I have never really been much of a swearer. When I was growing up, my mother drilled it into me that swearing is a lazy form of self-expression. She encouraged me to choose my words more carefully, often with more devastating effect than any S- or F-bomb could ever achieve. So, while my French husband constantly has to bite back the “merde!” and “putain!” that pervade French speech, it’s never been hard for me to watch my language around the children. And that’s one less thing to worry about in the pool of anxiety that is parenthood, plus I get to feel all smug when he slips up and receives shocked glances from the kids and whispers of “Naughty Papa said the P word!”
I am, however, horribly guilty of using bad language of another kind. Firstly, I complain: “My back hurts. There’s so much washing to do. It’s raining again”. I use negative self-talk at times: “Oh heck, I look ancient this morning!” And I criticise: “For heaven’s sake, could the checkout go any slower?” (imagine that with a Chandler Bing-style intonation). Now, I don’t do this all the time, but I do it more often than I care for, and it happens in front of the children. I doubt I’m alone here. Using these kinds of negative speech is so common, I bet many of us don’t even notice it. But I did recently. I had a sort of out-of-body moment as I truly heard myself doing all three and realised I have less to feel smug about than I thought. Because just as I don’t want to hear my children effing and blinding, nor do I want them to become complaining, self-insulting and critical.
When searching for wisdom, always look to musical theatre
There’s a lyric in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods that warns, “Careful the things you say –
Children will listen; Careful the things you do – Children will see, And learn…” Ever since my Damascene moment, I’ve had that song playing in my head on a loop. Because it’s true. Every time I complain I have too much to do and not enough time, my son is listening and learning that life is about lack and rushing. Every time I make an offhand remark about feeling like a hog after a large lunch, my daughter hears me and learns that food and indulgence lead to guilt and recriminations. When I criticise, the kids are absorbing the message that when life isn’t as we would like, the right response is to get annoyed and assign blame.
The medium is the message
It rather goes without saying that none of this is what I want to teach my children. But the message they receive when I use these three types of communication – complaining, negative self-talk and criticising – is that they are acceptable, normal and perhaps even useful. But we all know they’re not. All three backfire on the user! Complaining about tiredness doesn’t make you less tired. Insulting a wobbly tummy doesn’t make it shrink. And criticising others doesn’t make them more competent. In fact, these three acts all actually make the situation worse. I feel even more tired when I bang on about how little sleep I got. Berating myself for double helpings of pudding brings me down and probably leads to my raiding the biscuit barrel for comfort. Criticising others just makes me feel like a mean-spirited cow.
Changing the record
So what’s to be done? How can I – we – change? Well, there is the swear jar option. If you’re really far gone, a euro/pound/dollar in the pot every time you use negative talk might even let you upgrade your car by Christmas. I think it really all starts with mindfulness, though. Noticing what you’re saying (and how you’re saying it) and choosing the words you use and sentiments you express with care. Enlisting a family member to help you do this is a good idea, but really it has to come from within. Mindful speech is a fundamental part of mindful living because the way we describe the world, how we name it and put it into words directly influences how we perceive it, how we feel about it, and our actions in it.
This doesn’t mean we have to deny the fact that we’re tired, or that the post office clerk is slow or that eating too much has left us feeling bloated. It simply means choosing more carefully the way we frame the expression of these feelings to make it productive, or at least not harmful – to us and our children. So, “I’m tired. Hmmm… I’m sure I’ll feel less so after a cup of tea”. “Wow, I feel so full after that lunch – salad for dinner for me, I think”. “Gosh, this line is moving slowly – well, it gives me time to reply to some text messages”.
There is so much in life that we cannot influence or choose. What we say and how we say it are two things over which we have total control. I plan to exercise that control more mindfully in the future – both for my own happiness and to ensure my children are receiving messages I’m proud to send.
If you’d like to change some behaviours and attitudes that are holding you back from living life to the full and with joy, energetic and supportive coaching that focuses on making the right changes for you can help you achieve the mental shift you require. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
What if shifting your focus from having a good day to making the most of your day could liberate you to enjoy even the dreariest of chore-filled days?
Every morning, as I see my children off to school and the childminder’s house, I give them the same three things: a hug, a kiss, and a cheery instruction to “have a great day” or “enjoy the day”. However, one morning last week, something changed. I had hurt my back so my husband was taking the kids in, and as I was – with some difficulty – leaning into the car to kiss them goodbye, I said: “Make the most of your day, guys!”
Make the most of your day. Now, there’s an interesting idea.
As I went back into my house in search of ibuprofen and a hot water bottle, I got to thinking about what I had –involuntarily – said to my children, and the bigger message I had conveyed.
Now, thanks to the American movie industry and the proliferation of Starbucks, we are all quite used to hearing and being told to have a nice day. Or a good day. Or a great day. We’re forever wishing each other enjoyable days. But here I was talking about something else, something greater than a great day. The French have a handy verb for this idea: profiter. Take advantage. Make the most of. Get the best out of. Extract all you can. Seize opportunity. The boys of the dead poets’ society got the idea – carpe diem and all that. But what does it really mean to do that – to make the most of the day? What does that look like? And how do our words make a difference?
The different shades of making the most
For me, making the most of my day means something very different depending on the day of the week. I do paid work four days a week, so on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, it can simply mean doing what I need to earn enough to pay the bills. But, given my profession, it can also mean feeling like I have truly served my coaching clients by being fully present for them and supporting their journey. Or it can mean attending a networking event and talking to as many people as possible, being courageous and working the room. Some days it might mean getting through the pile of administrative tasks that are par for the course when you run a business. Making the most of a work day means, in essence, extracting everything from it that can serve either my clients or my business.
I spend Wednesdays with my children, so those days are very different. Making the most of the day might mean ensuring I take the time to practice reading with my daughter. Or forgetting about the laundry and spending some quality time on Lego and puzzles. It might also mean finding the stamina to get through multiple two-year-old tantrums without losing my temper or my mind. And let’s face it, it might also mean using the children’s nap time to catch up on some sleep myself.
Be here now
Now, while I love my work, and I adore my children, quite a few of the activities listed above are not what I would consider fun, nice or enjoyable. Business admin gives me a knot in my stomach for fear I’ll screw up and bring down the full force of the French trésor publique on me. Equally, networking is something of a necessary evil, Lego has its limits, and I don’t think hating tantrums makes me unique amongst parents! And yet all of those things count, for me, as part of making the most of the day. There are even times when the best use of your time is actually doing something specifically unpleasant – like undergoing a painful but necessary medical procedure, or having a difficult but valuable conversation with a friend who has hurt you.
Making the most of the day has a notion of being about a longer-term goal than having a nice day. It’s about doing something today that will serve you tomorrow, or next week. It’s about being here now, facing what has to be done with at least a smidge of enthusiasm rather than tackling tasks begrudgingly, all the time wishing you could be somewhere else, doing something else. It’s also about making the most important use of your time: there are days when resting really is the most productive thing you can do.
Perspective on the message
So, what’s the bigger picture here? Am I reading too much into a few words we casually toss to our children, partners, colleagues and – in France – anyone we meet and speak to all day (the French “bonne journée” upon leaving the bakery is sacrosanct)? I don’t think so. I think it’s subtle but the words we use have meaning and they shape how we see the world. By telling my daughter to have a good/fun/nice day, I’m telling her that life is supposed to be good/fun/nice, and if her day isn’t those things, that she has somehow failed, or that life has failed to live up to her expectations.
The truth is: not all parts of life are fun. In fact, some of the most fulfilling, enriching and rewarding life experiences we’ll ever have are quite the opposite. (Childbirth, anyone? Therapy? Running a marathon?) Of course, a lot of the time, when we say “have a good day”, our actual intention is somewhere closer to “make the most of the day”, but linguistic precision is important. By consciously changing our mindset to seeking to make the most of the day, rather than enjoy it, we accept that not every day will be joyful but that doesn’t diminish its value. This in turn can help us see even a very challenging, enraging or saddening day as useful and instructive or as contributing to a long-term goal.
A sprinkling of sugary joy along the way
The cherry on the cake, of course, is making the most of the day with the right attitude and intention. I might spend the day cleaning the house – useful, necessary – but if I can do it while listening to music and dancing as I hoover, maybe I can turn it into a fun one too. Mary Poppins knew it years ago: you might have to clean the kids’ bedroom, or go on a long drive, or do admin and pay bills but in every job that must be done, there can be an element of fun. For me, letting go of the belief that every day should be fun enables me to accept the day for what it is, and by aiming to make the most of it I often find a sprinkling of enjoyment emerges even amidst the nastiest of tasks.
Except for managing the two-year-old’s tantrums. There’s not enough sugar in the world to make that medicine go down.
If you’re finding it hard working out how to make the most of your day, your week or your life at the moment, you’re not alone. I can help you figure out where you want to be and how you can get there – hopefully with some joy and fun along the way. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to see how you can get more out of a life lived with purpose and on purpose.