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Permission to Learn

By: Suzie Hester, LCPC, PMH-C


It seems that as soon as the fireworks finish their grand finale, the summer starts it’s slow decent into back to school season. As a parent of two elementary school students, August feels like a time of new beginnings and an increased pace of forms to fill out, supplies to purchase, and activities to schedule. For any parent who is experiencing similar schedule constraints it can feel like time slips away from us. As a therapist, I hear from my clients the struggle of trying to “do it all.” Social media and the stories we project to others do not help to alleviate the pressures that many feel; or lessen the drive to be successful in every area of life.

Shonda Rhymes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal was brave enough to tell it like it is in her commencement speech for Dartmouth’s graduating class. “Shonda, how do you do it all? The answer is this: I don’t. Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life. If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home.” She goes on to say, “If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost.”

As a mother who is powerful in my own right, I appreciate the vulnerability Shonda shares with us all. We can only do so much and we are limited in our human experience. The best we can do is our best. And our best will look different, due to various stressors, resources, or privileges we experience. Comparing ourselves to others does not serve us. In the end, we are simply comparing ourselves to the version of self that others project in an attempt to be accepted. We all do it. We want to be a good parent, sibling, friend.

One of the most powerful things I share in therapy is permission to be human. As a wife, mother, family member, friend, and therapist I have had my share of failure and mistakes. Failure and mistakes do not disqualify us from the work we do; they are a message to listen to. If we allow ourselves to listen with curiosity and compassion we can learn from the struggle and step more into the future we want to shape.

Kristen Neff PhD and Christopher Germer PhD share a step by step way of using self-compassion to improve our relationship with our critical parts. In their work, they share to start by treating yourself in the same way you would treat a good friend or loved one. Many of us, would never tell our best friend or child that they are a “mess” or the other hundreds of different self-deprecating comments we say to ourselves on a daily basis.

The second step is to recognize our common humanity. We are not alone in our struggles. Pain, suffering, shame, uncertainty is apart of the human experience and no one is excempt from it. Sometimes even knowing that you are not alone in the difficult experience can provide hope. The third step is about perspective. Neff and Germer share that the third component of cultivating self-compassion practice is to be mindful. Mindfulness is about noticing what is happening in the moment without minimizing or maximizing the effect it will have on our lives. Rarely, is anything all or nothing; and the goal of mindfulness is to notice and practice curiosity surrounding what is going on in your experience. To acknowledge the hard emotions that come up for us in the midst of the stressor or when we are failing; without telling ourself the story that we are doomed because of it.

This is a hard practice for many of us. We have been told by “hustle culture” to try harder and be better through an attempt to shame the failure out of us. While that can produce results, it also feeds parts of us that thrive to gather evidence to support old negative beliefs we possess. One of my most helpful reframes for myself and many of my clients is “would you want your child to talk to themselves in the way you do to yourself?’’ Schools today are teaching our children the importance of developing a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is preoccupied with passing or failing, winning or losing, successful or unsuccessful. This mindset polarizes our behavior into all or nothing thinking. A growth mindset, focuses on the small changes and progress that add up to powerful results.

With this in mind, I want to challenge you to practice the art of compassionate thinking. When you forget the appointment, the paperwork, or forget to take off work for the back to school night you can use those moments as an opportunity to listen to what the emotion is telling you without overwhelming yourself with shame. Many of us may start to lash out against ourselves when we realize what we did. We may tell ourselves, “I am such a hot mess, why can’t I get anything right?” That internal narrative only serves to perpetuate shame based messages that we are missing the mark. Instead, a more compassionate mindset might support you growing closer to your overall goal of learning from mistakes. “I forgot to take off work for the back to school night. I wish I would have remembered to put it on my calendar when I got the notification. I am feeling guilty that I will have to cut out of work early for this, however, it is ok to make mistakes. I am a human being and I will make mistakes. I can learn from this and do better next time.”

So, in case no one has told you this, you have permission to learn from your experiences. You are also allowed to learn from those experiences in a way that counts your progress and growth. Take care of yourself in the stress; if others deserve grace and understanding, so do you.


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