Unconditional Love: The Prequel
Love yourself first and everything else falls in line.
– Lucille Ball
There were so many interesting reader reactions to last week’s article on “Unconditional Love and Attention” that I felt it was important to take the issue one step further this week. One reader asked, “Isn’t unconditional love of self a pre-condition or critical foundation for loving our children unconditionally?” What a question! There is a body of research on self-compassion that answers with a resounding “Yes.” This research defines self-compassion as thinking about pain, suffering or failures in a self-soothing, nurturing and understanding way. Instead of allowing fear or guilt to motivate, the self- compassionate person is directed by understanding and forgiveness of themselves no matter what they are experiencing. Kristin Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind[i] shows how the brain wiring sets a course for optimism, happiness and motivation to change when thinking about a bad situation (even if it’s a problem they cause) in a self-soothing way. There’s a common misconception that this self-understanding could lead to laziness or a lowering of standards. “If I go easy on myself, how will I become a better person, professional or parent?” the argument might go. Her research supports the opposite. People who forgave themselves were more compassionate toward others, were more willing and able to turn feedback into a learning experience and had greater motivation to change behaviors for the better. Dr. Neff found that people who were trying to change a particular behavior like overeating or smoking had greater success rates if they had compassion for themselves through the difficult process. In one intervention, researchers had individuals write a letter to themselves every night for one week about a disappointment or situation which challenged them. Some were to write self-nurturing comments. Others were instructed to express self-critical thoughts. As much as six months later, the ones with self-nurturing letters were experiencing greater happiness; the others, greater depression.
As parents, we know our job is the toughest in the world. If we are learning parents, reflective parents, the kind of parents who read articles like this, then we may be even more prone to self-criticism. This past week my dear friend and an amazing Mom was recovering from surgery and despite her pain and fatigue was jumping up and down to attend to her girls, who were acting out because it had been a stressful week. After being kind and firm with them as they fought as siblings can, she plopped down exhausted in her chair and lamented that she could hardly keep up with them. Later that night, I wrote to her about what a terrific Mom she is and will continue to be. She was grateful for the feedback. So we in the parent’s club need to support one another. I also received an email the next day from a mentor telling me I could be less hard on myself. And so it made me realize it’s so much easier to observe, be compassionate and be non-judgmental about others. But when we look in the mirror at ourselves so often we are critical.
The name “Valentine” means “worthy.” So in this season of love, Valentine’s Day, know that you are worthy. Remember that if you are striving toward goals of improvement in your life, it is self-compassion, forgiveness and nurturing that are going to get you there. Happy Valentine’s Day!
For two great articles that were released in 2011, check out:
“The science of willpower: Secrets for self-control without suffering” by Kelly McGonigal, PhD in Psychology Today