I am notoriously hard on myself. After my first semester of high school at a private, all-girls school I got a 3.8 GPA. I was devastated. I felt angry at myself for not achieving a 4.0. I beat myself up for not studying more and I couldn’t escape my own negative self-talk.
20 years later I’m the proud mother of a beautiful five-year-old girl who’s turning out to be her own worst critic. Dripping in sparkling preciousness, my daughter has an emotional depth that’s mystifying. Her connections to the world and observations about life astound me regularly.
I’ve stood on the sidelines and watched with wonder while she has navigated kindergarten. I see how hard she works to sound out words and how frustrated she gets when she can’t figure it out. After struggling to learn to read, she recently proclaimed, “I’m dumb. I’m stupid.”
I reacted emotionally as her mother and number one cheerleader. “No, you’re not,” I said. “Why would you say that about yourself? You’re the smartest little girl I know. You’re so creative and talented.”
She looked at me through glossy eyes and replied forcefully, “Then why can’t I learn to read like everybody else?”
I stared at her blankly and held her as her exasperation flowed into tears. Later that night I thought about all the pep talks my parents gave me throughout my childhood. They fell on deaf ears. Nobody could say anything to cheer me up when I didn’t make varsity basketball my sophomore year of high school. I had my heart set on that goal and I fell short of it.
My dad tried to lift my spirits by saying that not many sophomores made varsity and that I was a good athlete. I couldn’t hear him. No matter how rational the argument he presented, he could never win over the voice in my head. His words of encouragement weren’t enough to silence my inner critic.
The trouble with being my own worst critic is that at times it has prevented me from feeling joy. I’ve focused on all the wrong things. Instead of focusing on my 3.8 GPA and celebrating the hard work that went into that outcome, I felt disappointment. Instead of being thrilled that I made the junior varsity team and that I had the opportunity to play high school sports, I felt not good enough for myself.
This feeling and my inner voice has followed me into my adulthood. It took me a while to realize the damage I was doing by not allowing myself the grace to let go and inhale the richness that makes up my beautiful, imperfect life.
We parents see parts of ourselves in our children. As I watch my daughter’s young, inner voice come out in such a raw form, I hear my own critic in her words. I wonder how I can influence her to ignore that negative voice and develop a positive one. There’s nothing more soul-crushing than listening to a five-year-old girl berate herself.
Praise and pep talks are empty. Whatever is compelling my daughter to feel “less than” will not be satiated by my efforts to cheer her up. I know it won’t equip her to chase away the negative chatter in her head or have her feel like who she is naturally is enough for the world. I can’t talk my daughter out of what her heart feels.
I can certainly relate to how she feels, however. Empathy is a powerful parenting strategy. My daughter was working on an art project recently and ended up in tears and anger.
“Mom, I don’t like my art,” she said. “I want it to look different. I want it to be perfect.”
I resisted my instinct to praise and come back to her with a canned mom response. Something along the lines of, “Oh, your art is beautiful. I love it. I don’t know what you don’t like about it.”
Instead, I looked at her sincere blue eyes and I said, “I understand. I know exactly what it’s like to want something to be perfect.”
She looked at me, bewildered. “You do?” she asked.
“I do. It took me a while to learn that there is no such thing as perfection. It doesn’t exist,” I explained. “All we can do is be our best selves and work hard. Did you work hard at your artwork?”
“I did, Mom,” she said. “But I want to try again.”
“Go for it,” I said. “I’m proud of you for working hard and being willing to try again.”
She walked away with a fierce, determined look in look in her eye, a look I couldn’t help but recognize.