On this Easter Sunday, as we consider the joyful outcome of the Passion of the Christ, let us – as autism parents consider that our own passions, our own suffering, deserve attention too. You know that part on the airline safety announcement where they tell you that if the cabin pressure fails for some reason and the oxygen masks drop down, to secure yours before securing your child’s?
Or the old adage that you cant meet anyone else’s needs unless your own are met?
So why is so hard – and most especially hard for parents – to act on this principle?
We are conditioned to think the opposite is true: that unless we relentlessly lash ourselves with self criticism we will never succeed at anything; that if we meet any of our own needs we are being indulgent and letting others down; that sacrifice is the only meaningful way to show love; that everyone else is better/more successful than we are and we have to struggle continually to keep up….
The result – burn out. Of marriages, careers, friendships, endeavors and – sad to say – families.
It’s the norm in fact.
Now add autism or any other special need parenting. The result – many parents are reduced to walking dead.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is an old Buddhist concept called self-love that deals with this. Basically the logic – rather like the airline logic – is that how can you have compassion for others’ suffering (remember that compassion in Latin means ‘to suffer with”) unless you first have compassion for yourself.
But wait! Isn’t that just narcissism, self indulgence and complacency? The very things we are always cautioned to guard against? I mean self-love, come on…
But was self-love in the English language sense really what these sages of ancient times had meant, or were they getting at something different that was being lost in translation? At this time, my ex Dr Kristin Neff, and I, were attending a Buddhist sanga pretty regularly and starting to wrestle with these concepts. Over a number of conversations we wondered whether what these old Buddhist masters had meant was actually self-compassion.
And a movement was born. Those of you who have followed Kristin’s work, not just as an autism mom and Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, but also her self-compassion work, know that she ended up creating a measure to chart how high or low someone’s self-compassion was in relation to their good or bad mental health. This became a best selling book – Self Compassion – and the new frontier of the mindfulness movement. But the reason it was so successful was that the science was sound – and it discovered that it was peoples’ ability to be compassionate towards themselves was directly correlated to not just their happiness quotient but to their general success in life.
Put simply the Richard Bransons of the world tended to be more self-compassionate. And mom and dad’s old urging of their children to relentlessly criticize themselves often resulted in depression and unhappiness.
Spare the rod and spoil the child appears, in fact, to be bad science. Its gone way beyond Kristin now, psychologists and statisticians from universities all over the world have studied the self-compassion scale and drawn the same conclusions.
So what does this mean for us as autism parents? Does it mean we should just sit around and eat chocolates, have that extra two beer out the six pack and tell someone else to try meeting our kids’ complex needs?
No, it means we have to treat ourselves the same way we’d treat a good friend.
When you see your good friend suffering what do you do? Do you say – ‘you stupid bitch, what a dufuss, no wonder you never get anywhere in your life?” Of course not (not if you’re sober anyway). No – unless you want a broken nose, or to see your friend jump off a bridge, you put an arm around them, hug them close, offer words of comfort and acknowledgement of their suffering, and then sit down and brainstorm how to get out of this fix.
The key is not to try and problem solve too soon, but to give a bit of time to acknowledge that the suffering is there, is happening, that this pain we are experiencing connects us with the rest of humanity, who is suffering too…those are vital moments because without them the subsequent problem solving doesn’t work as well because we are still to distracted by the initial pain to think clearly.
So how on earth do we do this? How do we start to treat each other like we would treat a good friend when since childhood we have been conditioned to treat ourselves as if we were the enemy?
Luckily for us those old sages gave a lot of thought to this too and gave us some steps to follow that the science now shows work very well. In Kristin Neff’s website self-compassion dot org, and in her book of the same title, she re interprets many of those exercises and has even come up with some new ones that can be used every day. From words of empowerment to the surreptitious self-hug exercise you can do in public without people calling the men in white coats to take you off to the loony bin, to much more involved daily practices that, quite simply work.
The more of this you do, the less you burn out, and the more you can offer to your children’s’ needs.
Its putting on your own oxygen mask before you put your child’s one on. So that you can both breathe together.
In the Easter message we are told that Christ rose after His passion. In this way we can all rise again, and again after our own, and help our children navigate theirs.
Be well, my heroes and heroines, for as autism parents, such you are. And remember, try to talk to yourself like a freakin’ good friend when the going gets tough. You never know, the science might just be right…