On average, women are harder on themselves than men are1 and I suspect that many Mums are even harder on themselves than they were before having children. Women more often define themselves based on their responsibility to others than men do 2, such as a daughter, a mother, or a friend. Comparison to others is therefore at the forefront of women’s minds. Boys are encouraged to take risks, to fail and bounce back, whereas girls are trained to please others and to be good and ‘perfect’ (perfection is impossible) 3. Western society usually favours individuality, certainly in many careers. The tendency of women to think of others first and to prioritise social relationships, is often viewed negatively. Even more so, this focus on others is often thought of less important than stereotypically masculine traits, of individual career achievements and status 2.
“I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.” ― Michael Cunningham, A Home at the End of the World. I say ‘stereotypically masculine or feminine traits’ when talking about traditional Western norms. I do not mean to generalise or to exclude anyone identifying with any gender. It is not the gender itself, or the social role (like being a Mum for example), which impacts our wellbeing. Our view of how we match up with our own values, our own expectations, and what others think we should do that affects us. It is how society views these things, not gender or motherhood itself, that can cause the pain 4.
Social comparison can be particularly tricky for Mums. Before motherhood career or individual achievements and/or valued jobs can bolster our self-worth. Society tends to value materialism and so being ‘unpaid’ (even for a short time) can take away some of this perceived ‘value’ 5. This can leave us without the comfort and status of ‘societally-valued’ roles. Even if you return to the workforce after maternity leave, there are challenges. You may face discrimination because you took time off for maternity leave and may now need to spend less time in the office. That burden is already on top of the responsibility of becoming a Mum, which comes with many changes to the body, mind and social groups6. For a new Mum, even simple tasks like leaving the house can be tricky; you need to learn how to do these all over again.
Women care more about other people than men do. Along with being more socially focused, women are more empathetic than men on average 7, so you could say that women care more about other people than men do. It seems unfair then, that while women care more about others, they are harder on themselves than men are 1. Women also spend more time dwelling on ‘wrong’ things that they have or have not done (rumination) 8. You could say that women are so much harder on themselves, not because they deserve to be, but because they care. This self-criticism often starts from birth as girls are expected to be better behaved than boys. Girls tend to get away with less and this consistent unequal treatment builds up to confirm these stereotypes 3. This contributes to many women struggling at work and has mental health consequences. This self-criticism means many women are fighting a battle in their own mind. This rumination, or over-thinking, actually stops us from being able to think clearly 9 – we can be our own worst enemy.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” - Theodore Roosevelt. Constant comparisons to others, plus self-criticism means many women are constantly rating themselves in comparison to others, often without realising it. This constant comparison actually changes our behaviour as only 1 in 1000 (99.9%) of our decisions are made without being informed by social comparison (even if it is unconscious) 10. This constant self-criticism feeds into our decisions and shapes our life choices, keeping the cycle of negativity going on in our minds. Have you ever come back from the school run thinking another Mum looked so slim this morning? Without even realising it, you are judging yourself as looking less slim. Do you ever look at another Mum and think, how did she lose the baby weight so quickly when I never did? Again, you are criticising yourself. This self-criticism is incredibly common 1 and all of these comparisons chip away at your self-worth and can impact your mental health 11. Every time you quickly push aside one of these negative thoughts, it stores itself away in your unconscious mind 12. Eventually, these hidden negative thoughts build up until they find a way to show up trying to warn you that something needs to change. For me it was weight, migraines and panic attacks, it can be loss of consciousness, disordered eating, substance abuse or many other things 13.
“I am positive about other people, just not myself”. The number of times I have (said) and heard that statement from others about negative self-talk. That is what we tell ourselves, but it is not true. I really used to believe this. Once you start noticing negativity about yourself, you start noticing little things you think about other people too - but we don’t like to admit it. People who are more accepting of themselves are also more accepting of other people (including when knowing their faults) 14. In other words, be kind to yourself and you will automatically be kinder to other people. Therefore, it is very likely that if you are negative about yourself, you are (possibly unknowingly) being negative about others too. These judgements are often so quick and such a habit that we do not often notice them, they just get quickly buried in our unconscious mind and add to our inner unhappiness inside. Noticing these judgements about yourself and others is the first step to inner healing and weight loss. The next step is to work towards rephrasing them kindly. Looking on thoughts without judgement is central to a healthier mindset and to a healthier body 15. It is also central to getting what you want in life 16. When you start being kinder to yourself, you stop wanting to eat things that will harm your body.
Are you comparing your everyday to everyone else’s great day? Motherhood also comes with new range of people to compare ourselves against. It is likely that someone will be giving the impression that they are doing everything perfectly. Perfection is not possible 3. You do not know what is going on behind closed doors. If someone’s life looks too perfect, then it is likely that it is hiding (if you have seen or read Big Little Lies17, you will have seen what can lie under ‘perfection’). The problem is, there will always be someone else doing better at something. The problem with basing your worth on comparisons means that you can never feel stable as your self-esteem can be rocked by others 18. Only half the population can be ‘better than average’ at something. We need to come to terms with not being the best at everything, and ideally anything. I think the school gates are a bit like social networking sites where most people only post the best of themselves. However, you are very likely to check social networking sites when you are feeling harassed or trying to numb something. Social networking sites lend themselves to making you feel bad about yourself; are you comparing your everyday to someone posting about their great day? Is that going to lead to a happy place for you?
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” -Eleanor Roosevelt. The key to long term weight loss is through self-compassion or viewing all parts of yourself with kindness 1. Because of our tendency for social comparison, with this way of thinking, it is easy to get into a pattern of basing your worth or value on comparison with others 11. Calm, authentic people tend to be able to view their selves as inherently valuable (for being human, unique and for just being) and do not rely on comparison or praise of others 19. Do you find your mood is boosted by praise from others? Do you find your self-esteem propped up with social media likes? If so, you may be eating to prop up your self-esteem. Alternatively, can you value yourself for being a human, for your uniqueness and for your potential, whatever that may be? With this, comes the ability to view your strengths and weaknesses without any judgement and to value yourself, even being open about your flaws. A good way to start is by just noticing the negative thoughts in your mind. The next step is to start rewriting these negative thoughts into kind ones. The mind is powerful and although our mind controls us, we can also control our mind 20. By starting to think kindly, our brain starts to believe us, and we end up being kinder to ourselves, and to others. When you are kind to yourself, you no longer want to eat food that will harm it.
On a plane, would you fit your own oxygen mask before your child’s?Think of that oxygen as kindness. If you collapse from lack of oxygen you are not going to be able to do anything to help your child. They will be all alone. If you make sure your oxygen mask is fitted, then you can deal with whatever comes along. Think of that oxygen as kindness. That is why as a Mum it is especially important to be kind to yourself. How can you look after your kids when you have nothing left in the tank? As many women prioritise their social responsibilities, many women and especially Mums prioritise their children and leave their own health, wellbeing (and dinner) until last 9. This constant lack of kindness towards yourself builds up and before you know it, you are not able to support your children as well as you could if you were treating yourself a little more kindly.
If you watched your grown-up child or a good friend treating themselves as you currently treat yourself, what would you think? As a Mum, the need to prioritise your children is ingrained and children do need nurturing and love, but so do you. Imagine your child has grown up and is now an adult or imagine a good friend. Imagine they are as busy and frantic as you are now (I am assuming that you are busy and frantic as most people are). If you watched your grown-up child or good friend treating themselves as you currently treat yourself, what would you tell them? Is it likely to be something like, “look after yourself”, “take a break” or “you are worth it”? Would you say, “you are doing so well”, or “you are trying your best and that is all you can do”? Whatever you might say, it is likely that you are being kind to them. Why then are you not that kind to yourself?
If your child sees you not looking after yourself, then they are likely to grow up to do the same. If you need more convincing, then consider that you are also teaching your children how to look after themselves. The way we are with, and around, our children, is how they are likely to be when they grow up 21. That is, unless you begin to do something differently.
Practice being kind to yourself. Look at yourself in a mirror or imagine yourself. Try viewing yourself as if you were a good friend or your grown-up child. What would they say to you? Practice spotting negativity towards yourself and then using this exercise to build a kinder view of yourself. Let’s take weight as an example. You may look in the mirror (as I have done many times) and think ‘my tummy looks really fat’. The first step is to notice the negative thought. Secondly, try to practice looking at yourself with kindness. For example, you could try saying something like “I am grateful that my tummy grew my children and processes food which allows me to live”. It may seem simple, but it takes practice. When I started doing this, I began to realise the amount of negative thoughts I had all day long. No wonder I didn’t feel good enough, I was telling myself all of the time!
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