By Rebecca Stambridge ©
It was around this time last year I took another big step on my journey to have a more accepting and compassionate relationship with myself. And as usually it was preceded by a major meltdown. As a working mum with two young boys and family birthdays either side of Christmas, the build up to the festive season is often stressful and for some reason this year I was feeling it more acutely. I remember bumping into a friend in the supermarket doing her Christmas food shop about a week before the big day and I came away with a feeling of shame that I hadn’t got round to it. On another occasion I was unable to find some stocking fillers I had bought for the boys and could feel a tightness in my chest and a sense of failure washing over me. As is often the case I projected my discomfort onto my husband, a regular but unwilling participant in my blame games. This particular fury went something like: “Not bought the pigs in blankets yet….. disaster…. 4 days before Christmas …. everything will be sold out….. all your fault…. I have too much to think about….” Thankfully my developing practice of mindful self-compassion had armed me with enough self-awareness to take a step back (not in time to save my bemused husband though). What was with me this year? Why was I feeling so angry? I realised that, the older I got, it had become very important to me to be organised and not one of “those” people who do things last minute. I protect myself from this inner critic by lots of planning and doing things in advance. But when I can’t do that, I severely judge myself and crumble. But hang on…if things get done, what does it matter if its last minute or not? Why am I judging myself so much? Whose values are these anyway? When I asked myself this question I immediately thought of my mum who always seemed organised and more or less starts planning Christmas in August. But I’m different to her and live a different life. I reminded myself that not only am I a working mum but also in the middle of finishing a counselling qualification. How could I not be last minute from time to time? In that very moment I realised I could not be all things to all people and I sat down and wrote a list of ALL the different types of mum I was trying to be. Here it was: Working mum; organised mum; PTA mum; crafty mum; baking mum; outdoorsy mum; hostess with the mostest mum; travelling mum; great days out mum; festival mum; cool hair mum; fashionable mum; home cooking mum including making Christmas home-made chutney mum; the list went on and I laughed at its unrealism. It hit me how often I beat myself (or my husband) up for not feeling I have achieved one of these things and what a ridiculous and impossible expectation that was. The next thing I did was circle the things on the list that that were important to ME and what I felt I could realistically be. I came up with: Working mum; outdoorsy mum; travelling mum; occasional home cooking mum. These were my values and the things that made me happy. Plus I reckoned I had enough on my plate with just those! I realised that if I was going to put energy into going for walks every weekend (outdoorsy mum), I don’t have time to craft and bake. If I love researching and booking family holidays (i.e travelling mum) I won’t necessarily have the time to book days out too. I know I am not alone in comparing and despairing, but if it’s impossible to be all things to all people, why do we all put so much pressure on ourselves? The evolutionary science used in Self Compassion psychotherapy could have the answer. As a species we are inherently competitive because our survival has not just depended on being the fittest but also the most popular. For early man, the more status he had the more resources and protection he would have gained and therefore social rejection equals death. The motivation to gain status causes us to compare and then be self-critical if we feel we are not measuring up. This self-destructive tendency has been hugely exacerbated by social media, which provides a constant source of (often inaccurately portrayed) perfect lives to compare ourselves to. But it's not just that. When we try to be all things to all people we inevitably spread ourselves too thin and risk running ourselves into the ground. Pleasing others rather than ourselves therefore increases the stress hormones by giving us too much to do. So we are likely to feel more anxious or irritable because we are triggering those fight and flight hormones. Although comparison and criticism is our default setting, self compassion is the perfect antidote and it's a skill we can all cultivate. For me it involved giving myself permission to stop achieving the impossible and tried to offer myself compassion and acceptance instead. I noticed when the pressure to please was too much for me, and rather than beating myself up, I asked myself what I needed. In short…I treated myself how a compassionate friend would. In doing this I moved closer to living by my values and I let go of the ones that weren’t mine in the first place. I can honestly say that since this moment I have enjoyed family life more because I do what's manageable for me in that moment and thats enough. So I no longer care if I don’t craft like the mums on Pinterest or fret if the boys don’t see Santa at a stately home. These may sound like first world problems but they're hugely significant in accepting who I am as a mum. They are happy, we are happy and that’s all the matters.
Rebecca has worked in mental health for over 15 years, empowering others to improve their wellbeing. She is an integrative therapist as well as a mindfulness and compassion teacher. As well as 1-1 and group client work, she loves to write blogs and guides, helping others learn skills to improve their wellbeing.