Re-parenting Yourself with Mindfulness
I think it’s fair to say that most people have had imperfect parents.
Parents who were always loving, understood our needs, cheered on our independence and creativity, and accepted us just as we are have now been shown to be mythical creatures! Even the best parents have days when their own needs and stresses interfere with their dearest hope to be great parents.
The concept of “re-parenting” is one that some mindfulness teachers incorporate into their teaching. The idea is that we can use mindfulness to repair or heal the effects of “poor parenting” by parenting ourselves.
I know that some people don’t like this concept because it implies that they still need parenting as an adult. It’s true that as adults we have many more resources, skills, strengths, experiences, wisdom and objectivity to call on than we ever did as children.
The thing we overlook, often at great cost to our well-being, is that knowing something intellectually doesn’t make it so. Thinking “my parents did the best they could,” for example, usually has little or no effect on the loneliness you feel today from their unintended neglect when you were growing up.
THE TWO WINGS OF WELL-BEING
One wonderfully distilled recipe of what we need to be happy human beings is: love and attention. How simple.
In the world of a child, these are like air and water. We need to know that our parents are paying attention to us, that we’re worthy of their time and attention, that we matter. But that’s not enough. Attention can be critical or invasive or judgmental. So, the other thing that we need is love. We need to know that, not only are we seen, but we are cared for, loved and embraced.
HOW MINDFULNESS SUPPORTS RE-PARENTING
This loving attention is also a traditional way to define mindfulness: paying attention to your moment to moment experience with curiousity and warmth. So, it’s a small step to use mindfulness as a re-parenting tool. Here are a few examples of what this might look like in practice.
- Let’s say you’ve chosen a mindfulness practice to follow your breath. After a few minutes, you notice you’ve been thinking about a presentation you have to do at work tomorrow. You noticed–congratulations!
- Now you watch for the second wing: to be curious, warm or loving. Are you criticizing yourself for thinking about the presentation? Instead of being critical, you try to direct warm attention to yourself as you’re having those worrisome thoughts–or whatever else you may feel or think.
- Or, during your practice, you start to feel angry about an interaction with your teenager yesterday. You notice there’s a tightness in your jaw, you’re re-running the argument in your mind like a movie, you’re worried about your teenager’s choices right now. When you pay attention, you can start to notice all of these faces of your anger.
- Again, you use the second wing: applying your kind, loving attention toward your worries and concerns. You don’t try to talk yourself out of them or, on the other hand, make them worse by really winding yourself up.
- In these moments of being mindful, notice what it feels like when you treat yourself with love and attention–especially when you’re in a situation that usually triggers an old pattern. What changes for you?
Why would you want to re-parent yourself? The fact is it may not be important for you at all. It’s only important if you want to change limiting patterns of feeling and behaving you learned a long time ago that are holding you back.
Maybe you’re quick to feel that someone is invading your space because your parents never respected your privacy. Or you don’t share your deep feelings with people you care about because you were ridiculed or shut down if you shared them as a child.
If you’re aware of lingering patterns like this, practicing mindfulness is one way to begin undoing them–by helping you to see the echoes of your parent’s behavior in your own. This is something we all do! If you notice YOU don’t give yourself space to be alone, you can pay loving attention to that need and fulfill it. Or you can be honest with yourself about YOUR feelings and pay loving attention to them, rather than pushing them away.
BUT, WHAT DOES MINDFULNESS REALLY DO?
You may doubt that this kind of practice would make any difference. But if you think about it, why wouldn’t it? Those early experiences created expectations within you that certain negative results (or, with good parenting, good results!) will happen, if you feel or do or express certain things.
When you do something different, by responding to your experience in a loving and attentive way, you create new pathways in your being. You become a more trustworthy person to yourself and grow beyond the limitations you learned.
This practice of mindfulness, of paying kind loving attention to whatever is happening, is something you can use any time. It’s like a muscle you can build and strengthen by practicing over time, so it’s there to help you cope and flourish in challenging times.
Ann Vrlak is Founder of OneSelf Meditation and a meditation practitioner for over 25 years. She’s a Certified Meditation Teacher for adults and for children (the best job ever!). She loves to share how the perspective and practice of meditation can support people with their everyday stresses, as well as places of deep dissatisfaction and disconnection.