I looked glumly at my daughter’s second-grade teacher while attending one of the quarterly parent-teacher conferences at my daughter’s school. Mother’s Day had just gone by, and my daughter’s class had put up a dance performance to celebrate the moms. The celebration was on a weekday, which meant I had to work and couldn’t make it to her school. As I sat with my kid’s teacher, she told me I was the only mom who had missed the event.
Driving back home, I felt crushed, thinking, “I’m such a terrible mother!” I continued to feel guilty as my inner voice told me: “I’m a failure — I can’t even organize my schedule to attend a day made to celebrate mothers!”
Suddenly, my daughter put her arms up and said, “Mom, this is the first time you missed Mother’s Day celebrations. Why are you sad?” I wondered how she could be so kind to me when I was tearing myself down so bitterly. Maybe she was onto something.
Over the next couple of days, I mulled over the teacher’s words. The things I was saying to myself in my head were negative and made me miserable. I wondered if I had fallen into the trap of “all-or-nothing thinking” that I had read about in a self-help book.
All-or-nothing thinking, the book says, is a black-and-white thought process that leaves little room for any middle-ground thoughts. As I read more, it occurred to me I beat myself up quite a bit. Whenever I made the tiniest parenting error, I viewed myself as always a bad mom, without any gray area. I was thinking in extremes — and robbing myself of any possibility that existed between those polar ends.
I chipped away at my critical self-talk by reading Dr. Burns’ book. I realized when I thought in an all-or-nothing way, I felt paralyzed with self-blame and regret. The book advised me to inspect my thoughts, question them, and practice thinking of more than one alternative to every thought.
The more I reflected on how I thought, how I felt about myself slowly began to change. The way I spoke to myself stopped being so harsh. I tried to think of the many ways that I looked after my daughter by taking her to the movies, arranging playdates, providing warm meals, and more. Didn’t that make me a good mother?
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Being kind to myself was something I practiced. I also asked my mother to point out occasions when I was criticizing myself too much and to help me seek out realistic thoughts to counter the unhelpful all-or-nothing thinking.
It was a relief! I stepped away from describing myself as only a good or bad mother, but rather, a mother who was excellent in many areas, average in some, and probably not-so-great in others.
Here are three lessons I learned by doing away with all-or-nothing thinking:
Check the labels you give yourself
I thought about how upset and helpless I felt when I labeled myself a “bad mother.” I put myself in a box with very little room to maneuver in.
I thought about how I could avoid using an umbrella label for myself that ignored all the times I did outstandingly well as a mother, such as when I patiently fed my daughter or answered her few million questions.
For example, I could say to myself that I felt bad because I could not attend my daughter’s Mother’s Day event at school. Reminding myself that I had a lot on my plate and was doing the best I could softened the blow. I was a good mom on some days, great on many, and maybe not-so-efficient on some! By changing the labels I gave myself, I instantly felt relieved as the burden of self-flagellation started decreasing.
Looking back, I recalled a time about three years back when I worked really hard for a promotion at my office. However, I didn’t get it and decided to drop out of the running altogether by changing my job. If I had instead told myself that one setback is not representative of my entire being, I would have felt motivated to continue aiming for that promotion.
All-or-nothing thinking got in the way of my best interests — I could have continued striving for that promotion at a different time. Talking to myself kindly with words of understanding and compassion could go a long way in dealing with obstacles.
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Worthiness comes from within
I instantly felt unworthy when I called myself a terrible mother. On introspection, I concluded I am worthy of my child’s love, irrespective of whether every action of mine proves it every single day.
Breaking the association of my self-worthiness as a mother with the number of things I do for my child has helped me tremendously. I realized that I had also been attaching my sense of worth to achieving something in many areas of my life. I felt worthy in my job, as a member of my community, my role as a daughter, and so on, only when I thought of myself as productive.
Did I always have to achieve something to be worthy? No! I could be good ol’ average me, living my day-to-day life, appreciating all the small and big things I do for myself and others.
Be perfectly imperfect
Over time, doing away with all-or-nothing thinking has led me to feel comfortable in my skin. I try to think in a way that is realistic and helpful to me. I am pretty good at some aspects of being a mother, excellent at some parts of my job, and try to be a responsible daughter. I’m rarely always good or uniformly bad in any of my roles!
Nobody is perfect, and I like my goofy self! And from imperfection comes humanity, love, and humility — all of which are awesome qualities for us to strive for, and for our children to emulate.
All-or-nothing thinking made me feel like the whole of me was faulty and I had no scope to improve. However, I now reflect on my thoughts in all colors of the rainbow, not merely in black-and-white terms. I feel alive, productive, and accepting of my (many) imperfect bits.
Missing one Mother’s Day event did not make me a “bad” mother. How I talked to myself and how I looked for alternative thoughts to all-or-nothing thinking helped me remember that I was a mom, like any other, who has good, bad, and average moments and everything in between as well! What’s not to like?