It’s summer, which means more time with my kids. I have so much gratitude for this time, especially the little moments—unburdened by pretense or expectations of grandeur. The other day, I was playing this three-dimensional tic-tac-toe game with my eldest daughter, and she was beating me…over and over. We were both giving it our all and she was winning. I felt so proud of her, I literally cried a little. Like “wow, this is a new chapter of our relationship!” There is so much goodness in our family life to drink in and savor.
There are also the darker moments. And right at the heart of the shadow side of my relationship with my daughters is this reality: I can be harsh in the way I speak with them sometimes. Ugh, my stomach clenches as I type the words. I really don’t like that I do that. Fortunately, I made a helpful discovery the other day—I figured out what pushes the harshness. I have three young daughters and they’re lovely, but they’re loud. Especially when they’re fighting with each other. These are the times I am most prone to getting harsh—my deepest source of dad shame. What I noticed when I slowed the process down, was that my harsh tone is a knee jerk response to overwhelm, and the overwhelm is related not to what they are doing, but how loud it is when they do it.
I already knew that I found their fighting particularly triggering, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. I specialize in working with fighting couples, and in my own relationships, I’m more of a pursuer than a withdrawer. I don’t tend to shy away from conflict. So why does it bother me so much when I’m making lunch and one daughter grabs the other one’s pen and the first daughter starts screaming? Volume. It’s just too dang loud and my nervous system seems to register it as a threat that needs to be squashed…immediately. So I end up hollering at them to STOP YELLING!!, which unsurprisingly is rarely effective in restoring peace to my kitchen.
So why does all this matter, and why am I sharing it with you? Two reasons: 1) once I realized the source of my overwhelm, I could begin to tend to myself more effectively (self-attunement), 2) I couldn’t have figured this out without self-compassion practice.
The pattern in the past would be: I get involved in a task (e.g. food prep), they begin fighting (loudly), I get harsh, things escalate, I blame them for the escalation and de-escalate things in a more rigid, punitive way than I would have from a calm body. Eventually, the noise level decreases, two to three minutes pass, my heart rate slows, and then I begin to feel shame about myself as a father. The habitual response here is to feel self-critical and then to re-contract with myself to simply “not get harsh” in the future. Easy, right? Yet somehow the situation would repeat itself again and again.
Now that I know that I’m in sensory overload, though, I can (sometimes) pause and name what is happening in a friendly way—“Okay Dear One, it’s happening again. Your kids are so loud that it’s freaking your nervous system out.” And you know what? It helps. It doesn’t make them stop yelling, and it doesn’t make me like their yelling, but something unwinds inside, and I feel more access to creativity, empathy, and agency. It’s an odd aspect of being human that accurate, compassionate labeling of our suffering often offers some relief from that suffering even if the source of the suffering continues unabated.
It’s an odd aspect of being human that accurate, compassionate labeling of our suffering often offers some relief from that suffering even if the source of the suffering continues unabated.
It continues to amaze me how much self-compassion practice has helped me. In the old pattern—overwhelm leads to reactivity leads to shame—I never would have awakened to what was really happening. It’s one thing to say, “slow down and notice what’s happening” (mindfulness). It’s another thing to feel supported from within in the process of slowing down and noticing (self-compassion).
It’s one thing to say, “slow down and notice what’s happening” (mindfulness). It’s another thing to feel supported from within in the process of slowing down and noticing (self-compassion).
When I could pause and say to myself, “Okay this is a tough moment, and you’re about to get harsh with your kiddos. All parents are imperfect. You are not alone here. Parenting is a tough gig” and then soften my heart toward my own suffering, it was suddenly crystal clear that it was the noise level that was getting to me. My habitual cycle was to plummet downward into shame, but here I found myself in a virtuous cycle with an upward trajectory. As I brought friendliness to my experience, I could understand it, and as I could understand it, I naturally felt more compassion for myself, which further eased my suffering. I have had some level of sensory sensitivity since I was a little boy who couldn’t stand to have the collar of his shirt touch his neck. I have spent many hours cultivating compassion toward myself in that experience of sensitivity, and it flows naturally now.
So now I know why I sometimes come down hard on my kids. It’s not that I’m a terrible father. I’m just a guy who was born with a nervous system that responds strongly and quickly to the world around me. And, just as I would naturally offer a friend warmth, compassion, and care if he were struggling with the shadow side of his genetic legacy, I can do the same for myself.