Purposely tending to our emotional health can make our lives happier and healthier. Parents who are estranged from adult children can nonetheless bolster their emotional health and increase feelings of well-being, with positive effects.
Looking optimistically forward may be difficult in the face of a situation that remains unpleasant and unchanged. So, parents who are estranged from adult children may hold a less than positive outlook. But even when you can’t change a negative circumstance that is beyond your control, taking charge of your emotional well-being can help. This is one in a series of short articles on ways to bolster emotional health and increase feelings of well-being.
People who suffer rejection in a relationship may replay interactions and try to figure out what they did wrong. Parents whose adult children are estranged often react similarly. We may reflect upon every detail of how we raised our child in an attempt to explain the estrangement. In so doing, we may identify mistakes. Even well-intentioned parents don’t do everything perfect all of the time. In a state of worry, shock, and distress, parents whose adult children are estranged may be too self-critical, which can injure emotional well-being and prolong our sadness. Here’s one way to work at combating an overly critical self-examination, and feel better:
Parents of adult children who are estranged: Practice self-compassion.
In his research, Wake Forest University psychologist Mark Leary found that the ability to treat oneself kindly helps people cope in the face of negative events. Do you forgive your own imperfections and treat yourself well despite failure, defeat or rejection? Or do you berate and belittle yourself? In Leary’s studies, participants with the most forgiving attitudes toward themselves were less bothered when they imagined distressing events.
Most of us find it easy to let another human being off the hook. We might be quick to say something like, “Don’t feel bad. Everybody makes mistakes sometimes. You’re only human.”
If a friend confides a failure, we might offer support by reminding our friend of their success in other areas. Providing ourselves with the same type of supportive self-talk can be healing.
In one of his studies, Leary had participants write themselves a letter, as if they were sending it to a friend. If you have a tendency to blame yourself, you might do well to pen yourself a note of support then read and re-read it whenever needed.
An exercise to practice self-compassion
In my work as a life coach, I have directed clients to ask a trusted friend to sit down and write them an email or note that describes them when they’re at their best. My clients enjoyed receiving the positive depiction, and were often surprised by the depth of a friend’s caring. The note became a tool they could pull out whenever they were feeling low. Trading notes might be even better.
A few years ago, I participated in this exercise myself by trading descriptions with a friend. Her letter describing me at my best was helpful in that it demonstrated she understood some of my most core values. And at a time when my focus was a bit fuzzy, her description reminded me of what is most important to me. Providing a description of my friend at her best was also helpful. It feels good to provide positive support to an individual you care about, and writing the description did just that.
To foster a spirit of self-compassion, consider writing out a description of yourself when you’re at your best. In the wake of an adult child’s rejection, parents whose adult children are estranged can feel powerless. In preparing for the exercise, reflecting on your life, how you’ve successfully dealt with problems in the past, and reliving satisfying moments can perhaps break a habit of self-blame, and trigger better feelings. Describing yourself at your best in writing may help reconnect you with your strengths, accomplishments, and value – – and perhaps spur you back into things you enjoy and do well.
Self-compassion, according to Leary’s studies, might also have another benefit for parents whose adult children are estranged and who look forward to the hope of reconciling. When we are self-compassionate, we are better able to admit our mistakes. Because healing family rifts may require honest, open discussion, a willingness to admit our failings as perceived by our adult children can help foster the necessary atmosphere of humility and understanding.
Even if you don’t follow through and write a letter to yourself, take a few moments to consider yourself with compassion. After all, you are your oldest friend.
Parents whose adult children are estranged: How you will be self-compassionate and treat yourself well?
In what ways will you be more self-compassionate? I’d love to hear how you’re treating yourself well. Shared kindness creates a more compassionate world.