04/16/2014 01:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

We Are All Doing the Best We Can: A Lesson in Compassion

By Malia Gaffney

One of my greatest challenges as a mother (and as a human) is to have compassion for myself. When I fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, have difficulty mustering the energy to get through the day with a positive attitude, or reflect on a parenting decision I've made with regret, I'm the first person to bring down the hammer of judgment on my character. It has taken me 30 years to realize something that seems obvious to me now--this pattern of thinking does not serve me.

Each time I judge myself, I undermine my self-worth, I place immense pressure on my nervous system, and I create a negative reference point for my sense of self. It's as if I have an emotional and mental setback mode. That means that every time I judge myself harshly, I set myself back. No matter how many wonderful things I've accomplished, no matter how many sweet moments with my kids, and no matter how many successful decisions I've made, as soon as I "do something wrong," I'm plunged right back into that place where my reality is that I am not good enough. We all have these feelings occasionally, and when we are strong we can see these events for what they are--difficult moments in the life of a good person who is doing her best. The problem is that these negative reactions are not always easily identifiable. They may be shrouded with many of the defense mechanisms that we erect around our tender psyches to keep them safe. Instead, these reactions present themselves as irritability, rage, and my personal anti-favorite, transference of blame/judgment onto others. When we get bogged down in reacting from these places, it's hard to feel like a good parent, and perhaps more importantly, it's impossible to love yourself. Who's going to cradle your own tender heart if you don't, and who is going to teach your children to cradle theirs?

There are many days when I feel as though I'm swimming against the tide. It often seems as though there are a hundred things calling for my attention, and I simply can't get into a flow. Take today, for example. I wanted to spend some time working on my own projects, but instead I went in early to get some work done at the studio where I work for artist friends, came home at lunch to watch the kids while my husband had a Skype meeting with a client, and ended up playing Bird Bingo with my three-year old while my teething eleven-month old begged to get up on my lap because she wanted to grab all of the pieces. I've been trying to get my son to play Bird Bingo with me for two weeks, and today he suggested it. So that was a good thing, right? The only problem is that I was agitated the whole time. I was annoyed with myself for taking so long on work at the studio, annoyed with my husband for asking me to come home and help him out on the one day that we had set aside for me to work on my projects, and annoyed that I couldn't just enjoy the game. I was irritated with everyone and everything!

It's not easy to set priorities as a parent; you need to weigh out what action is actually highest and best for everyone in the family, and yet it is often impossible to achieve a perfect balance. I had good reasons for the choices that I made today, even though the result was a day that didn't go exactly as I had wanted. So why am I kicking myself? Why am I judging myself for all of it? If I were to love myself and care for myself the way I want my children to be cared for, I might decide to set better boundaries in the future (learning from experience). I would remind myself that I want to make myself a priority even when I am caring for others. Most importantly, I would have compassion for myself and be able to see more objectively why I made the decisions that I made. This takes the sting out of all of it. It allows me to move forward with a strong heart, without the assumption that I'm going to continue to make similar "poor" choices in the future. I'm able to love and appreciate all of the things that I did today, and to set an intention for the future.

What if we entertained the idea that everybody, no exceptions, is always doing the best that they are capable of at any given moment? Most of us carry around unhealed emotional baggage, but in addition to this, we carry around an equal or greater amount of guilt over not being good enough to have overcome it. If we love our own hearts unequivocally, there is nothing to forgive, because we are aware that we have always done exactly what we were capable of in that moment. Whatever our cocktail of upbringing, life experience, hormones, nutrition, sleep, circumstance, etc., any given moment that we find ourselves in can be viewed with a compassionate and discerning eye. We free up the energy formerly expended on feeling bad about ourselves, and have more resources with which to face our "weaknesses" and process our emotions.

We mothers need lots of tools to help us feel strong as we navigate the epic journey of being a human, while caring for other humans. Community resources, like MotherWoman, as well as friends and family, are invaluable support systems for mothers and families. Cultivating compassion for ourselves and others can also begin to build up support systems within our own psyches to allow us to exist in an atmosphere of grace regardless of external circumstances.

We are all doing the very best that we can with what we have been given, and if we are sometimes underwhelmed with our efforts, or unimpressed with our actions, we do have a choice. We can beat ourselves up about it, shame ourselves, tell ourselves that we should have been better, or we can take a deep breath and begin again with our self-worth intact.

2014-04-15-MaliaGaffney.jpgMalia Gaffney has a background in arts, education, and yoga instruction. She is a certified postpartum doula, and currently working on completing her birth doula certification. She is the mother of two, and lives in the beautiful hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.

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