Years ago, my kids owned a book called Superhero ABC. Each letter was dedicated to an amusingly-illustrated good guy/gal who had special powers to beat the bad guys: A is for Astro-Man who is always alert for an alien attack, B is for Bubble-Man who blows big bubbles at bullies… I read Superhero ABC aloud constantly when the boys were little. Each time, I winced when we arrived at the Yellow Yeller, a skinny, harried, bed-headed female superhero in a wide-opened mouth scream, overwhelming a cowering, not-so-evil-looking bad guy. I would quickly flip through the letter Y to get to Z, afraid that if I paused too long on Y, one of my boys would point to the Yellow Yeller and say, “Mommy.”
It never felt like I was exercising superhero strength when I got to the end of my patience and yelled at my children. I felt more like V for the Vile Villain who vilifies her victims. I would manage to get through a whole day without yelling and then lose control when one son would fall to the floor for yet another full-blown temper tantrum, or when fat messy buckets of water would splash out of the tub where my wriggly boys were refusing to sit still, or when I felt depleted from the never-ending cycle of food-dishes-poop. I hated that I yelled but I didn’t know how to stop.
But I figured it out, taking small mortal steps toward a superhuman goal. You can, too, even with small children, even when you feel so incredibly tired, even if you believe you have no strength to spare. You can build your willpower muscles using STEAM power: S for Sleep, T for Talk Nicely, E for Eat Well, A for Activity, and M for Mindfulness. Start with just one suggestion for about a month until you feel a little bit stronger. Then add another, building up STEAM to stop the yelling (or other bad habit) once and for all.
S is for Sleep
Did you know that sleep deprivation is considered to be anything less than six hours of sleep a night? Lack of sleep impairs how you use glucose, fuel for your brain and body. This turns your prefrontal cortex into mush so that instead of managing your life, you’re at the mercy of your moods. Your prefrontal cortex handles executive functioning, namely the ability to “differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social "control" (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).” Wikipedia
Like yelling at your children.
“If you know you could use more sleep but you find yourself staying up late anyway, consider what you are saying ‘yes’ to instead of sleep,” writes Kelly McGonigal in her book The Willpower Instinct. Using your willpower to say “I won’t” to the temptations may be a more successful strategy than trying to say “I will” to sleep.
TRY THIS: Experiment for one week what it’s like to sleep as much as you can. To say “I won’t” to the temptations and make sleep the reward instead. Much of the time when we’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s because we’re not getting enough sleep. There’s a reason why life coach and author Martha Beck tells her team to “Go lie down!” at the first sign of any stress. Sleep restores. Sleep rejuvenates. Sleep gives us the superhuman strength to take on any challenge, from colicky infants to the crankiest of toddlers.
T is for Talk Nicely
Researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman coined the “what-the-hell effect” to describe the downward spiral that happens after any kind of setback. “Whatever the willpower challenge, the pattern is the same,” writes McGonigal, describing the study in her book. “Crucially, it’s not the first giving-in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control, and loss of hope that follow the first relapse… This leads to even bigger willpower failures and more misery as you then berate yourself (again) for giving in (again.)”
Think that being mean to yourself is the way to get rid of a bad habit, like yelling, procrastinating, overeating? The opposite is actually true. Self-forgiveness, kindness, and self-compassion - especially after you’ve failed - increases accountability and your chances of achieving your goals. “When it comes to our children, we do not have the luxury of despair,” writes Cheryl Strayed in Tiny Beautiful Things. “If we rise, they will rise with us every time, no matter how many times we’ve fallen before.. Remembering that is the most important work as parents we can possibly do.”
TRY THIS: Sociologist Kirstin Neff, who focuses her work on self-compassion, has a three step process for relieving feelings of guilt and shame after a willpower failure.
• Don’t run from the experience. Allow yourself to feel the stress and emotional discomfort of the situation.
Recognize and name the emotion: pain, suffering, disappointment, guilt, or other emotion.
• Acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes – it’s part of being human. You are not alone.
• Talk to yourself as if you are your kindest friend and remind yourself that you are okay.
E is for Eat Well
Low blood sugar levels can change how much willpower is available to you. The brain is like Ebenezer Scrooge – it’s very stingy with how it doles out energy. Because willpower is a very costly task that drains the brain’s energy supply of glucose, self-control is the first expense that’s cut, making you more impulsive and focused on short-term rewards, not long-term goals.
TRY THIS: Make sure your body is fueled with food that provides long-term energy supplies. (McGonigal recommends a low-glycemic diet of lean proteins, nuts and legumes, high fiber grains, most fruits and vegetables.) This diet increases the steady flow of energy to the brain and reduces mood swings from blood sugar spikes and crashes.
And please, ease diet soda out of your diet. The sweet taste of the soda tricks your brain into thinking that there’s sugar coming, so your body gathers up glucose from your blood stream for the anticipated sugar spike that never arrives. This mean trick causes your self-control to plummet, making you more susceptible to temptation - and probably weight gain, as well.
A is for Activity
Physical activity – not just what we commonly define as “exercise” – makes your brain bigger and faster, especially in the region of the self-control manager, the prefrontal cortex. People who exercise regularly are generally less impulsive in their spending habits, more healthy in their eating habits, more in control of their emotions, and less likely to procrastinate, smoke, and drink. “If you tell yourself that you are too tired or don’t have the time to exercise, start thinking of exercise as something that restores, not drains, your energy and willpower,” says McGonigal.
TRY THIS: Reclassify anything that gets you up off the couch as exercise and start moving. Dance party with your kids! A walk around the block pushing the stroller. Vacuuming the hallway. Taking the stairs (when you’re not pushing the stroller.) Exercise does not have to mean going to the gym, running for miles, or enrolling in a fitness class. Make it fun and you’re more likely to make it happen.
M is for Mindfulness
Mindfulness is about creating breathing room in your daily life. Research studies have shown that mindfulness increases blood flow to that very important prefrontal cortex, making it bigger, stronger, faster. Inviting mindfulness into your life isn’t about finding the time to sit still and breathe every day – although the benefits of even five minutes of that is huge. Mindfulness is more about bringing your awareness to the present moment, allowing the worry to dissolve, stepping away from the incessant narrative in your mind, and being present for what’s right here – the sensation of soapy water as you wash dishes (again), the sparkle in your husband’s eyes right before he says something funny, the shift in your daughter’s cry when she sees you coming.
TRY THIS: See if right now you can create a little breathing room. Notice your breath as you inhale and exhale. Whenever your mind wanders (and it will), bring it back to your breath. If you notice you’re experiencing a feeling or an emotion, name it, e.g. “I’m feeling anxious,” and then bring your attention back to your breath and the dishes, or whatever it is that you’re doing. Don’t expect to be thought-free; the power of the practice is in repeatedly noticing your thoughts and not getting swept away by them. Even a few minutes of mindful breathing helps to build your brain power, giving you super-powered self-control.
Once upon a time, every time I yelled, I stamped a giant M on my heart because I knew I was the Meanest Mommy of them all. But I’ve built up STEAM and have more self-control – and more self-compassion for when I occasionally lose it. Now that my kids are older our nighttime routine is different but one thing is still the same. When my kids and I are sharing I love you’s, I always say I love them more. It becomes a game, with shouts back and forth between the bedrooms of “Love you more,” “No, I love you more,” or just simply “More!” “More!” “More!” The big fat M is still there on my heart, but now it stands for all that lives in that word more.
Kathleen Harper is a certified life coach and mentor for mommies. She helps women to find the more in their hearts so that they can bring awareness, authenticity, and acceptance into their everyday lives. Her Saturday Sanctuary monthly group – which brings a small group of moms together for conversation, community, and crafts – is focused this month on nurturing willpower. Each mom who comes will be creating a keepsake pendant, filled with tiny beautiful things that represent her individual inner strengths. In addition to leading the Sanctuary groups, Kathleen supports moms in one-on-one sessions and gives presentations at new parent support groups, mothers’ groups, and other organizations. If you're interested in finding out more or scheduling a free (non-salesy) sample session, please send an email or fill out this form to get started.
I'm a mother of two incredible boys, wife to Bill White of Happy Baby Signs, author of the books The Well-Crafted Mom and Signs of a Happy Baby, and an intuitive life coach. I like to blog about my adventures with my family and the life lessons I'm learning along the way. I hope you'll join me on this journey.
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