The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice
– Peggy O’Mara
Recently, I had a discussion with my parents. It was a minor thing, or it was supposed to be. It’s something that many adult children will have to face with their parents: the roles between parent and child shift. They become equals. Everyone in the room is an adult, but ageing parents can struggle to remember this. They may still see their adult children as being stuck at 12 years old. So sometimes things need to be addressed and boundaries need to be asserted.
In most situations, parents will (and should!) respond with acknowledgments of wrong-doing and sincere apologies. They may not always understand why it was an issue at all, but they can understand that they hurt their child. They will want to take responsibility for what they’ve done.
Mine chose to take that opportunity to remind me that my role in our relationship is to show them empathy first and foremost. Whatever line they may have crossed did not matter, because their intentions should be regarded as the important thing. And, they insisted, their intentions were good. So I should just move on and let it go.
My concerns had been dismissed. My boundaries had been dismissed. I was told that my feelings did not matter because theirs were the ones that mattered instead.
I had a realization: This had been my entire relationship with them since childhood. They were the authority figures who were always right, and I was the submissive child. This has been such a big part of my identity that I learned to dismiss and invalidate my own feelings in order to over-empathize with the feelings of other people. I never noticed that I was doing this. It was just deeply ingrained in me that if I wanted a peaceful relationship with others, I needed to forget about my own needs.
My inner voice had become my parents’ voices: “You misunderstood.” “You need to lighten up and learn to take a joke.” “It doesn’t matter what the impact of their behaviour is on you – think about what they were feeling instead!” “Don’t say anything, just keep the peace and let it go.”
Needless to say, this had a huge impact on my relationship with others throughout my life.
I allowed abusers in because I was already taught that my boundaries don’t matter.
I allowed abusers in because I was already taught that my feelings don’t matter.
I allowed myself to stay in toxic environments because I was already taught that I needed to accommodate those who meant to take advantage of me.
Now I understand why I struggled for so many years. It is because I had been given a bad model of what it meant to self-parent.
Self-parenting refers to your inner voice. This is the voice that speaks the loudest to you. Your self-parent will tell you how to respond to others, how to view yourself, how to push yourself, and how to take care of yourself. Your self-parent is the voice that makes your decisions for you. This voice is literally you parenting and guiding yourself to be whoever you will be, for better or for worse.
This voice will parent you, most often, using the same means that your own parents used when they held that responsibility. If your parents empowered you to think kindly of yourself and make good choices for yourself, your self-parent will more than likely continue to use those same parenting methods. You will already know how to have compassion for yourself when you need to. You will understand how to forgive yourself when you need to, and how to believe in yourself in order to lead a healthy life and thrive.
If, however, you were raised in a dysfunctional home with parents who did not have the proper skills to equip you with a kind and loving self-parent, this will impact the way your inner voice guides you. You will, quite likely, need to be very intentional about recognizing and breaking bad parenting methods in order to self-parent in a healthy and gentle way.
“As adults, we treat ourselves the way our caretakers treated us as children. We hold ourselves to the standards that were imposed upon us. We live by the rules we were taught. We hold beliefs about people – especially ourselves – that we do not even know we have.”
– Katherine Broadway MDiv LPC, What is Self-Parenting?
As an example:
We know that we need to take care of ourselves by eating healthy and exercising. But we don’t always want to because it doesn’t feel good. It’s hard. We have no time.
The dysfunctional self-parent will tell us that we’re not worth the time, money, or energy to invest in ourselves like that. So why bother?
The loving self-parent will acknowledge those hard feelings and validate them as real and important. But the loving self-parent will also still insist on self-care because it knows that we are worth all the time, energy, and money it takes to be healthy.
“How would you treat yourself if you were someone you loved? This is one of my favourite questions. It is not only instinctive to take good care of someone you love, but also to take good care of yourself. Unfortunately, we are trained to un-learn our loving instincts when it comes to ourselves. Many people are unaware of how they treat themselves. They spend their lives angry about the kind of care they received as children but end up offering themselves the very same kind of care. There comes a point in life when you have to take ownership of your own caretaking — to consciously choose the kind of relationship you will have with yourself.” – Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev., Self-Parenting 101
What I’ve learned about myself is that my self-parent is more interested in the feelings of other people than in her own feelings. I’ve taught myself how to rationalize away the abuse of other people.
I’ve been taught by my actual parents that the “intent” and feelings of others mean everything, and the consequence of someone else’s actions means little.
If someone hurts me by the way that they speak to me, I’ve learned not to focus on that. I’ve learned to justify my own pain away by trying to understand why that person behaved in such an extreme way. I’ve learned to have more empathy for what triggered that person’s behaviour than for my own very real pain. I’ve learned to extend grace and compassion to people who hurt me, while dismissing my own feelings as unimportant.
This was a soul-awakening revelation for me.
On the one hand: wow. It really hurts and it makes me angry to have had the kind of parents who would equip me with an inner voice and self-parent that would undermine my own inherent value at every turn. That is a really hard truth to grasp. Because who wants to see that about their own parents?
On the other hand: this is empowering information to have. I know now how I got here. I know why I’ve allowed certain behaviour into my life. Now it’s on me to take responsibility for how I self-parent from this day forward. I have the power to change my reality by changing how I speak to myself and guide myself.
I can now teach myself that I actually do matter.
I can now teach myself that my feelings matter and are valid.
I can now teach myself to take time and space to feel my feelings and have compassion for myself.
I can now teach myself that my boundaries are important and to not bend them for anyone.
I can now teach myself to have higher standards for the people I keep close.
I can teach myself all of the things that my parents should have taught me from birth and yet failed to do so. Likely because of their own parents’ failure to equip them with the ability to self-parent in a healthy manner.
A parent’s role in their child’s life is to equip them to thrive. This means that the child needs to be actively taught to not only learn how to exist in the greater world around them by learning the unspoken rules of their culture, how to physically care for themselves, how to appropriately interact with other people, etc… they also need to be taught how to speak to themselves kindly and with love. They need to be taught how to self-parent in a healthy way.
This starts, first and foremost, with the adults in their lives.
Be kind to yourself, friends. You matter.