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Life Beyond Therapy: Parenting yourself

Almost everyone I know complains about their parents — clients, friends and relatives alike. Our parents never get it right, do they? They always screw up in tons of creative, hurtful ways. But what can we do about it?

We can learn to parent ourselves.

Many of us go through life looking for what our parents couldn’t give us. We look to friends, partners, children and our pets for those missing pieces of ourselves that we never got. I see it a lot as a psychotherapist: There’s all this stuff we didn’t get from our parents that we still want. And we want it NOW.

Fair enough, but how can we get it?

Don’t expect it from your partner. You can look to your partner for the love you didn’t get, and maybe, most of the time they can give it to you. But then comes that awful day when you want them to love you in a certain way (that you didn’t get from your parents) and they can’t give it to you.

And the shit hits the fan! OMG! How could they let you down like this? Don’t they know how important this is to you?

In a word: no.

They don’t know. They can’t know. They weren’t there when your parents messed up. They didn’t see your 5-year-old face when mom said that awful thing or dad left or both of them divorced and left you feeling terrified inside.

This is why parenting yourself is really the only thing that works.

It works because only YOU can parent yourself. No one else can do it. Even the best friend or wife/husband can’t possibly be there for you 24/7, like you are for yourself.

Parenting yourself means becoming the parent you always wanted, but never had.

You learn to give yourself the validation, praise and security you’ve been desperately seeking from other people. You talk to the scared little kid part of you that panics when she feels abandoned or needs comfort when he didn’t get the job/man/condo he wanted.

Here is a specific example:

Let’s say that, when you were little, your mother worked all the time and your dad drank too much, so neither of them were available to comfort you and make you feel safe and loved. So, now you look for this from everyone you know. And, sometimes, you get it.

But today, you don’t. You call everyone but no one answers and you feel so alone, unloved and scared. What do you do?

You parenting yourself:

Instead of calling yet another friend, sit quietly and breathe deeply. Imagine that your childhood self is standing right in front of you. See this scared little kid. This is you, as you were back then. Now imagine that the adult you takes scared little you into their big, strong, capable adult arms.

Speak words of comfort to this child: “I love you. You’re safe. I’m here for you.” And then praise them; tell this child a dozen things that you love about them.

Let this child tell you their fears. Don’t problem-solve. Let them talk.

When they’re done, address their fears as you wish your mother or father would have done. You are — in essence — becoming the wonderful parent that you never had.

It’s never too late.

When our adult selves get scared or panicky, it’s our scared little kid who’s running the show. We feel like we’re 5 or 10 or 15 years old again … and act like it. Parenting yourself, like the above exercise demonstrates, lets you give yourself the safety and encouragement you’ve always wanted, but, up until now, never got.

Why bother with all this stuff? Because when you parent yourself well, you need less from other people. This will be a big relief for your partner, friends, coworkers and biological parents. You will be more self-content and much more fun to be around. People will stop describing you as “needy.”

And, most importantly, your life will be so much better. You won’t need to cling to anyone to feel safe; you won’t need to demand things from friends and lovers; you will be taking good care of yourself.

And isn’t that what a good parent really does?

—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.

(Editor's note: This columnwas originally published on SDGLN media partner Gay San Diego.)