It’s not me, it’s you

We tend to think it’s easy to spot a bully, because bullies are big, evil-looking people who loom over you, shout at you, and flush your lunch down the toilet.

But sometimes, in the real world, bullies are softly spoken, reasonable sounding people who “really are only telling you this for your own good”. When someone takes you aside privately to offer you feedback, is it because they are offering you an opportunity to improve without publicly pointing out your faults, or is it because any discerning, impartial audience would instantly detect their words as the poisonously corrosive barbs they are, in fact, intended to be?

Sometimes bullies even feel like friends, at first. Right up until you become a little too outspoken, a little too successful, or the bully just has a bad day.

So that’s the conundrum: How is it possible to learn to differentiate between genuine constructive feedback, and criticism that is both false and malicious? That is, in fact, bullying?

I wish I had the answer to this one. The one, definitive answer that makes all the pain, all the self doubt go away once and for all. (Although, of course, with no self doubt at all we’d be ravening, arrogant, destructive monsters. A little balance would be a fine thing.)

Sadly I don’t think there is one definitive answer. I think that those of us who care about trying to be the best we can be are always going to be easy targets for the kind of people who want to defuse us by persuading us we’re not good enough.

But maybe there are tricks we can use to fight back. Not by bullying back – that’s a losing game from any perspective – but by choosing who we listen to rather more wisely. We all have people in our corner. But it’s easy to discount it when they tell you that you’re awesome. We can be too quick to say “She’s just being nice.” or “He doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.”

It’s easy to dismiss your supporters as being biased, while somehow accepting your bully as perfectly accurate. But here’s an important question: Who do you trust? If your bully and your best friend were each telling you the safest path to walk to get through a minefield, who would you believe?

Ultimately, that’s exactly what they are doing. Life can be a real minefield. And sometimes you need someone to guide your steps. Who do you trust to do that? Because those are the people we should be listening to. Not the bullies, the doubters, and the people who would feel much more comfortable in themselves if we were a little less successful. A little less irritatingly good at what we do. A little less of a threat to their self-esteem.

Here’s another way to look at it: How would it make your friend feel, to know that you don’t believe him? How will your bestie react if you tell her you think she’s lying to you? Ahah! Got you by the short and curlies now, haven’t I? What you won’t do for your own good, you will do for someone else’s sake. It’s a fair point though. Those people who are truly in your corner need you to be in theirs, too. Trust goes both ways.

So next time the turkeys are getting you down, ask yourself this: where does your faith belong? In the hands of those who would take you down, or in the arms of those who want to help you rebuild? Who do you really trust? And what would you tell them if the tables were turned?

My secret shame

I’ve read a few articles recently about the so-called “mummy wars”. Most of them were of the “why can’t we be grown ups and stop judging each other” variety. Parental judgements are everywhere you look. Stay at home mums judging mums who go out to work. Mums who work criticizing mums who stay at home. Mums who breastfeed judging bottle-feeders, and mums who bottle feed getting up in arms about breastfeeding. Co-sleepers lording it over controlled cryers. The “raise ’em tough” brigade sneering at attachment parents.

The take home message is “my way is perfect, yours is horrendous. Unless your way happens to be my way, in which case full speed ahead and damn the torpedos, Sister, ‘cos we rock!”

People like to judge each other. It’s a fairly basic human tendency. But we judge others most harshly, I think, when we are unsure of ourselves – and few things make a person more insecure than becoming a parent.

Am I feeding her enough? Is he sleeping enough? Should I respond faster when she cries? Am I making him weak by cuddling him to sleep? Should I be stricter with her? Am I being too stern with him? Is this the right childcare/kinder/school? Is there something catastrophically wrong with her diet? Does he eat too much junk? Is she active enough? Does he have ADHD? Is she being challenged at school? Is he overworked? Should I help more with her homework? Should I help less? Should I play more with them? Should I let them take more chances? Am I putting them too much at risk?

Parenting can be a vast litany of self-doubt, fear and confusion. There is so much definite, assertive advice out there. Co-sleeping could be fatal. Not co-sleeping could be fatal. Breast is best, but you mustn’t eat chocolate or drink orange juice, never mind drugs and alcohol. The myriad of ways in which we are putting our children at risk is pounded at us through a risk-happy, danger-driven media many, many times every day. And we want to do the very best we possibly can for our children. Is it any wonder we doubt ourselves?

Every parent who does things the same way we do reinforces our belief that we are doing the right thing, and shushes those little voices that say we are making a terrible, terrible mistake. And every parent who makes different choices can be a vivid and potent threat to our certainty. An alarming reminder of what someone else thinks is best. And what if they are right?

The loudest voices are often the most uncertain – as if shouting louder will reassure us that we are right. So it is with those pesky parental judgements. The more aggressively we assert that someone else’s way is wrong, the more easily we can shout down those nagging doubts. We still the voices in our own heads by planting them in the heads of others.

It’s alarmingly effective. Today a lovely new friend was telling me of her travails with kids who don’t take the word “bedtime” overly seriously, and I found myself surprisingly reluctant to confess that I sit with my girls until they are asleep. This friend is one of the world’s least judgmental people, and I was entirely confident that she would not be the slightest bit perturbed by my guilty little secret, but the problem is I wasn’t afraid of her reaction – I was frantically trying to ignore my own shame. Which is really very sad.

Here I am, making a choice which brings my daughters comfort, gives us a lovely peaceful closeness at the end of the day, and generally only takes 5 or 10 minutes, and I am so caught up in all the judging and the vociferous advice that I find myself ashamed to admit that I do it. In truth, bedtime has often been a struggle in the past, as we persisted with my strange belief that I was obliged to get my kids to go to sleep on their own. It was only once we “caved” and decided to sit with them at bedtime – alternating, so that one night it’s me, the next night it’s their dad – that bedtime became a peaceful and reconnecting time for us.

In reality, of course, we didn’t “cave” at all. We just did what felt right – and I wish we’d done it earlier. It would have saved a lot of trauma. But I had very fixed ideas about how I was going to parent, and it took me a long time to get past that and see into my own heart.

Our harshest judges are inside our own heads. I think we judge others in a futile attempt to drown out those doubting voices. So next time you feel as though some other parent is judging you, spare a sympathetic thought for them. They are probably terrified that you might be right.

Career Change

Changing career is a little like becoming a parent for the first time. Everything is new, strange, and exciting. You spend a lot of time terrified of getting something horribly wrong. You worry about the right way to do things, and whether you are handling everything properly. You are consumed with dread about what everyone else must be thinking.

Out in public, you are often convinced that your inexperience and nervousness show like big flags waving over your head. “Newbie!” the flags scream. “SHE’S GOT NO IDEA!” they declare. “COMPLETELY HOPELESS! SOMEBODY GET HER OUT OF HERE!” they declaim. You are overwhelmed, and completely certain that, sooner or later, someone will realise you are hopelessly unqualified to be in this position, and they will rectify the ludicrous mistake that gave you all this responsibility.

Slowly, little by little, you begin to relax into your role. Maybe you have a great day, or you get a little positive feedback, and it’s like your baby smiling at you for the first time. Suddenly you remember why you wanted to do something so insane. You start to think that maybe you could be good at this, in time. It’s still hugely, incredibly daunting, but there are thrills – not every day, but more and more often. This feels like it could be something fabulous.

Just as you’re feeling almost comfortable – WHAM! Something goes horribly wrong. You make a huge mistake, or handle something unbearably badly. It feels as though you have dropped your baby on her head. You may never recover from the guilt, shame and ignominy. What could possibly have made you think that you could do this? You are nowhere near good enough for something this amazing. Something this important. It was a horrendous, horrifying mistake to get into this position in the first place, and the sooner the earth opens up and swallows you whole, the better for everyone involved.

And then, if you are exceptionally lucky, an angel appears. Someone takes you by the hand and explains that nobody died, that everybody has bad days, and that perspective is a wonderful thing. They tell you their own horror stories about days that went catastrophically wrong. You realise that if someone so experienced, so obviously talented, can still have bad days, maybe there’s hope for you. You lift your head and smell hope on the breeze.

Exactly like that moment when you meet another parent who has “been there, screamed that, and lived to laugh about it afterwards”, you realise that these are moments that we all share. That there is nothing unique about your own situation, or your own fears. That even the best of us has times when we feel as though we are dragging ourselves along the bottom of the ocean. And that sometimes we all need a little help to find our way back to the surface.

To all the angels in my life, and especially in my workplace – thank you! You brighten the darkest days.


You’re so vain,

you probably think this song is about you

One of the hardest, yet most valuable lessons I’ve learnt is that it’s rarely about me. It doesn’t matter what “it” is. Even when someone is shouting right in my face, or in the case of my 4 year old right  in my knee, it’s still not about me. Sometimes it’s about blood sugar, sunshine (or lack thereof), or the phase of the moon. Sometimes it’s about lack of sleep. Sometimes it’s just about life.

As toddlers, we rule the universe (or at least we think we do). Everything revolves around us, and we lack the cognitive ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. As we grow, in theory, we become more able to empathise and to recognise that there are other ostensibly valid points of view. A toddler is as proudly self centred as a gyroscope, and while adults are generally slightly more subtle about it, we often remain fundamentally gyroscopic.

You’re so vain

I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you?

(You’re So Vain – Carly Simon)

It is incredibly difficult not to take life personally. A wise friend recently explained to me that meanness is potent “because it taps into that little voice in our heads that tells us we deserve it.” It’s difficult to shrug off nastiness, because deep down we believe that it is about us. We (and only we) deserved the tirade, or caused the problem, or should have done better. And then we become deeply invested in the battle.

Yet when we make things all about us, we make our lives unnecessarily difficult. We try to fix the unfixable, accept blame for the unavoidable, and take everything far too much to heart. We all need more SEP fields. The SEP field was first described by Douglas Adams – it stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. In his Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams used the SEP field to power a device that effectively made things invisible – because if it’s somebody else’s problem, nobody can see it.

An SEP field is an exceptionally useful concept for those of us who take things personally. Especially when someone is grumpy, or downright mean in your general direction. Today my 8 year old was upset because a teacher was looking grumpy. He was at least 20 metres away, and not looking at her, but because he had told her off 15 minutes ago, she just knew that he was still cross with her. What else could it possibly be? Sadly, the girl who has SEP fields down to a fine art when it comes to messes around the house, really doesn’t get the SEP as it applies to relationships.  A healthy, but balanced application of the SEP is vital to a peaceful life, and it’s a tough lesson to learn.

The interesting thing is that an understanding of the ‘relationship SEP’ gives you the ability to lose, in order to win. That may sound a little bizarre – the trick is that if it’s not about you, then you have no investment in winning battles. You can throw the battle in order to win the war. If it’s not about you, then it’s also not about your self esteem. And it’s self-esteem (or the search for it) that drives us to save face, prove our point, and above all WIN. If it’s not about you, then you can be calm, and objective, and work on finding a way to make everyone happy, instead of trying to come out on top.

It can be incredibly difficult to maintain an appropriate SEP field when someone is pushing your buttons. Indeed, I have failed to achieve it quite a few times recently. But even invoked after the fact, the SEP can still be a powerful tool. Say it with me: It’s Somebody Else’s Problem. Look! It’s gone.

I doubt it

There are few tricks easier than making parents doubt themselves. There is no doubt that guilt and doubt glands get installed and/or enlarged in both parents the minute a baby is conceived. Yesterday I was chatting with a friend who confessed that he and his wife were doing “the wrong thing” and allowing their nearly 4 year old to share their bed. My friend was somewhat startled when I pounced, and shouted “WHO SAYS??” Actually I think the rest of the restaurant may have been a little surprised, too.

The truth is we all do “wrong things” as parents. There are so many rules out there about what you can and can’t do that you can’t help but be doing the wrong thing according to some commentator, book, or newspaper article. It’s wrong to respond to a baby’s cries. It’s wrong to leave them to cry. It’s wrong to co-sleep. It’s wrong to make them sleep on their own. It’s wrong to breastfeed past 12 months. It’s wrong to wean your children before they choose to wean themselves.

What we forget is that most of these “rules” are not evidence based. There is no research to prove them right or wrong. They are theories. You can easily shape a convincing argument to back up your own personal theory, but it’s still just a theory. There are, of course, medical theories that are based on research, like the SIDS recommendations, but they are in the minority.

My own personal theory is that babies don’t cry to manipulate us. They are expressing their needs. Responding to their needs when they express them will give them confidence that their needs will be met, and lead to them being happier, more confident and more independent people later in life. Far from making them dependent on you, it will provide them a secure base from which they can happily fly when they are ready. Babies are physiologically incapable of independence, so pushing them to be independent before they are ready can only do harm.

But I can easily frame the counter argument convincingly, too. If you respond to babies the instant they cry, they will never learn to settle and soothe themselves. They will learn to cry to manipulate you into picking them up, and you will never get a moments’ peace. You are making a rod for your own back, and depriving your baby of the chance to learn to be independent. You will pay for it for the rest of your life.

Note that both arguments are emotive (” can only do harm” “depriving your baby” “manipulate you” “rod for your own back”) and they tap into our deepest fears as parents – we are somehow harming our children, and we are making life much harder for ourselves.

Becoming a parent makes you immensely vulnerable. Your desire to do what’s best for your children is overwhelming, and your fear of doing the wrong thing and inadvertently harming them can be intense. Anyone who comments negatively on your parenting can tap into those fears and create a whirling tornado of self-doubt in your soul.

It’s clear that there is only one thing to do. Listen to yourself. Do what feels right to you, your partner, and your children. If it feels right, your children are happy and healthy, and you’re happy and healthy, then it’s the right thing to do. Now that’s a theory you can bet your life on.