Written by 9:00 am Parenting

Saboteurs or Sages – Whose voices are you listening to?

“Junia, I give up,” a fellow mum lamented. “My daughter’s attitude is so bad and we argue all the time. I don’t know what to do anymore. She shouted at me yesterday and I feel like a nobody. Is it because I’m not a working mum?”

“You’re an amazing mum who’s being sabotaged,” I responded with a smile. “And you just haven’t discovered how to listen to your sages yet.”

Saboteurs and Sages

There is a psychological habit we have that sabotages our closest relationships, disconnects us from our greatest blessings, and prevents us from creating a joyful life. It’s that we unknowingly entertain our saboteurs constantly. Yet if we simply stopped to listen to the wisdom of your inner sages, things could look very different.

This is my experience…

angry mum and daughter due to saboteurs
Image: RODNAE Productions

“You’re so irresponsible. You don’t deserve to be the eldest, with the lousy examples you set for your siblings!” I once shouted in rage at my teenage daughter. She rolled her eyes and retorted, “What did I do wrong this time? I hate you!” before stomping off.

I really wanted to slap her and hurl more hurtful words at her. But I held back, knowing that my unkind words had hurt her enough.

(See also: “I’m a Lousy SAHM and I Feel Like a Failure” – Is This Your Inner Mum Voice?)

Instead, clenching my teeth, I closed my eyes and loudly breathed out all the air. Then I inhaled through my nose, held my breath for another a few seconds, before slowly exhaling again. This is box breathing, a powerful technique US Navy SEALs practise, yet is so simple even children can master it.

Use box breathing to help calm you in stressful moments. Begin with an exhale for four seconds. A deep breath in (keep your hand on your stomach and feel it inflate) for four counts shifts our body away from that instinctive fight-or-flight mode. Count to four again as you breathe out, and end with keeping your lungs empty for another four seconds.

Take Responsibility

Only after regulating our body’s natural response to stress can we rationally move on to the second step ­— taking responsibility. I was now ready to look at how I provoked the earlier tirade.

Piecing together the moments before I lashed out at her, I realised I was already biased against her. Earlier, I had walked past her bedroom and noticed the mess inside. How many times did I have to remind her to make her bed every morning?!

(See also: Should Your Kids Share a Bedroom?)

It went downhill from there. No empty bowl in the sink meant she did not prepare breakfast for her younger sibling. Leaving her half-empty glass of milk on the dining table was further damning evidence of her irresponsible actions. The final straw was the moment she told her little brother, “No!” instead of being kind.

Then it hit me. It wasn’t her at all; I had been sabotaged!

Meet Ms Should and Mr Shouldn’t, the Saboteurs of Expectations. On the opposite side, we have Ms Is and Mr Is Not, the Sages of Experience. (Personifying the saboteurs and sages allows us to detach ourselves and observe them at play.)

Ms Should and Mr Shouldn’t

mum listening to her saboteurs
Image: Ketut Subiyanto

Ms Should is the collective voice of all the authoritarian figures we’ve encountered over the years. “Study hard. Listen to your parents! Be slim. Get a job! Get married. Have kids!” The narrator of a perfectly scripted life, she upholds society’s standards for how things ought to be.

Her companion is Mr Shouldn’t, the ‘policeman’ who uses fear to control our actions. “Don’t be lazy. Stop talking back! Don’t rock the boat. You shouldn’t be so daring. Don’t lose out!” He is the collective voice constantly reminding us to avoid certain actions ‘for our own sake’.

While they only exist as voices in our minds, Ms Should and Mr Shouldn’t are so powerful that they are capable of abruptly disconnecting us from our present moments. Simple observations of my daughter’s unfolded blanket, her sibling with no breakfast, her glass of milk, and her saying no to her brother were judged by these saboteurs. They were doing their job so well, stealthily destroying my contentment by drawing attention to everything negative.

(See also: 10 Ways to Help Your Child Transit to Tween-hood)

It happened so automatically that I wasn’t even aware of their little voices. With these dialogues in my head, my daughter was guilty without access to a trial. She had no idea she was being penalised for a sibling bouncing on her already tidied bed, for sharing her milk with a sibling, and for teaching her brother that candy was not a good breakfast option.

That is how Ms Should and Mr Shouldn’t sabotage relationships. They point out where others have fallen short of imaginary standards. By heeding the voices of expectations whether communicated or not, we are set up to be disappointed.

(Then there’s their insidious whispers against our mother-in-law, spouse, colleague, neighbour, or even the stranger on Facebook!)

Ms Is and Mr Is Not

mum listening to her sages
Image: Ketut Subiyanto

Now let’s consider the sages. Ms Is and Mr Is Not connect us to our present moments. They spur us to put on our thinking caps for challenges and allow us to experience joy and fulfilment.

Had I listened to them instead, the inner conversation would have sounded like: “It’s such a lovely day. Look, your daughter finished her breakfast and saved some milk for you. Best to check whom the milk is for though.” I would have noticed the candy in her brother’s hand and watched how she was caring for him with amusement. And maybe even spotted my smile reflected in the sparkling mirrors she had taken the initiative to clean!

(See also: How to Get your Children to Tidy Up by themselves – and Enjoy doing it)

Experiencing life As-Is ­— like those Ikea clearance products — connects us deeply with the now. Ms Is reminds us to slow down and appreciate living in safe Singapore and that our kids are healthy.

Experiencing life in ways it Is-Not connects us more deeply with what we want. Mr Is Not challenges us to creatively explore new actions that take us closer towards our desires. We would not grow otherwise.

Take Action

When we realise that we automatically default to these realistic stories, repeated scripts, and misrepresented evidence, we unlock the chance to replace it with a present consciousness. We have the power to create a different reality. Let’s not give it away because we are stuck in the version that’s in our heads.

I listened to Mr Is Not and took actions to reconnect with my daughter. I went to her and apologised. For my hurtful words, for listening to my saboteurs, and for measuring her against imaginary standards. It was such a profound reconnection as we clarified, cried, and resolved to develop listening more to the voices of our inner sages.

pink heart hugs
Image: zazufiane

In summary, here are the three steps to intercepting our saboteurs and heeding our sages:

1. Take a Deep Breath (box breathing really works!)
2. Take Responsibility for what happened
3. Take Action towards achieving your desires

Beware the pitfall where we allow Ms Should and Mr Shouldn’t to continue their sabotage with whispers of “You should have known better! You shouldn’t have shouted at her!” What’s done is over.

Instead, act on the sages’ voices of what is at the current moment. What is an action you can take right now to create a different outcome? Take that action.

(See also: 3 Life Skills Parenting Experts say your Children should know, but don’t learn about in school)

Mastery comes with practice. The more conscious we become, the easier it is to recognise the saboteurs’ voices. Over time, we become more skilful at being in conversation with our sages and increase the moments we are present.

So Mum, the next time you’re upset, look for the false expectations hiding underneath, and replace the pictures in our heads of how it’s supposed to be with the masterpiece of what is. Because there is nothing more precious than life in the now, especially in parenting!

Featured image: Monstera

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