The task of childhood is to learn to be a good parent to ourselves, while the task of parenthood is to teach our children to become good parents to themselves. When this doesn’t happen, self-parenting becomes the goal of therapy.
Sadly, this process can go awry with one’s own parents. Parents who never had the opportunity to learn how to be a good parent to themselves often have trouble parenting their children, which can cause a generational repetition of growing up without being able to parent oneself well. Sometimes, when parents lack skill, children develop good self-parenting ability from adults other than their parents. They can learn this from grandparents, relatives, teachers, clergy, or other adults, including therapists.
When children don’t get the parenting they need, they can suffer an infinite number of ways as adults, which includes depression, anxiety, and chemical dependence. Similarly, without good self-parenting skills, adults have trouble navigating the challenges and pain of life and may substitute addictions, or frequently feel overwhelmed by their emotions, resulting in depression or anxiety. When we become good parents to ourselves, we are able to comfort ourselves internally, believe in ourselves, see our value, feel loved and lovable, and discipline ourselves to get what we want. This gives us a great deal of protection from depression.
So what is a good parent? Good self-parenting is the same as parenting out children well. When we are good parents to ourselves, we are empathic, patient, realistic, compassionate, respectful, protective, reasonably challenging, unconditionally loving, forgiving, consistent, gently but firmly guiding, available, interested, grounded, connected to outside support, and caring and kind to ourselves. Of course none of us are this good all the time—this is a ideals. We can only ever be good enough, not perfect.
When we can be good enough parents to ourselves, we have the best chance at happiness, success, healing from life’s injuries, and graduation from therapy. Of course, brain chemistry, tragedy, poverty, illness, oppression, and other outside influences, can also profoundly affect our happiness, but we generally have less control over those factors than we do over how we treat ourselves, and good self-parenting allows us to fare better even through these hardships.
Even those who can’t be compassionate, nurturing, or protective to themselves learn to be good parents to their own children, to their animals, nieces, and nephews. This is a helpful start. Though this skill appears hard-wired neurologically, it isn’t neurologically connected to the part that needs parenting. Psychotherapy, particularly EMDR therapy, seems to connect the neurons associated with those parenting skills to the neurons associated with the parts of us that need good parenting.
For many lucky people, being a good parent to oneself is automatic—learned naturally from one’s parents’ behavior toward them. For others, it requires conscious learning and integration of one’s personality as an adult. Once people have this, they can comfort themselves, discipline themselves compassionately, recover from losses, and take care of themselves in a way that allows them to thrive.
© Copyright 2010 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.