Feeling like you are being judged can be a very dysregulating experience. Our minds, that are bent and determined to attach to others, feel like acceptance is a necessity to life, so judgement can be perceived as a threat to our safety. When someone criticizes our parenting, it can feel like an attack on our worthiness to be a parent. This feeling may increase with the proximity of the relationship. But what if I was to tell you that the person attacking you with judgement, likely feels judged themselves and may just be projecting that feeling onto you?
Defence is a natural reaction
One of our natural reactions to a “threat” is to defend. A common challenge for those with lower self-worth, is they sometimes tend to feel threatened by anything that is different than themselves. If people act differently than they do, or take a different path, then they would have, it is somehow seen as an attack on their own choices. People who are grounded in their own sense-of-self, hear about other people’s lives and see it as just that; OTHER people’s lives. For many of us, we feel confident and self-assured in some contexts, and not in others.
As a serial people pleaser, a big light bulb moment for me was realizing when someone is making you feel judged and inadequate, it is almost never a reflection of you. It is almost always a reflection of their own pain and feelings of inadequacy that they have just projected onto you. Unless you actually did something to hurt this person, try to see their attack on you as really an attack on themselves. But why do they feel so threatened by your choices? Because they may not be grounded in their own sense-of-self and worthiness as a parent. They may actually have some self-reflection work to do and your choice highlights their own self-doubt.
You have a choice
You can choose to block their toxic energy, by leaving or changing the subject. Or if you are feeling really grounded and confident, you can try and meet their need in that moment, which I think is usually validation. If they were triggered by something you said, safety might be their need in that moment. This is not placing the blame on you. Even if you said something with the intention of triggering the other person, you likely did that as a reaction to their judgement and so goes the vicious cycle. In order to break the cycle we can choose to walk away or we can choose to try and connect in this moment, when it feels impossible. Only you know which choice is right for you in each situation.
Friend: “I don’t know why you don’t just sleep train her. I did it with both my kids and they are perfectly healthy and happy.”
Supportive boundary setting response: “I know you chose to sleep train and it worked for your family. I love your kids and I think you’re the best mom. You clearly have a close bond, it’s just not something I want to do, for my own reasons. I am in no way judging your choice to sleep train. In the same way I know you are not judging my choice not to.”
Your friend likely sleep trained for one or two reasons; they thought it was the best choice for their child and/or they could not stand the constant waking, crying and needing them all the time. When you made a choice different from theirs, and seemingly more loving and responsive, they likely felt the need to defend their choice. We all see love as “good.” They see how you are interacting with your child, supporting them, even in their hardest moments. That may trigger feelings about their own time with their crying child and how they felt like they could not meet their child’s needs. They may have felt like a failure and there you are with all your patience and love, making them feel like a failure again. Instead of acknowledging and processing those feelings of self-doubt and insecurity, they become defensive. After all, their response to their babies need for emotional support was to avoid and suppress. It is not surprising that they would also use a similar strategy to cope with their own emotions.
Grandparent: “You need to tap his hand when he tries to reach for your glasses. That’s the only way he’ll learn. That’s how I taught all my children and that’s how I was raised.”
Supportive boundary setting response: “I am so sorry that you were hit as a child and as a result you thought it was ok to hit your kids. I can understand how that would be confusing because yes, your kids are all great, but how did it make you feel when you were hit, Gramma? How did you feel when you were hitting your children? I just don’t want my child to ever feel scared of me. I want to be a safe place and I just can’t see how that would work if I hit him.”
Grandma was abused and watching a child do something you were not allowed to do as a child, can be a major trigger. She likely becomes triggered and defensive, all at the same time. It is an avoidance strategy. I think avoiding triggers from our own childhood may be why the traditional behavioural approach became so popular. It allowed parents to use manipulation, guilt and shame to control their children. This gives a sense of power, which is somewhat addictive to some people, especially those who have felt powerless during their own childhood. They are fulfilled by the childhood need for power, further allowing them to avoid the processing of their own emotions around their abuse.
Eventually they begin to justify their own abuse and the abuse they inflicted on their own children, as a way to make peace with their image of themselves. This kind of denial takes a lot of energy and shutting down of emotions and instincts. It is hard work and not something people do by choice. It is, once again, a reaction to their own abusive childhood. It allows them to avoid the triggers that come with raising a child by scaring their children into submission and ignoring their emotional needs. Trying to connect with Grandma and have her see how painful that experience was for her, may help her to understand why you don’t want to do the same thing. At the very least, it will likely catch her off guard, and make her so uncomfortable, she won’t bring it up again, for fear of you trying to connect with her again.
The Sanctamommy Example
Mom group Sanctamommy: “I can’t believe your kid is so obsessed with paw patrol. We are a screen-free house. My children never use screens. Do you know excessive screen use can effect brain development?”
Supportive boundary setting response for Sanctamommy: “You do no screens? That’s amazing!! What led you to that choice?”
Why not, right? Flip it around and let her tell you all about her wonderful experience because that’s really what she wants, to be validated for her choice. In that conversation you will likely find out what it was that drove her to this choice. Perhaps she had a babysitter who ignored her while watching tv all day. Perhaps their family did allow screens and things got out of hand, so they took them away. Perhaps she herself, finds noise and screens too much for her senses, and prefers less distraction. Her experience is not yours, which is why you aren’t going to always make the same choices. If she keeps pushing you to make the same choice, you can say:
Boundary setting response: “Yeah, I would find that so hard. It’s nice that you enjoy your time without screens and that works for your family.”
The Sanctamommy situation
These situations can be particularly difficult because their little “suggestion” is usually grounded in a hint of truth. Screens are not great, but neither are cars, or sugar, or fat, or salt, or artificial dyes, or GMO’s, or pesticides, or plastic, and yes, if you want to avoid all that, or some of that, it is your choice. The mom who is mindful of all these risks and the mom who goes to McDonald’s once a week, because it’s fun and easy, in my opinion, are both awesome moms. They are just making different choices and we get to do that in our society. The mom who seems a little frantic and obsessed about avoiding risks, can sometimes cause others to question their own choices. This mom is possibly struggling with their own fears and anxieties.
“What fear” you say? “The fear that I won’t be feeding my child organic kale for dinner?” No, the worst fear of all. They may be afraid of losing their own child. Perhaps they lost someone in their lives at some point; lost a child/miscarriage/still birth or perhaps they have a history of loss and abandonment. They are likely protecting themselves against the fear of that trauma repeating, by making sure their child does not face any potential risks. I am not saying every crunchy mom is so afraid of losing their child that they protect them against all foreseeable risk (I would lose a lot of readers if I said that, lol). What I am saying is there is a difference between trying to provide the most safe and supportive environment for your child (which all children deserve) and being obsessed with making sure your child never faces any potential risks. Only you know which kind of parent you are .
“Well, what do their fears about their child have to do with me and my child?”
When interacting with mom’s who feel the need to impose their parenting perspective on you, know that it likely comes from a place of fear within themselves. They would be terrified to let their child do that and therefore they may project that fear onto you and your child. It is actually quite egocentric, which is a childhood characteristic. They do not understand how others don’t think and feel the same way they do, and that is alarming to them. They may question their own efforts and possibly feel resentful; “I go through all this work to protect my baby, you should have to do the same.” But remember they are not providing a safe haven if they are constantly doubting the safety of the world around them. A nice way to connect with a Sanctamommy is to validate her choice and her fears, while giving her space to talk about her experience.
The truth about ourselves….
We can easily play both roles, all at the same time. We say something and unintentionally trigger someone. Then they get defensive and trigger us. So we respond by defending, because we feel threatened and judged. The chance for a different experience lies in that moment when you get to choose how you want to respond to their pain. Choosing empathy helps build connection with the person, while still giving you the space to maintain your emotional boundary and make your own choices. It acknowledges and validates their experience, but also makes the statement that their experience may not be pertinent to your own situation. We always have the choice to walk away and with some people, in order to protect your own energy, you need to walk away. But wouldn’t it be nice if some of these moments can serve as a chance to connect instead?
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Did this article remind you of a certain situation in your life where you felt judged? Try to reflect on that incident and ask yourself:
- What was the other person’s need, in that moment?
- What were my feelings, in that moment?
- How did the way I responded effect the situation?
- How do I wish I would have responded?
- How could they have been more supportive?
- What did I learn from this experience?