Self-Parenting for Difficult Times
Turn your hard-won self-knowledge into the perfect inner parent.
I am having a hard time thinking about things other than the current pandemic, so will take the opportunity to dip into a topic of recent interest for me: mustering an imaginary, but exemplary, parent as a tool for supporting and developing the self.
After all, we never really outgrow our need for the things that good parents do and provide: safety, care, encouragement, a humane mirror in which to develop our self-image over time.
Instead, we bring these jobs "in house" over time: self-soothing, giving oneself advice, praising, punishing, and rewarding the self.
As adults, each of us is fundamentally on their own emotionally. Your partner and friends can provide invaluable support, but they are unlikely to be able to function as surrogate parents (not for long, anyways).
Unless you die before them, your actual parents won't live forever. And, sadly, the better your parents did their job, the more you might feel their absence (The loss of a bad parent hurts too, in a different way - foregone possibilities, sealed forever).
So-called "reparenting" gets discussed plenty in the context of developmental trauma, but that term is a bit narrow. Some people really do need to be reparented, having missed out on good-enough parenting when they were actually children.
But many more people, including the non-traumatized, stand to benefit from simple self-parenting: ongoing provision of parental services to oneself, as an adult - not necessarily as a correction of the past, but as a continuation or perfection of the healthy parent-child dynamic.
Whether you were parented well, poorly, or somewhere in between, you can decide to learn from those positive or negative examples what good parents do. Now, do it for yourself.
What does good parenting look like?
Well, hell if I know... The subject matter admits of little precision. But we can still observe a few things.
Some parenting practices, like extreme authoritarianism and laissez-faire, are suboptimal for basically all children. But most parent-child pairs operate within the vast and messy middle ground: a little more or less strict, higher and lower expectations, dialing up the warmth without accidentally "coddling."
Good parents play the long game: all voice, no exit. They try things, think about them, try again. Parenting is like a big, high-stakes experiment with no control group and no do-overs.
Within the vast parenting middle ground, most parenting failures can be chalked up to poor parent-child fit. For instance, a parent may be committed to parenting the same way as s/he was parented (or the opposite way), yet find s/he gets a child who will thrive best under different conditions.
Even if you "turn out alright" - you know, finish college & get a job & earn some money - mismatched parenting still takes its toll. The best parent for you knows you, sees you, and serves up what you need when you need it.
The self-parenting advantage: self-knowledge
But if you're trying to parent yourself, there are two big advantages. Whereas it can be difficult to make a parent see who you really are, the limits of self-knowledge are less firm. Plus, regular parents are slow to pivot when their strategies don't work - but your inner parent can pivot anytime.
You may not have lucked into parents who really knew or saw you, but you can choose something different now. For effective self-parenting, take everything you know about yourself into account (and reconsider anything that isn't working).
What self-parenting looks like
Parents shouldn't (and usually can't) control you. But when they're good, they provide a check on your worst tendencies, while appreciating and even delighting in your better ones.
I can't give super specific tips for self-parenting because the whole point is that it's highly individualized. But think along these lines:
- If you are prone to obsessive achievement, conjure an inner parent who admires your accomplishments while still urging you to relax.
- If you are prone to complacency, conjure an inner parent who's invested in helping you to launch successfully and sustainably into the adult world.
- If you are susceptible to self-loathing, conjure an inner parent who glows with warmth and loves you just the way you are.
- If you have narcissistic tendencies, conjure an inner parent who knows you well enough to see how you're falling short and whose own humility reveals that it's a virtue not a vice.
A parent who carefully walks the line between too hard and too soft will be met with mixed reactions from their kids.
So, use this as your guide: if you always bristle at your inner parent, or you never listen to them, you inner parent may be much too hard or too soft for where you are now. Try a different approach.
Be your own best parent
If you are struggling with something that seems too muddled from the inside view, or if you waffle back and forth between thinking well and poorly of yourself, try self-consciously stepping into the shoes of your inner parent.
The inner parent may have access to considerations, tone, or techniques that don't arise organically from the first-person perspective.
Epilogue: Pandemic Self-Parenting
How about these?
- If you are prone to panic, your inner parent doesn't judge or scold - s/he encourages you to tolerate (but also loosen your grip) on the emotions that don't serve you well.
- If your adolescent recklessness lasts too long, your inner parent tries to habituate you to thinking through the consequences of your actions; s/he wants to know that you'll be reasonably safe when s/he's not around. S/he wants you to become a responsible full-fledged member of the moral community, and for your family to feel proud of you.
- If you try to stick your head in the sand to avoid painful truths, your inner parent makes a judgment call about whether that strategy is a harmless coping mechanism at this time. If it isn't, then the inner parent gently opens your eyes and directs them towards reality.
- If you become massively emotionally flooded - rationally or irrationally - the inner parent comes to your emotional aid and helps you to weather the storm. (But this is support, not "fixing it," making it go away, or denying the reality of the flood).
It's hard to see right now - hard to see what's out there, and hard to see what's going on inside.
When you take the perspective of another person, even an imaginary one, you really do see differently. Let your inner parent help.
Pamela J. Hobart - Philosophical Life Coaching Newsletter
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