What if we took all the parenting books and all the pinterest boards on discipline and all the facebook posts of everyone else doing all the good parenting with smiles and brushed hair and matching clothes and put them in a bonfire? (dramatic, I know, bear with me) What if no one ever suggested how you should parent? What if there was no ideal to compare yourself to? What kind of parent would you be? Seriously, close your eyes. (Well, read this first and then close your eyes). Imagine this: There are no rules, there is no way to do things right and there is no one watching you and no one to compare yourself too. What kind of Mom or Dad are you? How does it feel? If you have to make a decision about something, about anything, you sense into your gut instinct, or your intuition, and see what ideas float into your mind and then you do that. And, maybe it works out great or maybe it doesn’t work very well. That’s totally fine. Because, it doesn’t matter. You just get to try again. There is no right way to do something. There is no wrong way. And, there is no person that knows anything more or better than you do.
That’s the truth. You know what you are doing. Feel that.
In the lower part of our brain there is a wee almond shaped part called the amygdala. This little almond is an important part of our stress response system, also know as our fight, flight, freeze response. It's there to protect us from threats and danger and it does a really great job. It's a big responsibility for a wee almond. When it senses danger it sends a chemicals and sensations into your body and hijacks your system. You've felt it before. You know, that time you came home in the evening to an empty house becasue everyone was out and before you turned on the lights you heard a noise that made you think there was someone in the house? The way your body responds with tension and super sensitive hearing and your eyes scanning the room and investigating any details you could find. That. It happens in a split second when a possible threat is detected. At other times, there can be a long, ongoing challenge, and it sends out stress signals to release brain chemicals at a slower, consistent and more moderate rate. You know, a stressful work environment or hard life situation you can't do much to change.
The amygdala's stress response is necessary and useful. It saves lives. It gives us messages that we need to hear to keep ourselves safe. The trouble comes in when the brain is scanning for threats or danger and it picks up on things that aren't actually dangerous. We get a whole lot of extra stress and fear in our body that does not really need to be there. I tell you all of this because that wee (but mighty) amygdala is constantly scanning our environment. Of course, it looks for jungle cats and falling boulders but it also looks for small things. And, one of those smaller, subtler things is SHOULDS.
Every time you think 'I should spend more time playing games with my kid' or 'I shouldn't eat the brownie. I should eat the brocoli instead' or 'I should know how to do this' your brain percieves a threat and your stress response system is activated. You see, any time you 'should' yourself you are urging yourself to do something that is not in line with your true, authentic nature. You are telling yourself to do something that is not in line with You. It feels like peer pressure, kind of, but it's from yourself. Does that make sense?
To see what I mean, try this: Close your eyes, take a breath, gently notice what it feels like inside your body, and then start thinking a series of 'should' thoughts. 'I should ...' 'I shouldn't ....' And, keep going. I have a suitcase full of 'should' thoughts and I have a suspicion that if you are a person, and a parent, you might have a whole suitcase too. After you think all the 'shoulds' notice your breathing, notice your body tension, notice any sensations in your stomach or your head. Is there tension in your body? What happened to your body as you 'shoulded' all over yourself? That is dysregulation. AKA the nervous system sensations that happen when the amygdala sets off our fight or flight response. Feels kind of uncomfortable, or even awful, right?
There are small shoulds like piles of dirty dishes and unmowed lawns and being capable in our jobs. But there are also bigger global shoulds that can follow us around like ambiguous belief clouds providing a constant stream of discontent. For example, I feel like my house should be less cluttered and feel more manageable, I should think less judgemental thoughts, I should make sure my Mom is happy and feels loved, I should be happier, or that my body should be a different size, or shape, or age.
Next, close your eyes and regulate your nervous system. Take a deep breath into your belly and then exhale. Feel your bum on the surface it is sitting on and your back against anything it is leaning on. Notice your feet on the ground. In your mind think a few supportive, positive thoughts like "I am Ok." "Life is hard but I have got this". "Who I am is enough" "What I want to do in each moment is the best thing for me". Now notice your body. How does it feel? What happens in your stomach, the tension in your body, or in your chest?
Back to my bonfire idea.
I have nothing against parenting books or blogs or families with great hair and matching plaids. What I do have something against is comparison. Parenting books are great and some are really great in my opinion (you can find those here) but they are great as support tools, information we can try and incorporate, and NOT as something that is going to make us feel like we 'should' be doing something differently and what we are doing is not good enough. 'Shoulds' dysregulate our nervous system and that impacts the nervous systems (aka people) around us. Self acceptance, and forgiveness, is where it is at.
I wonder what might happen if you focused more of your awareness on your thoughts. Notice when you think or feel like you 'should' or 'should not' do something and see if you can reframe it. Create a new thought. Your body, your nervous system, and your general wellbeing will thank you.
P.S. I learned about 'shoulds' from Lisa Dion of Synergetic Play Therapy and the The Play Therapy Institute of Colorado.