I’ve been known to make a few mistakes in my life. One in particular was putting butter in the microwave to soften it up for spreading. More often than not, I’d leave it in too long and it would melt all over. Then I would do a Homer Simpson- “D’OH!!! I DID IT AGAIN! WHAT AN IDIOT!” It seemed like this mistake was contagious! My wife and my kids would do it too — “ARGH!!!.” Now, whenever we make a mistake of any sort, we say: “Everyone puts butter in the microwave.”
We are not alone, we all make mistakes
Normalizing it this way helps us remember that we are not alone and that making mistakes is part of being human. This idea that we are not alone is a key element of Mindful Self-Compassion developed by Kristin Neff, PhD, and Chris Germer, PhD, at The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion . They call it common humanity, and it is a key element in the practice of treating oneself with more care and tenderness. When we judge ourselves, we feel shame. We tend to isolate ourselves and detach from those who love us. We feel alone and forget that we are part of a larger population of people who all make mistakes.
Demands of a New Dad
As a new father, I was surprised at how demanding and challenging it was being a Dad. Especially when my kids were young, they needed my attention, presence, redirection, patience and compassion. Yet there were so many times I just couldn’t be as present for them as I think they needed. Sometimes I focused my attention on work, or I was seriously inconsistent in my follow through with a promise or consequence. Giving your kids focused attention and consistent guidance are hard things to provide perfectly, consistently and adequately. I made mistakes and fell short. I’ve noticed that some of the Dads I work with tend to hold themselves to an extremely high standard. They cut themselves very little slack and are reluctant to forgive themselves for being imperfect.
No father carries out the job of parenting perfectly
Not one. I’ve worked with men and fathers for many years, and it always pains me when I hear one of them call himself an idiot, a wimp, a piece of sh*t. Men seem hardwired to trash themselves. I suspect that it comes from a socialization process that promotes performance, self-reliance, deliverables and outcomes. In general, men are trained to de-emphasize life’s challenges. They drive themselves to be successful and independent, are rarely vulnerable and in need. For many fathers, acknowledging that they make mistakes or fall short is unacceptable and threatening to their self-identity. But in the end, we all put butter in the microwave.
Here are three things to ask when you find you are calling yourself an idiot or judging yourself too critically:
- Would I like it if I heard my child call him or herself what I just called myself? How might I reframe my judgement or criticism in a way that honors the effort over the outcome? One idea: your intentions were good. Your ‘mistake’ is not an indictment of who you are. It’s more an indictment of the circumstances (time pressure, degree of difficulty, being careless). You can still take responsibility for a mistake without trashing yourself. Better yet, you deserve to be treated with care and tenderness.
- Can I treat myself with kindness, compassion and forgiveness? This usually includes a sincere acknowledgement that the pain caused by the mistake is real and understandable. It does not dismiss or downplay the pain; instead it responds to the pain by saying something like: “Awww, that was frustrating. That was hard. That was a mistake.
- Can I acknowledge that all Dads struggle with the demands of parenting? Can I connect with other dads, either in person or online? Can I explore whether there is something to this idea of “common humanity”?
A growing body of research shows that if you are kinder and more self-compassionate towards yourself, you can be kinder toward those you love, and you will come to take better care of yourself in the process. It’s a ’winwin’ for yourself and your kids.
John is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in supporting men and dads. His practice is located in the Back Bay. You can find more information at http://johncarr.org.