How Self-Compassion Saved My Daughter…and Me

My older daughter Maya was born sensitive, curious, and creative.   As Maya grew, I learned that all of her five senses were extra sensitive.  For her sounds were louder, smells and tastes more acute, she had a strong draw to everything tactile, and she saw  “light shows” that made artificial lighting both intriguing and exhausting.  Maya’s overstimulated nervous system made it difficult for her to regulate her emotions, and full out meltdowns were a common occurrence.  When Maya was given free time, her curiosity and creativity allowed her to engage herself in a task for hours.  At the same time, transitions and rote tasks were incredibly challenging for her because they pulled her away from the mesmerizing present moment. 

When Maya became preschool age, I felt challenged as to how to both support her curiosity and creativity as well as facilitate her acquisition of simple life skills and lead her to accept redirection.  Maya’s intense wonder and curiosity made walking from her preschool to the car parked in front of the building a half-hour endeavor (with periodic meltdowns), and brushing her teeth a task that required many, many redirections.  

I practiced mindfulness to stay calm.  I tried making tasks and transitions playful.  And I tried “love and logic” to see if consequences would help her to acquire a bit of self-discipline.  As much as I tried to be neutral or compassionate when Maya failed to complete a “simple” task, Maya picked up on my subtle signs of frustration.  Over time she began to develop the low self-esteem that comes from knowing that you are not living up to the standards of the adult who you so desperately want to please.  She began to push herself to try to complete a task (like hanging up her jacket) with intense effort and self-criticism.  She began to be ashamed of her curious, creative, sensitive, beautiful self.

To have my daughter begin to lose her sense of self-worth was my worst nightmare, and  I began to see a helping professional in the hopes that I could learn to be more patient and less reactive to Maya’s distractibility and frequent tantrums.  The professional who I worked with suggested that I needed more self-compassion.  She suggested that I was “too hard on myself.”  Hmmmm……

I read a little bit about self-compassion, and then I signed up for a Mindful Self-Compassion training course.  I learned how to truly “be there” for myself in my difficult moments.  I learned how to let go of shame about my imperfections because I began to  understand deeply that we all have imperfections.  I began to ask myself how I could be more kind to myself.  I had always been good at “self-care,” but I began to practice self-kindness.  And a remarkable thing began to happen, as I began to apply self-compassion to myself, I naturally began to help Maya to acquire  self-compassion as well.

As I learned how to walk myself through the voice of shame into the sunlight of compassion, I was increasingly able to walk Maya through the voice of shame into the sunlight of compassion.  As I learned how to embrace my own imperfections, I became able to help Maya to embrace her imperfections.  As I grew in self-love and self-appreciation, I helped Maya to grow self-love and self-appreciation.  And my daughter and I both began to thrive.

Self-compassion proved to be the missing ingredient to helping Maya learn to apply self-discipline with kindness.  She can now acknowledge that because of her intense curiosity and creativity, performing a rote task can be incredibly challenging for her.  And she has been increasingly able to use her strengths to make a game out of routine tasks.  Self-compassion is not so much a technique as it is a way of being.  A way of being with ourselves that naturally transfers to those we love.  Learning to practice self-compassion on myself was the best gift I could ever have given my daughter.  It saved her from a voice of shame and self-criticism, and it gifted her with an appreciation for her unique and beautiful self.

Listening to the Many Parts of Ourselves

A few weeks ago I was contemplating schooling options for my daughters for next year.  Even though my daughters currently attend a wonderful, progressive school that is a block and a half from the home where we are living, every so often I hear a little voice that tells me that I should enroll my children in a Montessori School.  Lately, I have heard so many wonderful things about Montessori schools, that I decided to ask my older daughter, Maya, if she would even be interested in attending a Montessori school.

When I discussed the idea of Montessori schooling with Maya, she expressed what I like to call “side by side” feelings about the idea of changing schools.  She expressed excitement at the prospect of having more autonomy in a Montessori School as well as fear about the prospect of leaving her friends at her current school. 

That same evening that we had had the Montessori discussion, I found out that the home that we are currently renting is going to be put up for sale.  My mind started to swirl with possibilities because our lease only goes through the end of the month after next.   During dinner that night, I shared with my daughters that there was a possibility that we might be moving in the future, and we had a little discussion about that idea as well.

When it was time to put Maya to bed that night, she was so full of feelings about the idea of a new school and the possibility of moving that I realized that we would need to do a little “integration” work before putting her to bed.   Luckily, inspiration supplied me with an idea that involved clay, a flashlight, and a little “feelings” imagination.

I asked Maya to name the feelings that she had in relation to the possiblity of potentially changing schools and moving.  Together we named and created clay characters for the “amygdala” (Maya’s idea–colloquially known as STRESS), excitement, balance, the “leaper,” sadness, fear, denial and joy/love. 

After we had created all of the figures that represented the different feelings and voices that she had in her mind, we took turns shining the flashlight of awareness on each figure as we listened to what it had to say.  The leaper was excited about the prospect of changing to a Montessori School; denial said that nothing would change….ever.  Balance suggested a balanced approach and sadness talked about the feelings that Maya would have if she no longer went to school with her best friend.  Love and joy reminded us that our family would be together no matter what, and that throughout any change or absence of change, love and community would be a constant.

As we took the time to listen to each of the many voices, Maya began to feel calmer and more ready for bed.  Instead of pushing down her fear or sadness, we had taken the time to listen to and integrate their voices.  Maya went to bed peacefully that night, and I found that I, too, had benefited from our feelings integration session.

Indeed clay figures are not just for children.  In the weeks that followed the announcement of our home going on the market, I created additional clay figures (the voice of the dollar, the nurturer, the curmudgeon) and spent time listening to and contemplating the input from the many voices.  Even though part of me (the “leaper”) is still excited about the prospect of Montessori schooling for my daughters, I am also listening to the quiet voice of wisdom that encourages me to have them continue to attend the wonderful school down the street that they love.  Similarly there is a steady voice that is advising me not to move yet and to instead explore the possibility of purchasing the home that we are currently renting.

Ultimately, what is important is not the decisions that our family makes-to change schools or not, to move or stay put. What is important is that I am listening to the many voices with openness and curiosity and listening still further for the steadiness beneath them all.  What is important is that I am asking the questions, “What do I need?”  and “What do my children need?” and listening carefully to the answers to these questions.

This poem by Mary Oliver, entitled The Journey, illustrates some of the truths that I am finding on this journey of questioning and listening (click on the title of the poem to read it).  Thank you for sharing in this journey of rediscovering wholeness with me.