I yelled at my daughter this morning.
Even though I apologized immediately and we hugged it out, I still feel terrible. I am wearing the guilt like an itchy sweater.
This reminded me of a conversation I had several years ago, before I was a mother myself. I was talking with a close friend about a tough day she’d had with her little ones. In a moment of overwhelm, she lost her temper and yelled at them. Since this was not aligned with who she wanted to be, she felt bad about it.
Instead of just listening, which I now understand is what she really wanted and needed, I jumped in to remind her that she was a great Mom (which she is, exceptional actually). Not letting her get a word in (I do that sometimes), I rationalized that everyone yells sometimes and basically just tried to make it all okay, ultimately failing to acknowledge and honour what she was feeling.
After I was done my monologue on how great she was, she quietly responded:
“I appreciate that you are trying to make me feel better. I know it’s not helpful to beat myself up. But it’s also not helpful to let myself off the hook.”
All these years later, now a mother to my own four year old daughter, this remains one of the most valuable pieces of parenting advice I have ever received.
Gentleness and Precision
As parents and caregivers we likely have lofty ideals about the person we want to be for our children. This includes behaving in alignment with our values. And my core values include not yelling, especially not at people I love, especially not at my child.
The thing about being human is that we miss the mark sometimes.
When that happens, it doesn’t serve us to become defensive, make excuses or rationalize the behaviour. It doesn’t help to seek out people who will co-sign our actions. It also doesn’t help to dissolve into a shame spiral.
These reactive tendencies don’t help us grow, and don’t help us improve. They take us even further away from who we want to be.
Pema Chödrön, one of my favourite authors, writes about approaching each moment with “gentleness and precision.” She encourages us all to develop an unconditional friendship with ourselves, while at the same time cultivating precision as we strive to live according to our ideals. In The Wisdom of No Escape, she writes:
If we see our so-called limitations with clarity, precision, gentleness, goodheartedness, and kindness and, having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before. In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we’re doing.
In this transformative way of being, we are kind to ourselves, and also honest. We don’t let defensiveness, excuses, or shame cloud an opportunity to expand and evolve. We all make mistakes. What matters is what we do next.
If we are willing to look at our actions and acknowledge that they are out of alignment with our values, then we make room to do things differently next time.
Nobody does it perfect all the time. Nobody.
If we can truly accept that, while having the aspiration and willingness to be the best version of ourselves moment to moment, we will be modeling something truly wonderful for our kids.
Because they won’t ever be perfect either. And they need to know that it’s okay to fall short. They also need to know that we don’t have to hide from our limitations. We can first acknowledge them, then leverage them for insight on how to be more loving, more present, more compassionate, and more aligned with our true selves.
When You Miss the Mark
Next time you fall short of your ideals, resist the impulse to either berate yourself or rationalize your actions. Occupy a mindset in between these two extremes.
Be as kind to yourself as you would a friend, and be willing to see yourself and your actions clearly.
Connect with who you really are, and who you want to be for your children, whatever is true for you.
Then be willing to fumble imperfectly and sincerely towards that ideal.
For those brave enough, please share some of your imperfect moments in the comments below. How can you leverage these for insight and growth?