122: Self-Compassion for Parents

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In this episode, Dr. Susan Pollak helps us to apply mindfulness skills to our relationships with our children so we can parent in line with our values, rather than just reacting when our children push our buttons.

You'll learn:

- What's the point of mindfulness, and does it matter if we bring our full attention and presence to diaper changes?

- Why we're so hard on ourselves, even when we always try to be kind to others

- Some concrete tools to use when you interact with your children TODAY in those moments when it seems like everything is falling apart.

Dr. Pollak is a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a long-time student of meditation and yoga who has been integrating the practices of meditation into psychotherapy since the 1980s.

Dr. Pollack is cofounder and teacher at the Center for mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance, and has just stepped down as President of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, a position which she held since 2010. She also writes regularly for Psychology today on the topic of integrating mindfulness into daily life.

Other episodes related to this topic:

Parental Burn-Out

No Self, No Problem

Helping children to develop compassion

Patriarchy is perpetuated through parenting

Mindfulness tools with Mindful Mama Hunter Clarke-Fields

Some key points from the interview:

4:08 Many of us, present company included, we're not raised to be kind to ourselves.

10:47 Mindful self-compassion acknowledges that we need to start with mindfulness. (I've been teaching this course for over a decade, and I've seen that) a lot of people just can't start with compassion because it's foreign for most of us to treat ourselves kindly.

53:59 Allow yourself to rest for a moment feeling that you have distance from the storm, some space from the turbulence to recognize that you are not the storm. (paraphrased)

59:03 It's such a common misconception about mindfulness that you have to sit still and not think about anything. And, you know, people are relieved to know that [mindfulness] is not about stopping our thoughts. It's really about finding a different relationship with our thoughts.

[accordion]

[accordion-item title="Click here to read the full transcript"]

Jen 00:03

Hi, I'm Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you'd like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Safely Leave Behind, seven fewer things to worry about, subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you'll join us.

Jen 01:00

Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. In this episode, we're going to draw threads together from across a number of recent episodes. Most obviously it picks up on our interview with Dr. Moira Mikolajczak where we discuss parental burnout. After that episode concluded Dr. Mikolajczak and I emailed a bit about tools that could potentially help parents, and the primary one that she found useful was the idea of self-compassion. And that's what we're going to discuss today. This topic also picks up on our conversation with Dr. Chris Niebauer about the stories that our left brain tells us by giving us some concrete strategies on how to do that. And it builds on a conversation we had about three years ago with Dr. Brendan Ozawa-de Silva on the topic of compassion. We also touch on issues related to patriarchy and go deeper into some of the mindfulness tools that Hunter Clark-Fields shared with us recently.

Jen 01:50

And here to do all of this with us is Dr. Susan Pollak, who is a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a longtime student of meditation and yoga and has been integrating the practices of meditation into psychotherapy since the 1980s. Dr. Pollack is cofounder and teacher at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, and has just stepped down as President of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, a position that she held since 2010. She also writes regularly for Psychology Today on the topic of integrating mindfulness into daily life. Welcome, Dr. Pollack.

Dr. Pollak 02:24

Thanks, Jen. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Jen 02:28

So, we're going to talk a lot about your book. Because it's on the topic of Self-Compassion for Parents. And one thing that I really liked as I was reading through your book, is the idea that it isn't a manual for self-compassion. It doesn't teach you step by step what self-compassion is, and then how to apply it. I loved what Dr. Chris Germer said in your foreword and he said, I'm going to quote, "The book connects with the direct experience of parenting through detailed examples, personal anecdotes, and elegant exercises to transform parenting struggles through the tools of mindfulness and self-compassion." So that said, we're definitely going to be digging into some more of those things for as we go today, but I'm wondering if we could start by having you help us to understand what is compassion. And from there, what is self-compassion, and also this idea of mindful self-compassion that I know is really important to your work?

Dr. Pollak 03:21

Okay, and let me first just respond to your kind words, because my feeling is, there's no recipe for parenting. And I know you're a parent. I am a parent of two kids. And as of just a week ago, a grandmother,

Jen 03:39

Congratulations!

Dr. Pollak 03:40

Thanks! So, I think it's really important for your listeners to, to realize that one size doesn't fit all.

Jen 03:49

Yeah.

Dr. Pollak 03:50

You know, I'm not going to be able to give you a recipe for how to be the perfect, compassionate, mindful parent, you know, you have to figure out what works for you, and what works for your kids.

Jen 04:07

Yeah.

[caption id="attachment_6394" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Many of us, present company included, we're not raised to be kind to ourselves.[/caption]

Dr. Pollak 04:08

So that said, let me jump into just some really workable definitions. And let me tell you, I really don't like psychological jargon. So, let me speak in English. So, one way to understand compassion is to really look at the root of the word, which is Latin, and it means to suffer with. Okay, so that's kind of theoretical, what it means in real life, is to really see somebody and to connect with their pain, or the difficulty they're having. So self-compassion, and this is a pretty radical concept, is learning to be kind to yourself. Again, it's that simple. So many of us, present company included, we're not raised to be kind to ourselves. So, it can feel weird, awkward, foreign, like "What? Be kind to myself? No, no, I have to push myself. I have to drive myself. What are you talking about?" So, for me, that concept of being kind to myself felt foreign. And, again, an easy way to think about it is, when you're having a hard time, think about what you say to yourself. And I don't know if your inner language is like my inner language, but to be very self-disclosing. I used to say, "Oh, Susan, that was stupid." Or "Oh, Susan, you're an idiot." or "Oh, how could you have said that?" You know, "You've really blew that." So, it was this constant soundtrack of criticizing myself.

Dr. Pollak 05:56

But think also, what you might say, if a friend told you that for someone you really cared about that she had done, or he had done something similar to what you did. And you probably wouldn't say to your friend, "Oh, John, that was so stupid. I can't imagine you said that. How could you have done that? What were you thinking? What is wrong with you? You are such a loser?" Well, I mean if you said that to a friend, you probably wouldn't have many friends. Okay, so we, we do know how to respond kindly. You would probably say, "Look, John, you know, you're human, we all screw up, you know, everyone is a parent..." Let me just kind of stick to the topic of parenting here. Everyone is a parent has really bad days, you know, that book that I've loved Alexander and that No Good, Terrible, Awful Day. I mean, we as parents have those terrible, no good awful days. But you know how nice it would be. If you could say to yourself, "Jen, that was just a really rough day, we all have it, it happens. You know, don't beat yourself up, that's not going to solve the problem. Let's move on here." Or even better with the child, okay, let's make a repair. You know, let's say sorry, gee, mommy really lost it. Or, you know, I used to say, with my kids, when I was having a hard time, "Oops, mommy hit the roof there." You know, let's take a time out or a time in to repair. Okay, so that's our definition of compassion.

Jen 07:47

And actually, if I could pause just there for a second, as you were saying, I wasn't raised with this way of thinking. It made me realize none of us were. And it seems to me is it though it's, I mean, it's coming from this Protestant work ethic, right that if you work hard enough, you will be able to achieve and if you're not working hard enough, that's probably why you're not achieving. And so, the only thing to do is self-flagellate and work harder.

Dr. Pollak 08:11

Exactly. And supposedly, I know, you're also interested in culture and cross culture, real issues, supposedly, in other countries. There isn't as much self-loathing and self-flagellation because I remember hearing the story, where the Dalai Lama's translator was asking, translating questions like, Okay, so what are we supposed to do if we hate ourselves? And he'd say, "What?"

Jen 08:40

"What do you mean?"

Dr. Pollak 08:41

What do you mean, if we hate ourselves, and the translator and the Dalai Lama went back and forth, back and forth. This is how the story is recounted, and he had the hardest time understanding why people would hate themselves, why there was such loathing. But I am with you both in terms of the Protestant work ethic and also patriarchy, like, yes, you know, you have to drive yourself, okay, you can't be lazy, you can't slack off. And I think that's where those, that inner critic comes from, like, Oh, you screwed up, you idiot. What is wrong with you? So anyway, just to touch on the importance with those three definitions. The other thing I want to draw on in terms of compassion, and this, I know you're a research geek as well. So, this will probably interest you. One of the pieces of research when they're looking at in fMRI brain scan of what happens with the brain on compassion is it seems to activate the motor neurons. So, compassion is tied to action. And I remember when I was writing the book, I tried to use this headline saying compassion is a verb, because it's active. And of course, the editor being an editor said, No, it's not. So anyway, so I'd let that go. But if we can think of compassion is active, you know, basically, how can you respond? How can you tune in to what that person might need or what that child might need? Or what you might need in the moment? That is really the essence of what a compassionate and self-compassionate response is.

Jen 10:38

Okay.

Dr. Pollak 10:39

Now do you still want a definition of mindfulness.

Jen 10:42

That would be awesome. Yeah. And is, specifically the mindful self-compassion. Yeah.

[caption id="attachment_6393" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Text on a page with the word kindness highlighted in pink. A lot of people just can't start with compassion. It's foreign, for most of us to treat ourselves kindly.[/caption]

Dr. Pollak 10:47

Okay. So, what happened in terms of the mindful self-compassion, and I love to give credit where credit is due. Kristin Neff was really the first researcher to do research on compassion, in 2003, had begun to write a number of essays and articles, framing this new construct that she called self-compassion. My friend and colleague, Chris Grimmer, who wrote the foreword of the book. thought, "Whoa, this is really important." And also, I need this. And, you know, so many, we know, Neil. And they connected and put together this program. And I know you will have references to their books, and the eight-week course and their books on self-compassion. So mindful self-compassion, acknowledges that we need to start with mindfulness. And I've been teaching this course for over a decade, a lot of people just can't start with compassion, again, going back to what I was saying, in that it's foreign, for most of us to treat ourselves kindly. But it seems that if we start with the foundation of mindfulness, then people can be more open to compassion. And in fact, again, some of the research is now saying that one of the secret sauce of mindfulness seems to be this element of accepting, without judgement, warmly kindly accepting. So now let me segue into a definition I like, and this is very hands on. Okay, so again, I don't want it to be abstract. So, the easiest thing to do is just with me, raise your hand, if you like, and just wiggle your fingers. Okay, so mindfulness, very simply, is, knowing what you're doing at the moment. It's nothing, Woo Woo, it's nothing, you know, fanciful, it's nothing weird. It's just present moment awareness, with kindness without judgement. So, you're feeling your hand, you're not saying, "Oh, Jen, You're such an idiot." for you know, wiggling your fingers. Just say, "Okay, I'm sitting here, moving my hand, feeling my hand again, being present in the body." And we'll talk about that as well. without judgement.

Jen 13:33

Yeah, so I'm not looking at my hands. And my hands are really big in the picture.

Dr. Pollak 13:38

Oh, I don't have a manicure. Either. Something absurd.

Jen 13:41

Never had that. But yeah, I've heard Joseph Goldstein explain, you know, what is mindfulness, this big topic, and he says, "Sit and know you're sitting."

Dr. Pollak 13:52

Exactly. Exactly. It's that simple.

Jen 13:55

Yeah. And and I think I saw in your book, actually a quote from Sharon Salzberg, that I really liked. It said, mindfulness doesn't depend on what is happening, but is about how we are related to what is happening.

Dr. Pollak 14:06

Exactly, exactly.

Jen 14:08

Yeah.

Dr. Pollak 14:08

And I think that really says it all. And a lot of people keep coming back to the fact that it's not the external circumstances. It's really the inner experience of how we are dealing with what's happening to us. And as Joseph, let me just make a link between those two teachers, as Joseph Goldstein would say, what is the attitude in the mind? You know, is there resistance? Is there a version, you know, are you saying, Oh, poor me, or are you saying, Okay, this is what's happening? And he puts it wonderfully again, which is anything can happen to anyone, at any time.

Jen 14:58

Mm hmm. Okay, so let's Maybe make this super concrete for parents, you talk in the book about diaper changing.

Dr. Pollak 15:06

Yeah.

Jen 15:06

Which is a task that most parents have done once or twice. There are some parents who managed to take a different path with it. But the majority of parents are doing a decent number of diaper changes for a period of some years. And you described a mindful diaper change. And anyone who's reading your book and knows anything about resources, infant educators, or RIE, well will read that description and they'll just think, you know, this has so many parallels to the idea of it's called wants something quality, time in RIE. It's the idea that even caregiving tasks, which typically, society trains us to, and we think of ourselves as things, we just need to get through them. And then we can do the fun stuff that the other side, you know, we can play with the baby. But actually, even these caregiving tasks, even if they seem unpleasant to us, they're still opportunities for connection. Can you maybe draw that out a little bit in the way that you see it?

Dr. Pollak 16:02

Sure. And I also want to thank you, because as I mentioned, my son, and daughter in law just had a new baby, and I got baby just got back from the hospital recently. And I got an email from him saying, Oh, you know, change seven diapers today. And you sent me a wonderful link that I thought was so moving. And you I'm sure you want to include that in the show notes. Where the writer really talks about respecting the child,

Jen 16:35

Gosh, I don't know who it was....

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