Last updated on July 31st, 2023
The challenges of supporting a child suffering from an eating disorder often take us to our very limits. It's normal for us parents to have a huge lot of regrets. If you’re finding it hard to disentangle yourself from blame and shame, or if you’re getting eaten up by thoughts of what you could have done better, try this self-compassion and acceptance exercise. The idea is to get two conflicting parts of your mind to talk to each other in order to come to a peaceful resolution.
I’ll take you through a process of acceptance and self-compassion using an example of my own. I am blending two approaches. Kristin Neff's steps for self-compassion and John Kinyon's inner mediation method.
This example is slightly artificial because I didn’t do the process quite so methodically and self-consciously. But I’ll lay it out in steps you can replicate.
OK, this is probably something you’ve lived as well. It’s nothing extraordinary, and yet it is significant to me. I did not always ‘do what was best for my daughter’. In the early days of her anorexia, there were quite a few meals where I shouted at her, and it scared her. She’d never had a shouting mum before. I know now that shouting hinders a child’s recovery. It did my daughter some harm. These are painful facts.
Without self-compassion: the suffering goes on and on
My chatterbox gremlins come out to play: ‘You say you care for your daughter, but look at what you did. A big adult like you, losing control! No wonder your kid wanted to go into hospital!’
I argue back: ‘I only shouted a few times!’
A gremlin cackles, ‘Oh, so that’s all right, is it? Excuses, excuses. Remember that time you really shocked her? That day with the soup when you screamed at her? She still remembers it. That’s when she decided she couldn’t count on you. That’s when she knew for sure she wanted to go into hospital.’
Ouch. ‘She was going into hospital one way or another,’ I whimper. ‘She was in a really bad way.’
'More excuses. Even now you regularly screw up.'
'I'm trying my best!'
'Well, try harder!'
Identify parts A and B and mentally appoint a mediator
This could go on for a long time. It doesn’t lead anywhere. So I’m going to recognise two parts in myself here, and appoint an inner mediator, and get the two parts to listen to each other’s needs and accept each other with compassion, just as a real mediator would do with two people. That’s the plan, anyway.
If you’d like to apply this process to yourself, identify Part A, which disapproves of what you did. Part A has a fierce need to care for my daughter. It is judging me and probably wants to educate me. Part B is the part that chose to act in a certain way.
I have paid a lot of attention to Part A's criticisms but I haven’t listened to part B yet, so I’ll do so now.
Part A objects already. ‘You’re giving her a voice? She was wrong. She should never have done what she did. End of story!’
Kindness for both parts
The mediator gives both parts an infinite amount of kindness. He lets both parts know they will be heard and respected. Both parts are worthy of love. He gives them both a lovely hug, or a cup of tea or a beer (whatever being cared for by a genuine friend means to you, but a physical gesture is best if no one's looking: giving your hands a stroke or placing them on your heart or belly will give your biochemistry a head start to bring out kindness).
The mediator says, ‘Tell your story, Part B.’
Part B says what was going on for her
Part B says, ‘Part A is right. I was wrong. I was out of control. I had so much tension in me, I cracked. It was the early days, when I didn’t yet have the tools I have now. I didn’t even have enough knowledge: I thought that maybe shouting would make her eat. It took a few goes to realise that even though she might eat in the moment, the next meals would be worse.’
Part A has had enough. ‘Excuse, excuses. You harmed your kid and you should acknowledge it. And whatever you say, I will not talk to you for the rest of our life. I can’t believe we share the same brain!’
The mediator says, ‘Hang on, Part A. Let’s try something else before we play the blame game. Would you be willing to tell Part B what you heard her say?’
Part A reflects back what Part B said
Part A says, ‘Sure. Part B says it’s not her fault.’
The mediator raises an eyebrow. Part A sighs and says, ‘OK, that’s not what she said. She said she had a lot of tension in her, so she cracked.’
The mediator checks with Part B that she has been well understood
The mediator says, ‘Part B, is that an accurate reflection?’’
‘Yes. I was worried sick. My kid was starving. It broke my heart how much she must be suffering, and I thought she might die. Hey, remember, she was even refusing water? Day after day, we were getting deeper into hell, we were helpless. We were broken-hearted and terrified. Remember?’
Part A says, ‘Yes, I remember. I remember that you cared for her as passionately as I do. When you saw her hollow eyes, when you fought and failed to make her eat, it pushed all your buttons. You were needing hope and reassurance. And you were terribly short of decent support and information.’
The mediator says, ‘Would you agree you had those needs, Part B?’
‘Oh yes. And sleep. I was a wreck. Thank you for recognising my needs, Part A. I know that all you wanted was to protect our kid.’
The mediator now does the same with Part A
The mediator says, 'Part A, tells us about what's going on for you.'
Part A says to Part B, ‘Damn, I don’t have any blame for you now – how terribly dull. But don’t you dare think that means I condone what you did! OK, I can see your needs were very real, and were similar to mine: we both wanted to care for our little girl. I still wish you’d had all the information and skills, in the first few weeks, as you had two years later. Hell, why weren’t you born with them? Now that I can’t blame you, I’ve got this kind of regret, this sadness. It was more fun having you as the bad guy.’
Part B reflects back to Part A what really matters to her
Part B says, ‘Yes, I’m sad too. You were out there, wanting to care for our kid. I see that.’
Time for kindness
Now that Part A and Part B are united, they spend a little time in a tender hug (or drinking tea or beer together — as before, whatever kindness means to you). This is about kindness and acceptance of all parts of myself, with my all-too-human failings, and my all-too-human suffering, and also my strengths and dreams and aspirations and will to do the best I can.
Our common humanity
In this moment of self-compassion, I can also bring to awareness how all humans share failings and suffering and also strengths and aspirations. I am not alone in my experience.
Time for action
When he can see I have reached a sense of wholeness, the mediator says, ‘Any requests you want to make of each other or of yourselves?’ (He would not do this if Parts A or B were not at peace, because any resolutions would come from a place of stress, of 'should', and we'd be right back where we started: 'Try harder.')
Part A says, ‘Well, I care deeply that kids get compassionate support from their parents, so I’d like to start offering parents some help. Maybe write a book.’
Part B says, ‘Great. That ties in with my need for parents to find all the resources I wish I’d had early on. But another request to myself is I’m going to keep my antennae out for any opportunity to mend any harm done to our kid from those shouting events.’
The mediator stands up. ‘What a satisfying outcome. I love my job. That will be £100 please. From each of you.’
My guide to self-compassion on 'Self-compassion: how to recover your inner strength'
Lots more on compassion and communication in my book and in my Bitesize audios and workshops:
Kristin Neff is an authority on self-compassion. Check out her site http://self-compassion.org for the theory and for practical resources.
NVC trainer John Kinyon is most helpful on the process of making peace with oneself when there’s a lot of self-judgement going on. Listen, for instance, to this teleclass recording: ‘Transforming Inner Pain and Conflict: The "Chooser – Educator" Model of Self-Empathy’, available from NVC Marketplace (buy the download) or NVC Academy (subscribe to a whole lot of NVC resources including this recording). What does not feature so clearly in his method are the components of kindness and of our shared humanity, which I'm borrowing from Kristin Neff.