What does it mean to do your inner work?
What does “personal development” mean, other than going back to school or getting a gym membership?
We are all pretty familiar with the course of child development, but what does it look like for an adult to change and mature?
Our culture does not have much to say about these things. Not on the surface, anyway. If you start looking you might find a yoga class that talks about something like deepening into your experience, and there are a bewildering array of books in the self-help section, but it’s chaotic and messy. There are many conflicting voices, and if you have a strong critical voice that lives inside your own head, it is not easy to discern what is real growth and development and what just looks like it.
And besides that – what the heck does inner work and personal development have to do with parenting? Isn’t this a parenting blog? Maybe some of you are thinking, “Stop the train, this isn’t where I want to go.”
I’m here to tell you that doing your inner work and attending to your own development is an important part of parenting.
I first realized this when I read Naomi Aldort’s book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, and tried putting her advice into practice. She says, “When you feel the urge to do or say something that you may regret later, stop! Watch the words you were about to say as if you were reading them on a computer screen. If these words or actions are not what you want, don’t say them.” I wholeheartedly agreed (and even blogged about it), but the truth is that I couldn’t really get past the part about noticing the urge and stopping.
Often by the time I noticed the urge, I was already doing or saying those things. It felt like they happened automatically, and I had almost no ability to stop and reflect on them in the moment. When I noticed afterwards, I was filled with guilt, shame and self-hate. Those feelings were so horrible I tried to ignore them, which pushed me further away from awareness of my bodily sensation of emotion. In those moments, the idea of a magic wand that would help me be in control of my child was incredibly attractive – since I couldn’t control my own emotional state, I wanted to be able to control those around me so that I could avoid getting into situations where I would feel guilt, shame and self-hate.
I wanted desperately to be able to change this pattern. Something had to change. And so I began with a question – how can I change so that I can actually behave in a way that is in integrity with my values?
This is Inner Work.
It might take different forms. It might be forming new habits, trying something outside your comfort zone or learning to meditate. It might be learning self-acceptance, or how to prioritize self-care. It could look like getting help with an addiction, or going to counselling. It might be about awakening a sense of connection with the body, and learning to use body sensations to become aware of our emotional experience. It might not be about changing anything at all, and working instead to stay aware when things are difficult, instead of mentally “checking out”.
Any time we work to change ourselves instead of changing others, that’s inner work.
But wait, you say. Isn’t parenting about changing others? Aren’t we trying to shape our kids so they can have the best future possible?
I don’t really think parenting is about changing our kids. I think it’s about guiding, teaching, mentoring, inspiring, helping and loving our kids, without trying to change who they are. It’s about trying to understand what their needs are and working to meet those needs in a way that works for the family. Poor behaviour often comes from unmet needs – meet the needs and you don’t need to change the child.
So instead of changing my kids, I’ve been working hard to change myself. And just recently, I’ve realized that the next step is actually giving myself a little more space and gentleness. Less pressure to change, more loving acceptance. Seeing what is, and allowing that to be. Simply being aware of how I feel or how things are for someone else, without rushing in to fix anything.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
Somehow my parenting journey started with debating the pros and cons of woven wraps and structured carriers and has evolved into a very personal journey of self-discovery and spiritual awareness. I don’t know if there are any readers still here who have been reading all along over the years, from the carrier stage to the inner work stage. I know the words have not been coming as frequently as I’ve been focusing inward more and more. This journey is mostly invisible and quiet. But it feels like waking up to myself, waking up to the world.