say it again: “I am more than enough.”
- Now say aloud again: “I have to be perfect to be loved.”Notice your emotional reaction. Are you indignant now, rather than hopeless? That’s a good sign. If the words just feel flat, with no emotional resonance, they’re no longer true for you. If they feel even a bit true, just keep repeating this exercise until the belief is gone.
A deep belief like this one can take some daily reflection to “reprogram,” maybe even a few minutes daily for a month. But since this belief is behind so much of our inner criticism, it’s worth it. Even, potentially, miraculous.
Aside to self-critical parents: Are you feeling a bit nervous about the beliefs your child is forming? You don’t have to be perfect. Deep beliefs don’t derive from a single incident but the accumulation of repeated parent-child interactions. Just keep supporting yourself to stay emotionally regulated and connected, and your child’s beliefs will keep evolving as you do.