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The surprising thing I’ve learnt about courage and parenting from working with Brené Brown

I believed, with all my heart, that being harsh to myself was the ONLY right way to ensure my success. After all, if I couldn’t be honest and see “clearly” all my faults, what chance would I have at making anything happen?

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Beautiful young mother laughing with closed eyes while her son is embracing her neck and kissing her cheek outdoor against sunset.
Beautiful young mother laughing with closed eyes while her son is embracing her neck and kissing her cheek outdoor against sunset.

When I flew across the world to get accredited to facilitate the work of Brené Brown, I didn’t do it to be a better parent. I did it for myself. I did it because I wanted to be braver with my own life not realising that by doing that, I would also become the mum I wanted to be. 

I knew that the experience would be transformational but, in less than a week, Brené’s work made me question some of the most fundamental aspects of my life.

I’ve been blessed with an interesting life and have not lacked opportunities to make tough but ultimately rewarding choices. Unfortunately, I’ve also been cursed by an extremely self-critical mind. My pattern ran like this – I was highly encouraging and supportive of myself when I had to take risks or make big decisions, I was my best cheerleader. However, as soon as the initial step was made, I would raise the bar of my expectations so high and then whenever I stumbled or fell down, I would turn into my harshest critic. I believed with all my heart that, that was the ONLY right way to ensure my success. Afterall, if I couldn’t be honest and see “clearly” all my faults, what chance would I have at making anything happen?

Of course, I noticed that I often got stuck in my own drama, that those sessions of “self tough love ” were making me miserable; people who loved me told me to go easy on myself, but no, I wasn’t having any of it. 

Not you too, Brené?

Sydney, 2016 – with Brené Brown

However, the first thing I learnt with Brené that day, broke my heart. 

That first morning in Sydney, Australia, Brené talked about brave people – people who were living, loving and leading with open hearts, falling and dusting themselves off, over and over again; people who asked a lot of themselves and the life itself, who strove valiantly not because they knew it would all be ok, but because they wanted to make a difference. 

I wanted the same – to make a difference as a mother, a leader, a daughter, a wife. 

But I was nothing like them! 

Over 300,000 pieces of data showed that those brave people were kind to themselves.

I’m not sure what did it, the depth of the research or my respect for Brene’s leadership, but for the first time in my life I was able to see clearly. I saw that I spent years betraying myself in my most difficult moments and that broke my heart. 

I decided to change. It wasn’t easy to go from such deeply ingrained belief, almost an addiction to criticism and blame, but I knew I had to do it. 

So I went to the tennis court! 

You see, my pre-Brené self, would have demanded that I become kind to myself overnight. But, for the first time in my life, I extended to myself the same level of kindness and understanding I lavish generously on my children, friends and people I coach. 

I chose to start my unlearning in a low stake, supportive environment but equally an environment where my inner critic was particularly loud and harsh. Playing tennis with my husband was indeed a low risk environment – my husband was very supportive, there was no one watching, and although both of us are super competitive, there was no emotional pressure or expectations to win or lose.

Not on the court.

However, there was a parallel game happening in my mind and that one was hostile. 

Every time I would lose a point, especially an important one, my critical voice would say  – “You see, you can’t deal with pressure! You’re not good enough! If you can’t do it here, what chances do you have at being a great … (fill in the blank)”.

The critic was harsh, insistent and tireless. 

It was eating me from the inside. I was also angy. I was angry with myself, with my husband and it was all a bit too much. My poor husband was often confused, not understanding how come I can be so down, so critical when I was playing well and making progress. I didn’t see any of it. 

Learning to be kind by chasing tennis balls

I started using every game I played as an arena. I have this visual that I learnt from Brené of a Roman arena and I was the heroine doing the brave work in the middle of it. On the stands were my critics. 

At the beginning of each game, I invited myself to stay with myself, not to leave me, not to join the critics, and not to shout and tell me how I’m not good enough. Instead, I gave myself a seat in my own support section.

This is where being a parent was very useful. It was clear to me that my compassionate self was like a child learning to walk and that it will require the kind of motherly love and patience I’m used to giving to my own children. So I became fearlessly protective of my compassionate self.

I started noticing what I was doing well, something I habituall overlooked before. Every time I played a good shot I would say: “Well done hon!” 

Every time I took a wrong shot or buckled down under pressure, I would say: “It’s ok sweetie, you’re doing your best.”

Every time my husband said: “Wow! Great shot!” – instead of dismissing it as before, I said “Thank you!” and I smiled at myself. 

Every time the little voice showed up and tried to take me away from the tennis court and tell me stories of “You’ll never… or who do you think you are?” I would remember the arena metaphor and I would picture my support section and see my self compassion seat empty. It was enough to remind me of the sadness I felt that day in Sydney and that I didn’t want to abandon myself in that way any longer. 

I also knew that change happens in small steps. For years, I sat in my own critics section, being one of them, shouting, criticising, belittling. It’s only natural that I would forget myself and habitually walk towards that section of the arena from time to time. 

However, it took just a little nudge, a gentle voice that said: “No, no, no.  Not that way, come sit over here instead. There’s a better seat, a better view, come sit here”. I made a point of saying to my critical voice “I’m not kicking you out, I just need you to sit in this other seat. And when you sit in this section, in this seat, this is what you need to do. In this seat – we’re not horrible to ourselves, we’re kind.”

That’s how I learnt self-compassion. That’s how I started my transformation. 

I started enjoying the game more, I was a nicer person, I even won sometimes – and when I did – I celebrated, I claimed it, I glowed in it. I have to tell you, my hubby is a much better player than me, no question about it. But that’s not what this is about. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s not about kicking butt or being a hero. This is so much more. It’s about showing up, doing what you love, enjoying yourself and being kind.

Self-kindness births courage. I know that now. 

What does this have to do with parenting at all?

Everything! 

My kids are 12 and 8, a boy and a girl and it’s not unusual to hear kids that age say unkind things to themselves or to each other. I have zero tolerance for name calling and shame talk. Why? I know that over time those statements that focus on who they are and not what they do, can become part of their identity. Over time, a statement like “I’m stupid” can turn into how they view themselves, that that little statement can dim their bright light. I don’t want that. 

Instead, I want to teach them a better way. I’m grateful to Brené’s work for helping me see this so that now I can teach my children too. 

When I hear them speak in that way, I stop them and say – “Hey, I don’t want you to talk to my daughter/my son like that!” 

This makes them laugh. But they get it.

Somedays, I give them a bigger explanation about courage and loving yourself but most days I’ll just say – You may not be happy with what you’ve done or what’s been done to you and that’s ok – you can sort it out. YOU’re fabulous so please, please, don’t talk to yourself like that.

I wish someone taught me this, I wish my own mother knew this, for her own sake. This is why I’m filled with gratitude and joy, every time we teach Brené’s work and we see another parent, another wonderful person, committing to showing up and having her/his own back. 

If you’d also like to learn and integrate these lessons of compassion and courage into your life and into your parenting, join for our next online workshop. Right now, we’ve opened the registration for our last Daring Greatly workshop of 2020. The spaces are limited to a small group of 9 like minded parents who want to learn the powerful skills that will transform how they parent, live and lead. Click here to find out more.

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