In this episode, Dr. Susan Pollak helps us to apply mindfulness skills to our relationships with our children so we can parent in line with our values, rather than just reacting when our children push our buttons.
– What’s the point of mindfulness, and does it matter if we bring our full attention and presence to diaper changes?
– Why we’re so hard on ourselves, even when we always try to be kind to others
– Some concrete tools to use when you interact with your children TODAY in those moments when it seems like everything is falling apart.
Dr. Pollak is a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a long-time student of meditation and yoga who has been integrating the practices of meditation into psychotherapy since the 1980s.
Dr. Pollak is cofounder and teacher at the Center for mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance, and has just stepped down as President of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, a position which she held since 2010. She also writes regularly for Psychology today on the topic of integrating mindfulness into daily life.
Book mentioned in the episode:
Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself (Affiliate link).
Other episodes related to this topic:
Some key points from the interview:
Click here to read the full transcript
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Safely Leave Behind, seven fewer things to worry about, subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us.
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. In this episode, we’re going to draw threads together from across a number of recent episodes. Most obviously it picks up on our interview with Dr. Moira Mikolajczak where we discuss parental burnout. After that episode concluded Dr. Mikolajczak and I emailed a bit about tools that could potentially help parents, and the primary one that she found useful was the idea of self-compassion. And that’s what we’re going to discuss today. This topic also picks up on our conversation with Dr. Chris Niebauer about the stories that our left brain tells us by giving us some concrete strategies on how to do that. And it builds on a conversation we had about three years ago with Dr. Brendan Ozawa-de Silva on the topic of compassion. We also touch on issues related to patriarchy and go deeper into some of the mindfulness tools that Hunter Clark-Fields shared with us recently.
And here to do all of this with us is Dr. Susan Pollak, who is a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a longtime student of meditation and yoga and has been integrating the practices of meditation into psychotherapy since the 1980s. Dr. Pollack is cofounder and teacher at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, and has just stepped down as President of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, a position that she held since 2010. She also writes regularly for Psychology Today on the topic of integrating mindfulness into daily life. Welcome, Dr. Pollack.
Dr. Pollak 02:24
Thanks, Jen. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
So, we’re going to talk a lot about your book. Because it’s on the topic of Self-Compassion for Parents. And one thing that I really liked as I was reading through your book, is the idea that it isn’t a manual for self-compassion. It doesn’t teach you step by step what self-compassion is, and then how to apply it. I loved what Dr. Chris Germer said in your foreword and he said, I’m going to quote, “The book connects with the direct experience of parenting through detailed examples, personal anecdotes, and elegant exercises to transform parenting struggles through the tools of mindfulness and self-compassion.” So that said, we’re definitely going to be digging into some more of those things for as we go today, but I’m wondering if we could start by having you help us to understand what is compassion. And from there, what is self-compassion, and also this idea of mindful self-compassion that I know is really important to your work?
Dr. Pollak 03:21
Okay, and let me first just respond to your kind words, because my feeling is, there’s no recipe for parenting. And I know you’re a parent. I am a parent of two kids. And as of just a week ago, a grandmother,
Dr. Pollak 03:40
Thanks! So, I think it’s really important for your listeners to, to realize that one size doesn’t fit all.
Dr. Pollak 03:50
You know, I’m not going to be able to give you a recipe for how to be the perfect, compassionate, mindful parent, you know, you have to figure out what works for you, and what works for your kids.
Dr. Pollak 04:08
So that said, let me jump into just some really workable definitions. And let me tell you, I really don’t like psychological jargon. So, let me speak in English. So, one way to understand compassion is to really look at the root of the word, which is Latin, and it means to suffer with. Okay, so that’s kind of theoretical, what it means in real life, is to really see somebody and to connect with their pain, or the difficulty they’re having. So self-compassion, and this is a pretty radical concept, is learning to be kind to yourself. Again, it’s that simple. So many of us, present company included, we’re not raised to be kind to ourselves. So, it can feel weird, awkward, foreign, like “What? Be kind to myself? No, no, I have to push myself. I have to drive myself. What are you talking about?” So, for me, that concept of being kind to myself felt foreign. And, again, an easy way to think about it is, when you’re having a hard time, think about what you say to yourself. And I don’t know if your inner language is like my inner language, but to be very self-disclosing. I used to say, “Oh, Susan, that was stupid.” Or “Oh, Susan, you’re an idiot.” or “Oh, how could you have said that?” You know, “You’ve really blew that.” So, it was this constant soundtrack of criticizing myself.
Dr. Pollak 05:56
But think also, what you might say, if a friend told you that for someone you really cared about that she had done, or he had done something similar to what you did. And you probably wouldn’t say to your friend, “Oh, John, that was so stupid. I can’t imagine you said that. How could you have done that? What were you thinking? What is wrong with you? You are such a loser?” Well, I mean if you said that to a friend, you probably wouldn’t have many friends. Okay, so we, we do know how to respond kindly. You would probably say, “Look, John, you know, you’re human, we all screw up, you know, everyone is a parent…” Let me just kind of stick to the topic of parenting here. Everyone is a parent has really bad days, you know, that book that I’ve loved Alexander and that No Good, Terrible, Awful Day. I mean, we as parents have those terrible, no good awful days. But you know how nice it would be. If you could say to yourself, “Jen, that was just a really rough day, we all have it, it happens. You know, don’t beat yourself up, that’s not going to solve the problem. Let’s move on here.” Or even better with the child, okay, let’s make a repair. You know, let’s say sorry, gee, mommy really lost it. Or, you know, I used to say, with my kids, when I was having a hard time, “Oops, mommy hit the roof there.” You know, let’s take a time out or a time in to repair. Okay, so that’s our definition of compassion.
And actually, if I could pause just there for a second, as you were saying, I wasn’t raised with this way of thinking. It made me realize none of us were. And it seems to me is it though it’s, I mean, it’s coming from this Protestant work ethic, right that if you work hard enough, you will be able to achieve and if you’re not working hard enough, that’s probably why you’re not achieving. And so, the only thing to do is self-flagellate and work harder.
Dr. Pollak 08:11
Exactly. And supposedly, I know, you’re also interested in culture and cross culture, real issues, supposedly, in other countries. There isn’t as much self-loathing and self-flagellation because I remember hearing the story, where the Dalai Lama’s translator was asking, translating questions like, Okay, so what are we supposed to do if we hate ourselves? And he’d say, “What?”
“What do you mean?”
Dr. Pollak 08:41
What do you mean, if we hate ourselves, and the translator and the Dalai Lama went back and forth, back and forth. This is how the story is recounted, and he had the hardest time understanding why people would hate themselves, why there was such loathing. But I am with you both in terms of the Protestant work ethic and also patriarchy, like, yes, you know, you have to drive yourself, okay, you can’t be lazy, you can’t slack off. And I think that’s where those, that inner critic comes from, like, Oh, you screwed up, you idiot. What is wrong with you? So anyway, just to touch on the importance with those three definitions. The other thing I want to draw on in terms of compassion, and this, I know you’re a research geek as well. So, this will probably interest you. One of the pieces of research when they’re looking at in fMRI brain scan of what happens with the brain on compassion is it seems to activate the motor neurons. So, compassion is tied to action. And I remember when I was writing the book, I tried to use this headline saying compassion is a verb, because it’s active. And of course, the editor being an editor said, No, it’s not. So anyway, so I’d let that go. But if we can think of compassion is active, you know, basically, how can you respond? How can you tune in to what that person might need or what that child might need? Or what you might need in the moment? That is really the essence of what a compassionate and self-compassionate response is.
Dr. Pollak 10:39
Now do you still want a definition of mindfulness.
That would be awesome. Yeah. And is, specifically the mindful self-compassion. Yeah.
Dr. Pollak 10:47
Okay. So, what happened in terms of the mindful self-compassion, and I love to give credit where credit is due. Kristin Neff was really the first researcher to do research on compassion, in 2003, had begun to write a number of essays and articles, framing this new construct that she called self-compassion. My friend and colleague, Chris Grimmer, who wrote the foreword of the book. thought, “Whoa, this is really important.” And also, I need this. And, you know, so many, we know, Neil. And they connected and put together this program. And I know you will have references to their books, and the eight-week course and their books on self-compassion. So mindful self-compassion, acknowledges that we need to start with mindfulness. And I’ve been teaching this course for over a decade, a lot of people just can’t start with compassion, again, going back to what I was saying, in that it’s foreign, for most of us to treat ourselves kindly. But it seems that if we start with the foundation of mindfulness, then people can be more open to compassion. And in fact, again, some of the research is now saying that one of the secret sauce of mindfulness seems to be this element of accepting, without judgement, warmly kindly accepting. So now let me segue into a definition I like, and this is very hands on. Okay, so again, I don’t want it to be abstract. So, the easiest thing to do is just with me, raise your hand, if you like, and just wiggle your fingers. Okay, so mindfulness, very simply, is, knowing what you’re doing at the moment. It’s nothing, Woo Woo, it’s nothing, you know, fanciful, it’s nothing weird. It’s just present moment awareness, with kindness without judgement. So, you’re feeling your hand, you’re not saying, “Oh, Jen, You’re such an idiot.” for you know, wiggling your fingers. Just say, “Okay, I’m sitting here, moving my hand, feeling my hand again, being present in the body.” And we’ll talk about that as well. without judgement.
Yeah, so I’m not looking at my hands. And my hands are really big in the picture.
Dr. Pollak 13:38
Oh, I don’t have a manicure. Either. Something absurd.
Never had that. But yeah, I’ve heard Joseph Goldstein explain, you know, what is mindfulness, this big topic, and he says, “Sit and know you’re sitting.”
Dr. Pollak 13:52
Exactly. Exactly. It’s that simple.
Yeah. And and I think I saw in your book, actually a quote from Sharon Salzberg, that I really liked. It said, mindfulness doesn’t depend on what is happening, but is about how we are related to what is happening.
Dr. Pollak 14:06
Dr. Pollak 14:08
And I think that really says it all. And a lot of people keep coming back to the fact that it’s not the external circumstances. It’s really the inner experience of how we are dealing with what’s happening to us. And as Joseph, let me just make a link between those two teachers, as Joseph Goldstein would say, what is the attitude in the mind? You know, is there resistance? Is there a version, you know, are you saying, Oh, poor me, or are you saying, Okay, this is what’s happening? And he puts it wonderfully again, which is anything can happen to anyone, at any time.
Mm hmm. Okay, so let’s Maybe make this super concrete for parents, you talk in the book about diaper changing.
Dr. Pollak 15:06
Which is a task that most parents have done once or twice. There are some parents who managed to take a different path with it. But the majority of parents are doing a decent number of diaper changes for a period of some years. And you described a mindful diaper change. And anyone who’s reading your book and knows anything about resources, infant educators, or RIE, well will read that description and they’ll just think, you know, this has so many parallels to the idea of it’s called wants something quality, time in RIE. It’s the idea that even caregiving tasks, which typically, society trains us to, and we think of ourselves as things, we just need to get through them. And then we can do the fun stuff that the other side, you know, we can play with the baby. But actually, even these caregiving tasks, even if they seem unpleasant to us, they’re still opportunities for connection. Can you maybe draw that out a little bit in the way that you see it?
Dr. Pollak 16:02
Sure. And I also want to thank you, because as I mentioned, my son, and daughter in law just had a new baby, and I got baby just got back from the hospital recently. And I got an email from him saying, Oh, you know, change seven diapers today. And you sent me a wonderful link that I thought was so moving. And you I’m sure you want to include that in the show notes. Where the writer really talks about respecting the child,
Gosh, I don’t know who it was. Do you remember?
Dr. Pollak 16:38
Zachary? Is that…? It was in the email you sent me. I googled it and then sent it to my son. And I thought this is so moving because how often do we ask a child’s permission? And she said, this is really a very intimate moment. And I felt like it was really setting the stage for wonderful parent-child interaction, where there’s this respect for the child even at three weeks. So, the example she gave was with a three week old baby. So anyway, I thought that was a gem. One of the things I try to do in the book is say, basically, look guys, you know, we’re going to be changing diapers for years. We’re going to be folding laundry for years. And we’re going to be washing dishes for years. So rather than having what Joseph Goldstein would call a version of these tasks, what if you try to find something new and interesting in the task? I mean, for example, with washing dishes, if you wash dishes with a child, the child was saying, Oh, look at the bubbles. Oh, they’re rainbow rainbows in the dish bubbles. Oh, this is so much fun. It feels tickly, you know, so your child isn’t going to be narrating a diaper change. But if you use that as a chance to connect with a child, and show a little love and tenderness and respect for the child, then that can really change your experience of the diaper, you know, rather than Oh, it’s so smelly, oh, I hate it. Boo. I won’t breathe. It’s like, Okay, let me use this as an opportunity to really be intimate with the child to really show some love, maybe to sing a song, maybe just to laugh or smile to giggle. So again, that in many ways, is really what mindfulness is about, like, how can we bring some freshness to this? How rather than being on automatic pilot can we say, Oh, the baby is smiling, you know, oh, what a sweet baby. I’m so happy to be with this child. Mm, rather than, Oh, I can’t wait for this to be over. So So basically, you’re not losing moments of your life, because of your dislike of a task.
Yeah. And I do want to be cautious not to kind of make parents think that well, for every single diaper change for the rest of your child’s diapering career, we need to approach diapering in this mindful way and you need to be totally focused on your baby. I mean, it seems as though there are times when just kind of getting through it is needed, maybe even desirable.
Dr. Pollak 19:49
Absolutely. no guilt, no shame. Again, not to be graphic sometimes. Our kids I’m sure your kids and everyone else’s kids had a diaper disaster. Sometimes called…
Remember most of them. Yeah.
Dr. Pollak 20:04
…you know, which was a total mess. Okay, so you’re not going to find joy in that. And I don’t expect anyone to find joy in that. And you just want to get that over with. But how can you be as present as possible? Most of the time? Okay, so we’re not talking about 100%, but maybe just showing up. So, you’re present. Mm hmm.
Okay. Alright. So, I’d like to understand a bit more about kind of why we do this. And I know you know that we’re very focused on scientific research on the show, but also not being a slave to the research and really calling out where the research is falling short, where the questions we’re asking are not helping us to address the issues in the way that potentially it would be helpful to understand them or the way sample sizes are taken don’t really help us to really get to an understanding of the issue. And when I look at the research on self-compassion, particularly mindful self-compassion it’s correlated with a whole bunch of things that sound amazing and positive effect reduce anxiety and depression, wellbeing life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, reduce procrastination, perfectionism…
Dr. Pollak 21:18
Happiness in relationship…
Dr. Pollak 21:20
Dr. Pollak 21:22
It’s almost too good to be one person who named Mark Leary, who was looking at all the research said, you know, it’s almost getting boring. You know, so…
I can imagine.
Dr. Pollak 21:37
Yeah, and yeah, but
I mean, it’s correlational in nature, right. And then we can see a lot of things that marry together. A lot of these research studies are done with super small sample sizes, often with undergrads and then they’re kind of extrapolated as if they are applicable to all mankind.
Dr. Pollak 21:55
I think we have the best evidence from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work, but mindful self-compassion only forms a very tiny aspect of that entire program.
Dr. Pollak 22:05
Oh, he actually doesn’t do mindful self-compassion, and MBSR teacher as well as MSC teacher…
Dr. Pollak 22:13
And it’s not part of the traditional MBSR program. He does some compassion on the retreats, but he doesn’t teach mindful self-compassion.
Yeah, thank you for teasing that out. And it’s been a little while since I read this research. My recollection was that the teachers were kind of conveying it tacitly through their interactions.
Dr. Pollak 22:34
Yeah. So all of that said, given all these amazingly positive things that it’s associated with, and we want to have happen, and given that there’s very, very little, if any experimental evidence, what do you take out of this in terms of understanding to what extent it can be helpful through what we can know about this through psychology as well as through your personal experiences and your professional experiences? and so on?
Dr. Pollak 23:00
Sure. So, let me tell you from two perspectives, one is personal perspective and the other is as someone who has taught mindful self-compassion for over a decade. So, my personal perspective is I started meditating at a very young age, in fact, in elementary school, so I have a lot of years of serious hardcore meditation. But I was still mean to myself, okay, I still grow myself. And, you know, just as an example of how much I drove myself, I pushed myself to get three Harvard degrees. And you can just imagine how driven and obsessional and you know, compulsive you need.
Hmm. And society sees you as a success.
Dr. Pollak 23:49
Right, exactly. So, I bought in, but I still had that really harsh critic going on. And when I started studying self-compassion, and more than studying practicing, I wasn’t as mean to myself, I could really be a lot kinder to myself, and also, my children, and my family. I wasn’t nearly as driven. So that was a big shift for me. And I know you mentioned Sharon Salzberg. There’s one point she tells the story many times, but she was also really, really driven, and really hard on herself. And there was one point where she was practicing loving kindness, or metaphrases, and she thought, Ah, this isn’t working, you know, it’s not making any difference. And there was one point where she knocked over a teacup or a, you know, tea pot, and usually, she would berate herself she’d say, “Oh, Sharon. You are such a klutz. What is wrong with you? You’re terrible.” Instead of saying that, she said, “Sharon, you’re a klutz, and I love you. I love you anyway.” And I felt that was really a wonderful summation of the shift. It’s not that the critical voice stops entirely. It’s just that we can modulate it. So, we can say, okay, you know, we all break. So that happens. I’m not a bad person. So that was my experience. Similarly, like, okay, I screw up, but I’m not, you know, a terrible person and human. And that’s actually one of the components if, depending on time, I can be happy to teach a mindful, self-compassion break for parents when things are rough. And Kristin Neff talks about that, as being common humanity. Like we all have hard days, we all break teapots, we all screw up. When I began teaching this, and it’s an eight-week course people can take it online. I mean, these days, no one’s doing anything in-person, at least not here. I noticed that the people I was working with and it’s either eight weeks or five days intensive, were having a shift, they were being more forgiving, more understanding of themselves. And one of the reasons I wrote the book for parents is I felt like it made a difference in my parenting.
Dr. Pollak 26:41
You know, I wasn’t as harsh with my kids. And to really come into the present moment, I work with a lot of parents in my practice right now. And parents are so stressed with COVID. I mean, here they are trying to work their jobs during the day, if they’re lucky enough, still to have a job. So many of them are being teachers for their kids, and then not getting any sleep. And often their kids, you know, don’t want to do school on Zoom, or don’t like their teachers, and say, well, Mrs. Smith is a much better French teacher than you are. And you say, I’m sorry, I studied Spanish, I don’t know French, or Oh, Mom, you can’t teach music and art. It’s like, Hey, I’m trying the best I can. So, I think self-compassion right now, in this moment, is a lifesaver. I think I mean, the parents I speak to say, this is impossible. This is endless. This is breaking me. It’s not sustainable. So, one thing that can really help is really giving yourself a break. Yeah, not having that voice saying, oh, Jen, if only you were smarter, you would have studied French and Spanish and Russian and Chinese and be able to teach that.
Dr. Pollak 28:18
And piano, you know, and art, like, what is wrong with you?
Yeah. So, I wondering that if you sort of answered my question then I’m going to try and see if I can pull this out a little bit further. So when we’re thinking about doing research on psychological treatments, and outcomes, and how a person or a group of people responds, on average to a certain treatment, the reason we’re doing that is to say, you know, should we spend our time and energy on this treatment? Or would it be better to spend our time and energy on another treatment and money as well, a lot of the time. And since this is I mean, it’s essentially free your books not quite free, but it’s it’s fairly low cost in the grand scheme of psychological treatments. And the actual implementation of it…
Dr. Pollak 29:01
Well, my website is free. So, if people want to listen, you know, to meditation there. They’re free.
Yes. And Kristin Neff actually also makes a lot of resources available for free as well. So, there are potentially extremely low cost ways of getting into this. And the time investment is not huge. And the potential benefit is actually quite large. So maybe we can just say, does it really matter if there are large scale studies validating the outcomes of this particular approach? And just say, Well, I could try it and see if it works for me. And if it does, then I can keep doing it.
Dr. Pollak 29:36
Exactly. And I don’t know if you agree, I feel like the research on mindfulness per se, is solid. And I know Kristin Neff, the self-compassion researcher, is really trying to make sure that her research has as much integrity as other research. But yeah, I mean, that’s a wonderful question. We could go off down the research rabbit hole in terms You know what’s needed to make the research better, and a lot of people seem to self-studies should be thrown out, because that’s not valid. But we won’t go down that rabbit hole.
Dr. Pollak 30:10
We won’t. We’ll restrain ourselves. So, I’m thinking about some of the ways in which self-compassion can be most useful. And you talk in the book about how normal it is to have moments where we just can’t stand our children. Or we feel embarrassed by their behavior in public, or we’re disappointed that they either can’t or won’t pursue some goal that’s super important to us. And then we realize, oh, I shouldn’t have done that. And I feel we feel terrible about it afterwards. Can you help us understand why is this a universal experience and how can self-compassion help here?
Dr. Pollak 30:48
Well, let me go very briefly into the history of psychology. And I’m sure people have heard of Carl Jung, who was with along with Freud, just an incredibly important thinker. And one of the things he said, and this is a paraphrase, is that one of the greatest burdens for a child is the unlived lives of the parent. Yeah. So often, what’s happening when we want a child to pursue something, is that we wanted it, or our parents wanted it for us. And we never got it, there’s actually a story in the book of this little boy who had some developmental delays. And his dad wanted him to be a major league athlete. And it just wasn’t happening. And there was a situation where the kid was a little league, you know, bases were loaded, and you struck out and lost the game for the team. And the dad went ballistic. And he was so upset with his reaction, that he needed to talk about it. And as we unpacked what was going on for him, he realized just like any archaeological dig, that there were layers upon layers upon layers of his hopes and dreams and fantasies for his child.
Dr. Pollak 32:21
So, my feeling is two points, the more we can be aware and conscious of what we’re carrying, the burden the baggage we’re carrying, the better we can be. And so many women, again, this may lead us into our patriarchy, discussion, are obsessed with their bodies, and their weight, and the bodies of their children, particularly their little girls. So that would be the historical point. The self-compassion point is just saying, look, can I let my kid be? Who he or she? Or they are, you know, rather than imposing my dreams? You know, can I work through my fantasies, my shattered dreams, and not insist that my kid fulfill these dreams? Not burden them.
Yeah. And I think is especially powerful in mothers, because we know we’re not supposed to have these feelings towards our children, right? We’re not supposed to experience anger. Well, because we’re women, we’re supposed to be angry, or aggressive, or feel cruelty or hatred towards our children. And I think you discuss in the book, and I’ve also seen it disgust because I was an English major about, you know, this is where the stepmother role in literature came from, because, because we couldn’t acknowledge that a parent of a biological child could feel these things towards their own offspring. And so, if someone was going to feel them towards a child, it would have to be somebody who is not biologically related, right? Because we couldn’t tolerate that within ourselves.
Dr. Pollak 34:02
Right, because we have no, you know, anger or monstrosity or hatred within ourselves. And in fact, that was a revelation for me. And shortly after my first child was born, you know, people came to say, congratulations. One of my mentors, and he was a Freudian mentor said something that really took me aback. And he said, Susan, mark my words, but there will be a time when you will hate your child. And it felt like, you know, speaking of literature, it felt like, you know, the witch at the christening, you know, like giving you a curse, or giving you some coal rather than a wonderful little, you know, presence. And it was like, “What?” you know, and I didn’t want to be rude, but it was like, you know, I wasn’t going to say, that’s not going to happen to me, because that means say you’re in denial. So, I just though, you know, thank you very much. And then that did happen. And it was, you know, sooner than I would have liked.
Dr. Pollak 35:10
You know, I thought, well, that’s not going to happen till adolescence, right? Everyone knows. And it was actually really helpful. Because it was like, oh, okay, we all have difficult emotions. We all get angry; we all get frustrated. You know, let me see what’s going on here. Let me just pause and see. And just having that sense of common humanity, we all get angry, we all get frustrated. Doesn’t mean I’m bad. Doesn’t mean my kid is bad, doesn’t mean we can’t repair this. Just made me go. Ah, okay. And I just heard a wonderful comment by a Zen master just yesterday when I was listening to a talk, and he said, one of the things he was working on, was coming to grips with, as he put it, his own monstrosity. And he said, you know, all those fairy tales, and stories and myths we read, those are us, you know, those are beings, those are parts within ourselves. And I thought, yes, and how reassuring it is for parents to realize that, yeah, yeah, we all get, we all lose it. And especially now, in these times with COVID, when people are stretched, so thin, and we’re dealing with grief, we’re dealing with loss, we’re dealing with illness, we’re dealing with financial stress, etc., etc., etc. juggling two jobs not sleeping, the more we can say, yeah, you know, I’m on overload. This is too much. Let me take a break, let me be kind to myself here. The better we’re all going to function and passing this forward; it’s going to be a good model for kids. Because then our kids will say, oh, okay, this is what you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed. This is what you do when you’re angry. This is how you can care for yourself. Because life gets overwhelming. And it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me. All it means is that I’m a 100% human.
Yay for that! So, I’m wondering man, if we can maybe start to work through some of the ways that we see this, these things happening in ourselves. And they are maybe we can talk about how we can some tools we can use to respond to that. And you sort of alluded to the potential for walking us through some exercises.
Dr. Pollak 37:48
Okay, so we mentioned the P word the patriarchy word. And I know that you are a massive fan of Carol Gilligan’s and that you consider her to be a friend and mentor. And so, for listeners who haven’t heard the episode that listener Brian Stout, and I recorded with her, it’s one of my favorites, for sure. And it really starts to help us see how patriarchal culture has impacted the way that we are in the world. And a big part of that. And how that’s linked to what we’re talking about here today, is the idea of our bodies having information for us that’s actually useful. And I think that this kind of separation has occurred for many of us, myself included, where I see in myself a lot of traditionally masculine and air quotes, qualities, like thinking and reasoning. And those are really prized in our culture and the feminine air quotes, again, qualities of sensing and intuiting are not prized. And so we’re, it’s, it’s, it’s not even anyone necessarily has to say to us don’t pay attention to it because we focus so much on the logical rational, the rest of it ends up just kind of falling by the wayside. And I only discovered this for myself. I’m literally in the process of reading Dr. Gilligan’s book and talking with her and talking with Brian about it, the idea that my body could have anything useful to say about my experience. Right, so yeah, so for parents who are in the same boat, just figuring this out and kind of as they’re listening right now, where do you even start understanding this?
Dr. Pollak 39:24
Well, either since we’ve been talking about patriarchy, and you know, our philosophical tradition, let me just insert a quote from Descartes, because I was English and philosophy student, which is basically we think, therefore we are. So, we get the classic Cartesian Mind Body split. One of the wonderful things that Carol Gilligan has done as have a lot of mindfulness and meditation teachers is bring the body in. And just quick, quick aside the early work I did with Carol is in her first book In a Different Voice.
Oh, no kidding. I read it.
Dr. Pollak 40:06
Yeah. Chapter Two. And what I was doing is looking at gender differences between men and women in terms of violent fantasies. But again, I won’t go down that rabbit hole, but people are interested in In a Different Voice.
Dr. Pollak 40:22
I’d link to it.
Dr. Pollak 40:23
Yeah, thank you. So, and that ties in so well with patriarchy, which is that women are not supposed to be in touch with their bodies. And Carol writes about this a lot in her early work, you know, it’s too sexual, it’s too dangerous, it’s too threatening. And again, this is more, you know, Judeo Christian culture less so other cultures where women can be powerful. Anyway. So, let me use that as a way to take you into a practice, which involves some self-compassion for parents, and also involves listening to your body as a resource. And again, just one quick quote, because I was trained as a dancer, and this is from Martha Graham, she said, the body never lies. And the body never forgets. And as someone who also now does a lot of work with trauma, accessing the body is such a powerful resource, again, because the body doesn’t lie, and the body doesn’t forget. So, the more we can tap into our bodies, the more we can reclaim our power, and our voices. Okay. So, let me guide you through. Now, should I come up with a hypothetical, difficult situation for parent or do you want to feed me one?
Any hypothetical situation is good. Yeah. I’m sure you have a vast library to draw on.
Dr. Pollak 42:14
Okay, let me do one that’s really common and that drives a lot of parents crazy. So, let’s say, you know, your kid dumps the spaghetti on the floor, or jumps the spaghetti with red sauce, on a siblings head, or on the white couch, or, you know, wherever. Basically, the kid makes a mess. Okay. So, this is three points. And I used to teach this as sort of a meditation. And then actually, yeah, one of your podcasts, I guess, was that a workshop and she said, very calmly, she said, Susan, you know, I have three kids, you are teaching practices that are three to five minutes, with a great deal of kindness and humor. She said, I can’t sit down. I can’t close my eyes. If I did, somebody would kill somebody else. Which I thought was, was brilliant because yeah, you have three kids. There’s no time to sit still. There’s no time to close your eyes and meditate. So, these practices now, thanks, Dale, are adapted for in the moment with kids were difficult.
Dr. Pollak 43:32
Okay, so let’s just say there’s the spaghetti dump on the couch, okay. You feel yourself about to blow up, scream, yell, have a tantrum, whatever. And your kids are looking at you to see how you’re going to respond. Okay, and you’re standing up, your eyes aren’t closed or open. What you do and I’ll guide you through this. You see, just take a deep breath. And you may even want to put a hand on your heart or hand to your heart belly or two hands on your heart wherever it feels comfortable. And the first thing to say and this is bringing some mindfulness in is, “Jen, okay. This is a difficult moment.” Okay, then maybe another breath.
Dr. Pollak 44:32
Perhaps even feeling your feet on the floor as you try to bring your anger and rage down. Okay, so what this is a difficult moment. Point to is then bringing in Kristin Neff’s point about common humanity, which would be, “Jen. Parenting is rough on everyone.” Okay?
Dr. Pollak 45:00
There’s no such thing as the perfect parent. Every parent has tough moments, or a terrible awful no good dinner date. Okay? You are not alone in this. And that just let that settle. See what that feels like. Often when we hit the stage people go like, Ah, yeah, yeah, I’m human. Yeah. You know, every kid can make a mess when they’re eating, or throw food. Yep, that happens. And then the third step, and this is really bringing the compassion in, and I’ve tried to really make this accessible for parents is, okay, can I be kind to myself? And again, as we’ve talked about, a lot of people did not grow up in a culture or family where they could be kind, that’s okay. You can say, may I set an intention to be kind to myself. One of the moms I worked with, who was furious at her child couldn’t say that she said, maybe in the next millennium, I can be kind to myself, you know, or maybe in the next incarnation I’ll be kind to myself. So, you just set the intention, like, okay, and then if you can’t even do that, you may want to think, alight, what would kindness look like? You know, it’s too hard to give it to myself. It’s too hard to imagine that it could happen in my lifetime with this kid. You know, what would it look like? So, putting in this is on my website, so people can follow, but it’s basically three steps, mindfulness, common humanity, and self-compassion or kindness. This is a moment of difficulty. There are so many moments of difficulty in parenting, I’m not alone. And may I think, or imagine, what being kind to myself might be like, Mm hmm. So just checking it out? How was that? How did that feel for you?
I feel like I’ve just taken an emotional deep breath, as well. And I want to be sure to clarify for parents if these particular phrases don’t resonate with you, use whatever phrases make sense to you. Exactly. If you can’t say to yourself, you know, parenting is hard. Parenting is really freaking hard, right now.
Dr. Pollak 47:38
Or one of my parents said, if it’s okay to use this language, this sucks. This is shitty. I mean, use your own language. I’m just using sort of appropriate podcast language here. But make it make it your own.
Dr. Pollak 47:52
And one example. In the book of a mom who really makes it her own. I’m just trying to be appropriate.
And so just to take that for the next step, if we can take 30 seconds, while we’re still in our children’s presence, we still have our eyes open. I mean, I can’t imagine you even doing it in 20 seconds, then, if we can bring that self-compassion to ourselves, where we also put ourselves in a position to change the way we respond to our child, right?
Dr. Pollak 48:23
Yep. And, you know, in an ideal situation, you don’t want to be yelling at your kid or, you know, hitting your kid or spanking your kid, or saying to your kid, you know, as many parents have done, you have to eat every strand of spaghetti on that floor. You know, and if you don’t eat it now, then you’re having it for breakfast. Right? And if you’re, you know, or lunch, I mean, you don’t want to go into that, as we say, in the psychological literature, monster moocher. You know, the monster mother, who becomes very punishing is like, okay, let it go.
Dr. Pollak 49:07
Let it go. Let’s move on.
It seems like we’re getting dangerously close to the idea of equanimity here.
Dr. Pollak 49:16
Well, and maybe not so dangerous.
Yeah, I was being facetious. And so, for some parents that may be the first time they’re hearing that word in this context, can you help us understand what is equanimity in this context? And how does it help us when it seems like the Spaghetti Incident is the 15th thing that’s happened today?
Dr. Pollak 49:35
Right? And you’ve had it Okay. Yes. So again, translating it into real language. equanimity is just finding some balance. You know, so let’s say you’ve lost it again and again and again. How can you get back in balance? So, it’s as simple as that and especially in these times for so many parents feel thrown off for the 15th, 20th you know, 125th time in the day? How can you recover? And, you know, experts will say take a bubble bath, or, you know, have a medipedi, a facial
Dr. Pollak 50:18
Practice self-care. And you know, go for a run, I say, bullshit, no, one more bubble bath is not going to help. But practicing trying to get some balance really helps. And so, let me give you a choice here. There are two practices that I like one is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, on mountain meditation, where you get this image of a mountain through all the seasons, and the mountain stays steady and calm, no matter what the weather. Other practice I really like is something that the Dalai Lama taught thousands of people. And it’s a practice of really finding some peace in the storm. And that may actually be a good one. So as an entry into that, there’s a meditation teacher named Dora Williams, who had a phrase that I like a lot. And she basically says, yep, the seas are rough for everyone. And we’re not alone in feeling the rough seas. However, some people are on a yacht. Some people are on a dinghy, without, you know, any way of steering. So, it’s not we are in it together and this takes us into a politically important conversation. You know, our resources are not the same. We are not all weathering this in a yacht and there’s economic inequality, and racial quality.
Thank you for bringing that up.
Dr. Pollak 52:06
Just because it’s just so important. Yeah. So okay, this is a practice we can do in about three to five minutes. Again, sounds excellent. This one, you may want to close your eyes, but let’s say you really need some grounding, and it’s, you know, the 215th time that something has happened, you can also you know, if you have no one who can cover for you, you can do this with your eyes open. So just imagine that it’s a beautiful day, get an image of a harbor, the water is calm, there are boats in the harbor, you know, son so they’re very peaceful. And then just feel that in your body. Again, we are just really trying to bring the body in here. And just feel that quiet that peacefulness in your body. And this is a really nice way to counter the anger and anxiety. Just finding some quiet in your body. And then imagine that suddenly the wind shifts, and a storm suddenly blows in. Skies darken there are storm clouds. They are white caps on the ocean. And this boat and the harbors getting tossed around with the waves, the winds, the rain, the gale force winds.
Dr. Pollak 53:59
And just imagine if you like imagine you have scuba gear, scuba gear, if you want, you can drop below the waves. Just slowly letting yourself drop down into the quiet and the stillness at the bottom of the ocean. And as you to that just tune in to what you’re feeling, to any thoughts, motions you might be having. And just feel like you can let that go and just dropping down a little more deeply. Letting go of any tension or tightness in your body, perhaps even noticing where that might be. Perhaps it’s in your eyes, your jaw, your neck and throat, shoulders, letting yourself soften your fingers, your belly, relaxing your back, then to your legs and feet. And then just allow yourself to rest here for a moment or two, feeling that you have some distance from the storm. Some space from the turbulence that you are not the storm. That there’s a place you can go to find some quiet, to find some peace. And then just feel like you can take this in that you can feel this calm this quiet throughout your entire body. That you can really feel this is a resource you can return to whenever you need to be back in balance, whenever you just need a few moments to replenish. And then when you’re ready, no rush. Just slowly come back. But know that this resource is available whenever you need it.
Oh, wow. Thank you for that.
Dr. Pollak 57:36
How was that?
Oh, my goodness. That was I needed that so much. Yeah, I mean, I can imagine for parents who are who are really in it with parenting right now that I mean, parenting is is the thing that’s creating a lot of stress for me right now, it’s I’m recording a lot of videos and getting things ready for my membership group, and many, many, many hours of speaking and recording every day. And it feels like my brain is going a mile a minute. And there’s so much I have to do. And to be able to stop doing that. And to take to step aside from it. And yeah, know that it’s not going anywhere, but that I have these five minutes to reconnect with my experience of what it is to be here to be in this human body right now. It just feels so calming.
Dr. Pollak 58:29
Yeah. And it’s so interesting. We’re really taught, I mean, this goes back to Carol Gilligan’s work, not to be in our bodies. And, and to disown our bodies in many ways.
Yeah. And so what us you did there was you sort of walked us through a little meditation without us even using that that meditation word. And I think there’s a tendency for people who are new to meditation, myself included to think that it’s sort of this, you know, I’m just going to sit here and try not to think, and since I’m a thinking person who thinks nonstop, then clearly, I’m not going to be a success at meditating.
Dr. Pollak 59:03
Right? Right. And so many people are worried about failing. And that’s such a common misconception. And, you know, people be relieved to know that it’s not about stopping our thoughts, because that only happens when we die. You know, it’s really about finding a different relationship to our thoughts. So rather than getting caught in the storms of life, and you know, swirling around and that tornado, hurricane of anger and bitterness and resentment, we learn to just drop beneath it. Yeah. Because you don’t have to live there. You don’t have to live in that rage.
Yeah, in taking it back to Dr. Chris Niebauer’s words of you know, these are the stories that our left brain is telling us, most of which aren’t even true. It’s something our left brain just kind of makes up based on the available information it has to suit you know, it has to integrate in some way, it has to make sense of it. And so, it makes up a story about oh, well, you know, my husband didn’t unload the dishwasher. So, he’s lazy, and he doesn’t care about our relationship and, and he’s not making any contribution to our family. And we can latch on to those things. And it can can become something that we get really caught up in, or we can detach from that. And understand what is my experience in this, and that may be connecting with him. And his experience would be a more productive way of approaching that rather than the, you know, the story in our left brain.
Dr. Pollak 1:00:34
Right, or the larger perspective, which is one of the other things equanimity does, which is, well, what else did my husband do today? Well, he made dinner and he took the kids to school. And yeah, okay. Yeah.
There’s another side to this story if we can move just beyond the dishwasher incident.
Dr. Pollak 1:00:55
So yeah. So, I think for parents who are thinking about this, and they’re thinking, Well, I mean, this is another thing I have to remember to do. And what would you say to parents who are thinking about this? And thinking, yep, sounds amazing, but I’m not even sure how to get started. I mean, that there’s a book that can help them with this, right?
Dr. Pollak 1:01:14
Well, and also one of the things I’m trying to do is not have, you know, self-compassion would be something else on the checklist, you know, along with, like, working out. It’s something again, and I’ve been trying to make this so accessible. Something you can do in you know, three breaths, yeah. Or in 30 seconds, or 20 seconds, or standing up, you know, so it’s not taking any additional time. And I’d like to say to people, look, you’re breathing anyway. You know?
Wait, let me check. Yep, still doing it.
Dr. Pollak 1:01:52
And one of my meditation teachers once told me, she said, you can shift your mind in three breaths. I mean, you can shift your emotional state in three breaths, that it was like, really, really, and it’s true. I mean, I feel often that just one breath, you know, feeling one inhalation and exhalation can really make a huge difference.
Yeah. And so for parents who are who are looking at their daily lives in thinking, this is completely overwhelming, my kid wants my attention all the time, I have to be with him on Zoom school for many hours a day. And I have work to do and a partner who needs my attention, and, and everything seems overwhelming. And and we can get stuck in these narratives of I can’t do it all I’m not enough that we can just I mean, in the space of one to three breaths, we can change the way that we see the situation, which I mean, it helps us right, it helps us to find a different path and to respond differently to the people around us, which helps them respond differently to us and makes our life easier in one to three breaths. It’s kind of amazing.
Dr. Pollak 1:03:03
Yeah. And just to make it easy for your listeners, on my website, there’s a whole bunch of audio meditations they can do. And one is, you know, just on three breaths.
Yeah. Alright. Can you mention where your website is and where people can find more information about you?
Dr. Pollak 1:03:21
Yeah, it’s DrSusanPollak.com, and I can I think I sent you the link. And we can just…
Yeah, we’ll put it in the reference. For people who don’t want to go to the references page I want to make sure they had the right place to go so they can find you. So yeah, so thanks so much for walking us through these super concrete tools. And I also want to give a shout out to Dr. Yael Schonbrun, as well, who introduced us and was kind enough to make the connection that we actually she listened to my back catalogue as well. And she said, you know, who you should talk to. And so, thank you for making that connection. And, and I’m so grateful to you, Susan, for sharing your wisdom and expertise through the book to reach so many parents and with us as well today and really taking these ideas and turning them into things that parents can actually use today in their real families with their real children.
Dr. Pollak 1:04:08
Sure, that one closing comment, just sort of passing it on, you may want to talk to Kristin Neff. She’s doing some interesting new work on fierce compassion. And she has a child with special needs. So that may be a topic. I know. It’s a topic that she talks about. So that may be of interest.
Dr. Pollak 1:04:29
Thank you very much. So, all of the references for today’s episode, including a link to Dr. Pollak’s book Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring For Yourself can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/SelfCompassion.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com to receive new episode notifications and the FREE Guide to Seven Parenting Myths that we can leave behind and join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. For more respectful research-based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you. I’ll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
Barnard, L., & Curry, J. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, and interventions. Review of General Psychology, 15(4), 289–303.
Germer, C., & Neff, K. (2019). Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A guide for professionals. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Jazaieri, H., Loo, Ihno A., McGonigal, K., Jinpa, T., Doty, J.R., Gross, J.J., & Goldin, P.R. (2016). A wandering mind is a less caring mind: Daily experience sampling during compassion meditation training. The Journal of Positive Psychology 11(1), 37-50.
Pollak, S.M. (2019). Self-compassion for parents: Nurture your child by caring for yourself. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.