Katie Byrne: The sudden torrent of mum-shaming seems to be rising in tandem with 'mum guilt'
"When you judge another," said the late author Earl Nightingale, "you do not define them, you define yourself."
These oft-quoted words of wisdom came to mind recently when I read a story about the rise of 'mum-shaming' on social media.
For the uninitiated, mum-shaming is a phenomenon whereby female commenters pass critiques on other women's child-rearing choices.
The so-called 'sanctimommies' are know-it-alls. They've read a small library of parenting bibles and they're quick to condemn any mothers who might not be bringing up their children by the book.
There is no map for parenting, but the sanctimommies seem fairly convinced that they have the exact coordinates. Formula-feeders should be breast feeding; free-range parents should be practising more discipline; stay-at-home mothers should be working. The charge sheet goes on and on, ad nauseam.
What I find especially interesting about the sudden torrent of mum-shaming is that it seems to be rising in tandem with another parenting phenomenon: 'mum guilt'.
You could argue that mothers have always grappled with guilt, but you'd have to concede that these feelings have intensified in the always-on digital world.
It's an ugly state of affairs, but here's the question: Is the rise of mum-guilt a response to mum-shaming, or is the rise of mum-shaming a response to mum-guilt? Put more simply: are mothers passing judgement on one another because, deep down, they can't stop judging themselves?
This is the theory that Brené Brown puts forward in Daring Greatly. "If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people's choices," she writes.
"We're hard on each other because we're using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived deficiency," she adds.
The late Paul Valéry Flametree put it even better. "Our judgements judge us," he wrote. "And nothing reveals us, exposes our weaknesses, more ingeniously than the attitude of pronouncing upon our fellows."
We're always told not to pass judgment on others but, let's face it, that's like being told not to think of a pink elephant.
Snap judgment is human nature and it's not a habit that we can overcome simply by trying to be rid of it.
We have to go a little deeper than that and use judgment as a tool to examine our beliefs and behaviours. We have to explore the uncomfortable feelings that we might be trying to avoid. Are you intimidated, envious or resentful? Are you judging others because you're scared of being judged yourself?
A judgemental spirit can be overcome with a little self-inquiry. Here's a few pointers:
* Practise self-compassion - You'll notice that the people with the loudest inner critic are generally the quickest to pass judgement. Those who practise self-compassion, on the other hand, are less inclined to criticise others. If you're a judgemental type, try engaging in kinder self-talk. When you give yourself a break, you'll naturally give others a break too.
* Look for the good in others - Our inbuilt negativity bias makes it very easy to focus on a person's shortcomings. However, when we focus on a person's better nature, they tend to act accordingly.
"When you're tempted to judge someone, make an effort to see their goodness," writes Marianne Williamson. "Your willingness to look for the best in people will subconsciously bring it forth."
* Recognise how it makes you feel - Casting judgment can support social cohesion (bitching is bonding, and all that) but you'll notice that the feeling is short-lived. When we focus on the good in others, our spirits feel boundless. When we focus on the bad, our spirits feel bounded and diminished.
* Look for underlying issues - Sometimes we judge others when we don't know how to reconcile a certain issue within ourselves. Is your judgment a 'projection' - an ego defence mechanism we use to deny the existence of feelings in ourselves by attributing them to others? Or could it be 'displacement', which is what happens when we shift our negative feelings onto a less threatening subject? We only break free from the judgment cycle when we honestly ask ourselves what we might be trying to deny or deflect.
* Reframe your perspective - Those who are less inclined to judge others are usually better at recognising vulnerability. They can see the inner child in a difficult parent just as they can see the frightened employee in a domineering boss. When we approach situations in this spirit, we tend to choose compassion over judgment. Or the saying goes, "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always".
* Dig a little deeper - Gabrielle Bernstein, author of Judgment Detox, says we're less likely to cast judgment when we establish common ground. "The next time you're with someone you've judged," she writes, "inquire about their life, their interests. When you get curious about another person, you recognise your similarities and can connect."
* Explore non-judgmental awareness - People in mindfulness circles often talk about witnessing "without judgement". They might notice the colour of the sky without comparing it to the weather yesterday, or they might notice the sensation of running water against their fingers without thinking of all the dishes they have to wash. Non-judgmental awareness is a simple yet powerful practice that keeps us anchored to the present moment. It is also proven to lower our "emotional reactivity", which leads to less judgment, and more understanding, in our personal relationships.
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