When my daughter was a toddler, I used to tell a lot of stories.
Of course there were the stories I made up for her before bed; her favorites were the ones where she went on adventures with Squirrel Number One and Squirrel Number Two from our backyard. At least once in every story she and the squirrels would drink milkshakes that would make their stomachs gurgle and then give them “fart power” to move amazingly fast, and my daughter would giggle each time like she had no idea this plot twist was coming.
But the stories I told far more often than the squirrel stories were the ones I told about her, rather than to her:
“She doesn’t respect me.”
“She’s being deliberately annoying.”
“She’ll never learn how to tidy up if I don’t teach her now.”
Even though I only told these stories in my mind, they still had a profound impact on me. They made me and my wants the star of the show. They convinced me that I knew the right way to do things and that everything would be better when she would play along. And they cut off my sense of empathy and compassion, so it was difficult for me to understand why she was doing the things she did. It seemed like she was doing them to make my life more difficult.
When that happened, it was difficult for me to find ways to work with her. It seemed like there was no path forward because I was caught up in my suffering and how hard things were for me. Everything seemed like an emergency because I had to do something about the situation right now.
Our culture tells us that everything our children do wrong is our fault. If they aren’t eating the right foods, or they aren’t eating enough (or too much), then it’s our fault. Talking back? Also our fault. Being loud in public? Same. So it’s pretty easy for those stories to take over in our heads as well, making our child’s every flaw into something that it’s our job to fix.
If you’ve ever had someone try to “fix” you, you’ll know it isn’t much fun. It puts one person in a position of power, deciding when the fix-ee’s behavior meets the fixer’s standards. Anytime one person is judging another person’s behavior, the relationship suffers. You can’t be in an authentic relationship and feel free to be your whole self when the other person is judging your behavior.
Then I learned a tool that works almost like magic to help me navigate these kinds of situations. The tool creates space for me to decide whether I want to believe the stories in my mind or set them aside. What is this magic tool?
It’s three words: “I’m thinking that…”
Don’t believe me? Give it a try for yourself.
Bring to mind a situation where you’ve struggled with your child recently. Maybe they said or did something you find annoying, or it makes your life more difficult, or it reminds you of old hurts. Don’t pick something too difficult; make it about a 4-6 on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most difficult issue you can imagine.
Allow your mind to go into story a bit. Remember what they said or did…and what you said or did. Remember the impact the event had on you and what the event means—that your child won’t ever learn this skill, or that you’re a terrible parent.
Notice how your body feels; you may be feeling tension in your head, neck, shoulders, chest, and/or stomach. See what’s there for you; the sensations will be different for everyone.
Now think of whatever is the meaning of the event—that your child won’t learn this skill, that you’re a terrible parent, and so on, and add the phrase: “I’m thinking that…” before it. So, “I’m thinking my child will never learn” or “I’m thinking that I’m a terrible parent.” Sit quietly for a minute.
What’s different now?
What I and most of the parents I work with find is that when we use “I’m thinking that…” we’re better able to pause our stories and see them for what they are: stories. It is probably not true that your child will never learn this skill. It is probably not true that you’re a terrible parent. If they’re stories, rather than the truth, then maybe we don’t have to believe them.
When we get out of our stories about how hard things are for us, we can often access a sense of compassion—both for ourselves and for the other person. Once we can access compassion, we can then find a sense of curiosity about why the other person said what they said and did what they did, which was because it helped them to meet a need of theirs. When we understand their need—and our own need as well—we can find a path forward that meets both of our needs. Then we aren’t in a relationship where one person has power over another and where one person judges the other’s behavior as acceptable. We’re two people in a relationship who are both getting our needs met. No fart power required.