Maureen and the Vicar

Beating yourself upWhen my husband and I were about to get married, we were invited to a kind of pre-marriage course at the vicarage. Truth be told, we didn’t go with an open mind, ready to learn something new. We were a little bit silly and sniggery about it. It seemed well meaning, but a little bit twee. And some of it was. There were definitely points where we were holding a “talking stick” in the vicarage gardens, trying to recreate an argument, and practising “good listening”. But the funny thing is, nearly a decade later, we still remember one thing the vicar and his assistant (I’m going to call her Maureen) told us – which is when the chips are down, when you don’t like each other very much, don’t generalise. Don’t resort to using the words “always” and “never”. It won’t help you. It won’t keep the lines of communication open. It won’t help either of you feel safe or heard. No one will feel willing or able to change when they hear those words or that sentiment.

And it would seem they were right about that. Obediently, to this day, we don’t do it. We do argue, don’t get me wrong. We probably do a whole bunch of other unhelpful things, but we don’t drop the “always” or “never” bombs when emotions are running high. Sometimes even the mention of Maureen and the vicar can break the tension.

And more recently, I’ve been all about the self-compassion movement. And I’m loving, just loving, the idea that our awareness is like the sky and our emotions are like a bird swooping and soaring in it. I really bloody love that. And that analogy echoes the message that Maureen and the vicar offered up. Our thoughts and emotions, if we sit back and observe them some, are transient, and changeable. They are not “always” or “never” things. Just because you feel or think something one moment, does not make it “true” the next. It’s enormously comforting when the emotions or thoughts are difficult or unwelcome. The knowledge that they will dissipate if you allow yourself to feel or think them, if you are kind to yourself as you do it, can make the extraordinarily tough slightly less hideous.

And I’m all about this. It makes enormous amounts of sense to me, and as my last blog post explained, it’s helped me negotiate some challenges of late. But I’m very new to it, and putting something, however much sense it makes, into practice, is hard beyond measure.

Like tonight. When I was parenting hungry (VERY dangerous territory), tired, and probably a bit hormonal too. One of the kids was rubbing me up the wrong way over and over. Oblivious to the risky mix bubbling within me, the challenges from him were coming thick and fast. And in my head, everything got all “always” and “never”. There was zero sitting back and observing my swooping and soaring thoughts and emotions. Definitely, there was none of that.

I could think of nothing good, constructive or helpful to say to the child. And I could think of nothing nice to say to myself either. Kind to myself I was not. My self critical voice went into overdrive: “you never have anything nice to say”, “you’re going to make him feel crap about himself, and it’ll be all your fault” “you are a miserable, grouchy old cow, poor kid having you as a mother” and so on and so forth. And funnily enough, I couldn’t turn it around. I couldn’t make the changes I wanted to in my own behaviour, I couldn’t find it in my to parent differently in that moment. Not with that unhelpful, self-destructive record playing in my head. Kristin Neff calls it the “Demoralizing Whip”.

If my husband and I disagree, I at least try to be considerate of his feelings, I at least try to consider how he might be experiencing my behaviour. I try not to generalise about his behaviour. I may not always be successful, but I give it a good go.

But when I’m unhappy with myself, particularly during a crappy moment like today’s, it’s ugly. It’s brutal. I show myself no mercy. I throw “always” and “never” around with wild abandon. I generalise freely, write myself off time and time again. I’m mean. And harsh. And not surprisingly, in moments such as these, I feel completely stuck. Unable to turn it around, and get back on a more even footing in the way I engage with whichever child it may be that day. And if it’s the end of the day (which it invariably is) there are fewer opportunities to make amends with the offspring I’ve battled with. Which can lead to yet more self-recrimination that I’ve been unable to make it all ok this side of bedtime.

But I won’t give up. My aim is to parent with self-compassion. And when I stop to listen to the vicious self-criticism I aim at myself in my most fragile of parenting moments, I am shocked. But not at all surprised that I struggle to make changes when my internal monolgue is so brutal.

When the chips are down on the parenting front, when it’s all gone down the pan, what are you saying to yourself? If you don’t like what you hear, join me in trying to apply Maureen and the vicar’s advice. Be kind. Don’t generalise. And don’t be hard on yourself if you fail and fall on your arse like I did tonight. Get up and try again. I’m going to.

Kristin Neff says it perfectly: “You don’t want to beat yourself up for beating yourself up in the vain hope that it will somehow stop you beating yourself up”. I like that. A lot.

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4 thoughts on “Maureen and the Vicar

  1. Thanks for sharing this, I like the way you’ve conveyed some interesting points with humour and generosity.

    Bye bye, “never” and “always.” xx

  2. Yes, yes! This!! Just found you via the mumsnet linky and I’m so glad I have. I’m specially excited to find in you another Brene Brown fan, too. I’ll be reading through your archives and will be striking ‘always’ and ‘never’ from my internal vernacular!!

    R x

    • Hi, Thanks! Brene rocks. I saw her talk at the RSA last week ( you can watch it online). Even though I was slightly over excited I also managed to listen and I loved what she had to say. Will check out your blog too. At a glance I’m already loving your honesty and humour! X

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