Talking To My Inner Toddler

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The day started off well enough. I woke before my 19-month-old son did, the one sleeping in the crook of my arm, and that miracle afforded me a minute to adjust my eyes to the morning light seeping through the curtains and for my groggy brain to conjure up one complete thought. I sighed, audibly.

But then my curly haired boy rolled over and smiled big as the ocean and I found myself tipping heavy into the day. That minute before the unraveling was a gift.

For you see, after that, I didn’t handle my moments very well.

I burned the toast before I remembered that I had forgotten to get eggs on the previous day’s grocery run and then I clumsily stepped on the dog’s tail. In a random flash of memory, I suddenly noted the date and realized that I hadn’t paid a bill, despite the reminder on my phone that chimes incessantly until I do so. I was short with my husband over a minor transgression just because it felt good to let my burgeoning frustration out on someone. And then the widening eyes of my 10 year old, as he sat quietly eating his cereal within earshot, felt like heaping coals upon my head.

If you could have crawled into my head space that morning, you would have immediately flinched. The vitriolic speech was erupting, unchecked, and it spewed loathing and disgust everywhere. There was no love language being spoken.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty adept at giving my already hurting heart something to cry about. Habitually, whenever I mess up or drop the ball, my go-to response is judgment of the harshest kind. My inner voice can be quite the mean girl.

I know that this ongoing monologue is rooted in a desire to do things well, but over the years, the vocabulary that I’ve acquired and the intonation I’ve begun using towards myself has turned bilious. What once were gentle reprimands have now shown themselves for what they really are—hate crimes against my humanness.

On days that start off out of tune, I don’t stand a chance against myself.

And then, just a few weeks ago, I heard a podcast in which the host encouraged each listener to try something revolutionary. The suggestion was this: on the really bad days, when everything you touch withers and every word that leaves your lips is biting, try treating yourself like a toddler.

The thinking behind the suggestion is this: toddlers may be small and crazy and mischievous and loud but they are also people, just smaller. They have hearts that are easily wounded and souls that need accepting, just like any of the adults that have been entrusted with their care. When we call on our better angels, we most often err on the side of grace with toddlers. The woman in the podcast suggested that we practice doing the same towards ourselves.

A toddler?!?! I have a toddler! I have to interact with my toddler all day, every day. And although I have yet to master the art, I earnestly practice using words that will build him up and help him to understand that he is loved and accepted, no matter his behavior. This talking to myself like I talk to him sounded like something that I could do and maybe, even do well.

Except that switching the focus from a 19-month-old, incoherent, clumsy boy child to a 42-year-old grown woman with a mortgage and emotional baggage is not as seamless as one would imagine. In fact, when trying to apply this technique to myself, I suddenly became unable to use my words. At all.

Where once, I had been full of choice words for my poor soul, I now found myself almost mute. It quickly became abundantly clear that talking to myself with compassion was completely unnatural and foreign.

When my toddler makes a mistake or causes us to be late or won’t do what I want him to do right when I want him to do it, I get embittered and become impatient, certainly. I’m not a saint. I have to actively slow my breathing and do that silent count-to-ten thing, every time. But that’s just it—I don’t heap scathing judgment on top of an already frustrating scene. I am able to recognize that this is a toddler who is learning how to navigate the world and I am there to partner with him.

As a parent, how I talk to and interact with my children now is writing the script for the voice they will play back in their future dialogues with themselves. I want that voice to be firmly rooted in love and compassion. I want their go-to reaction to their mistakes and foibles to be understanding.

Whatever happens, I don’t want them to be their own worst enemies. And now, I am trying to do the same for myself.

Whenever I royally screw up or drop the ball or forget an important something or other, I’m slowly starting to be nicer to my toddler self. I’ve started changing the dialogue so that it sounds more like this:

“Maybe you are so irritable because you need a snack.”

“Even though you forgot to send that note, that doesn’t mean that you don’t care for the person.”

“You haven’t been going to bed on time for several days now. Maybe the lack of rest is impacting your ability to be patient with others.”

And let me tell you, this kind of speech IS revolutionary. Talking to myself with love and understanding has changed the color of everything. At the root of compassion is a desire to relieve the suffering of others. When I talk to myself with the same care that I try to use when guiding my little one, the burden of shame and judgment is lifted, and room is made for love and acceptance. And wherever love flourishes, life expands.

So, these days, I’m all about making room for expansive love. Because, isn’t that where the magic happens?

“Loving-kindness and compassion are the basis for wise, powerful, sometimes gentle and sometimes fierce actions that can really make a difference—in our own lives and those of others.”  —Sharon Salzberg

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Adorable images of Holly’s toddler, Sam, courtesy of Holly Grantham.

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Holly Grantham
Holly is a wife, very relaxed homeschooling mom of three boys, snapper of photos, coming of age writer and a soul drowning in grace. After years in Atlanta where she attended college, married the love of her life and lived in an intentional community, she found her way back to her home state of Missouri. She now lives in an antebellum stone house, raises chickens (sometimes) and pretends that she lives in the country.
Holly Grantham

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