Not every child of abusive parents benefits from “self-mothering” the same way
I’m not saying it’s invalid, I’m saying it isn’t one-size-fits-all.
I see a lot of talk about self-mothering as if it’s this simple one-dimensional thing, and I can’t help but wonder: aren’t we missing something?
If you’re a new reader or don’t know me yet, here’s a useful link to my “mother wound” series. Feel free to browse. I am not a therapist, but I’m no stranger to the world of psychology either, because of the dysfunctional family that shaped my childhood and my never-ending quest to heal from it. Although I can’t offer you hard facts and data on this subject, I hope my personal story and point of view is relatable to other people in a similar situation.
What nurtures you?
As usual I’m going for metaphors, least I offend anyone accidentally. My chosen metaphor today is animal diet. What does each animal eat?
Think of a cat, big or small. Can a cat sustain itself on vegetables alone? No it can’t, and if you insist on depriving a cat of meat you could be practising animal abuse. I think every sane person on the planet understands that. In the wild, cats are predators that evolved a fully carnivore digestive system, different to ours. They only “eat” grass in order to vomit, because well, they need to vomit hair balls.
But what if you’re looking after a bird instead? Can you feed a bird meat? Usually not, unless it’s a crow or similar omnivore. Most birds want seeds and beans instead, sometimes worms, but definitely no farm animals. They’ll tolerate bread, although it isn’t really nurturing.
No sane person would ever go around saying “I’m offended this dove won’t have any of my steak. I’m being so nice by offering it, and now it’s wasted. Besides, this is making me feel self-conscious about my diet, and none of this would have happened if the bird wasn’t so ungrateful and just accepted the food in the first place”. That’s a bit childish and self-centered, you might be thinking — and you’re right! The bird can’t help being unable to digest meat. We shouldn’t expect a bird to become another animal just so our ego can be happy.
Similarly, I bet you haven’t ever heard anyone say to a cat “I’m disappointed at you. Why won’t you be more like a horse? Horses are vegan. You’re so backwards and selfish! You could have just said no to grass, but why vomit? So disrespectful! So ungrateful! Tsk tsk.” It would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? The cat can’t help being the way it is. We shouldn’t expect a cat to become a different animal just to please us.
I’m seeing a pattern here — why is it that whenever I try to make sense of a weird behaviour “nice uwu” people have with other people, the conclusion is always “they’re pretending to be charitable but are actually just arrogant and self-centered?” Anyway, I digress.
Careful who you trust to help meet your nurturing needs
For instance, if you’re one of those people whose inner child just needs a comfy place, maybe avoid “type A personality” people during these moments of self-care. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t as easy as you think: I’ve seen my fair share of friends come venting to me disappointed that they just wanted a relaxing time at the spa but some karen fatshamed them (this karen probably being a competitive type A personality in their circle, unable to relax or shut up). There are other examples but you get the gist. This has nothing to do with “how self-confident you are” or whatever — nurturing yourself IMPLIES some vulnerability. The least you can do for someone who needs to nurture their inner child is provide a safe space for that. THEN when they go back to their daily routine they can put their guards up once again and “stop caring about others’ opinions”. But if your guard is up during your self-mothering, you’re doing it wrong. So, don’t you even dare judging my friends. I’m just using the example here to show you why it isn’t always easy to feel safe enough for that.
(And again, it sometimes has to do with things like privilege, social class, free time, etc. A lot of people don’t even have the time to mother themselves, let alone a safe place for it. But this is a tangent for another post)
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find people like me, who feel nurtured by stimulation, rather than by relaxation. And for these people, what they need isn’t “cozy”, “snuggly” or “protective” actions. They need challenges and adventures. They should avoid people who are too extremely “type B”, or else they’ll feel imprisioned and suffocated.
…But we’re the misunderstood weirdos, aren’t we? I’d be a millionaire if I had a euro each time someone implied my natural high energy and disdain for comfort is somehow unhealthy. They say I’m being “too hard on myself” as if it was a bad thing — well, maybe they can’t handle it. I not only can, but enjoy it. Challenges and goals make me feel hopeful and emotionally fed, whereas just protecting and “caressing” myself would make me feel like a whiney loser. It could be counterproductive in fact, feeding my anxiety even further like “gosh WHEN am I going to move along from here”.
Deep down, these people who preach comfort as the be-all-end-all of mothering should just know I’m a cat they’re trying to force-feed grass just because it’s “gentle” food. It won’t nurture me though. Sorry, nothing personal.
So, what kind of self-mothering should you look for if cozy and protection isn’t your cup of tea?
Did I just write this article to vent? Well, no, I also intend on giving some people a guiding light if they feel a bit lost in this self-mothering department. Especially people who can’t get all their emotional “nutrients” from your usual stereotypical mothering.
It can be a bit depressing to look for self-mothering advice, only to find article upon article and book upon book saying exactly the same: “take it easy”, “make yourself comfortable”, “indulge in something delicious [or otherwise easy and comfy]” etc. It’s so unrelatable it’s painful. For a long time I thought there must be something wrong with me because I don’t fit this box everyone is desperately trying to force me into.
…Until I realised that perhaps these people are just blind to diversity. They can’t see I exist, and they can’t see people similar to me exist either. They think self-mothering is one-size-fits-all, when in fact it’s anything but.
So, in want of other sources that would cater to thrill-seekers on the topic of self-mothering, I thought I’d do my best to put together and publish my own advice. Here:
- Make spontaneous art. Whether it’s music, poetry, sculpture, painting, makeup, whatever it is — try a new technique you never tested before, and let yourself loose. Do it alone, and show the result to no-one, at least for the time being. In case you want to publish it in the future, do, but this vulnerable moment should serve the purpose of allowing you to feel what you’re feeling without anyone’s judgement. Hence, it’s private.
- Exercise aimlessly (if you can, of course. I don’t mean to be ableist). The idea is to see what you can do just for the sake of it, and remember it’s what you can do in the moment — perhaps in the future you can set even bigger goals. But for now, enjoy what you’re capable of.
- Watch a masterclass on something you’re interested in, even if it’s a vague interest. The topic doesn’t matter much, just make sure the expert who teaches is really really passionate about it. Sometimes watching someone else’s enthusiasm can be energising and motivational. There’s no need to announce it to anyone, in fact it’s better if you don’t — you’re learning to take charge of your own life without depending on anyone’s approval. And at the same time, of course, you can have some fun.
- Travel if you can. It’s sometimes a privilege (unless you live here in Europe where every country is reasonably near), but if you have the means to do it, I recommend it. Explore a completely new place and see how far you’ll go.
The list is not exhaustive, but we must start somewhere. Feel free to help me expand it!