Self-Parenting: 5 Action-Steps for Every Adult
Being an adult isn’t about age, but simply being able to take care of yourself in the ways you need.
Everyone agrees on the definition of the teenage years, and most people can identify someone who has transitioned into the title of elderly. But at what point in the years of buying kale and toilet bowl cleaner at the grocery store do we officially begin “adulting”?
As a woman without children, who doesn’t own a home, and has a fairly flexible freelance career that strongly resembles retirement, I think about the definition of adulthood frequently. I haven’t sprouted gray hairs, don’t need reading glasses, and get around town on an electric scooter. It’s hard to prove, somehow, that I am a grown-ass woman.
But I can do something that children, teenagers, and the elderly can’t: I can take care of myself. I know some kids with healthy incomes. I know people in their 90s who are still driving. I know teenagers who live on their own. But I also know people of all ages who haven’t mastered the ability to take care of their own emotional needs.
When we first start to “tend our emotional gardens,” as it were, many of us are in our 20s. These are the years following high school and sometimes college, where we are plowing through institutional teachings designed to push us on a socially approved path of showing up to work on time and doing what the boss wants.
Many “young adults” will get their own place for the first time and think that adulthood is, simply, buying kale and toilet bowl cleaner at the grocery store. But as life experiences start to pile up, it doesn’t take long before recognizing that “putting on big girl panties” means preparing yourself in a way that was once your parents’ responsibility.
But how? There is famously no guidebook for parents to care for their children, and there are also no instructions for self-mastery. We have to tumble through life, learning the hard way at nearly every turn. Self-parenting is understanding what you need so that you can continue to evolve, develop, and grow into the person you’ve always dreamed to be.
It seems every one of my friends with children brags about how, at ridiculously early ages, their offspring is gifted or special in some way. Children who celebrate their 2nd birthday are described as “old souls.” But Buddhists believe that there are as many lifetimes as the number of times it takes for a bird brushing a silk ribbon over a mountain to erode it completely. That means those kids could have one million lifetimes under her belt — and still have a long way to go.
Developing a practice of self-parenting, I believe, is the only way to truly become a mature individual. Adults don’t (or shouldn’t) have meltdowns in the grocery store. They shouldn’t feel the need to be loud in public for attention. They don’t eat all the candy only to throw up later. Real adults are able to control themselves emotionally. The reality is, a lot of people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s struggle with this. Some people die unable to transmute their limitations into stepping stones for their own success.
I love my parents. They did a fine job creating a stable foundation on which I can grow. As a result, I live independently. But I didn’t avoid traumas in my life. I had to do my own work toward self-mastery. I’m still doing it. Self-mastery is a practice.
In the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” which should be required reading for all humans, readers learn that we choose the wombs from which we are born. This is a challenging concept, especially for people who were subjected to abuse and neglect as children. It’s a jagged pill to swallow that we somehow asked for the opportunity to learn hard lessons at a time when we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to gain a greater perspective.
But it’s also an extremely empowering statement. We asked for our lives because even the worst experiences help us grow stronger, more resilient, and better equipped to support others on their journeys. If we commit to simply “growing up” in a holistic way, we have the ability to free ourselves from emotional shackles that resemble the curfews and school bells that were physical boundaries of youth.
Here are five action steps I recommend for starting your journey toward true adulthood:
1. Cry Like a Baby
Perhaps it’s counterintuitive to suggest acting like a baby as a means toward self-mastery, but hear me out. I recently heard the phrase “emotional constipation,” and I understood immediately. I come from a family, like so many, where everything is always “fine.” Translated, that means that really: There are all kinds of problems lurking underneath the surface but there’s no need to talk about all that because sweeping problems under the rug is much easier.
And it is. Avoiding emotions is easier. But just as a parent won’t let their child throw their trash under the bed as a means of cleaning their room, we can’t allow ourselves the laziness of not feeling the hardness of life. There’s something to be said for faking-til-you-make-it, but that’s not how authentic living works. Sometimes you have to just admit it: Life can be overwhelming.
It’s not childish to let out your emotions, even though it may appear this way at first. That’s why I suggest taking this step in the privacy of your own bedroom. If you live with your family, it may need to be the bathroom. Lock the door. Run the water. Look at yourself in the mirror for real. Accept that you’ve been kicked around and it hurts.
I’m certainly no fan of kids having emotional meltdowns in public places, but I’m a little jealous. Some days when I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall — doing adult stuff like relationships or business dealings — I kinda want to throw myself down on the floor and freak out. But self-mastery demands I keep myself under control. But we all need appropriate stress releases.
Crying loudly and fully, with abandon, for as long as you need, away from anyone else, even for confusing reasons, helps. This action also provides you an opportunity to, eventually, calm yourself down. Because at some point in the crying jag, you’ll get tired or hungry or have to go to the bathroom. You’ll need to “pull yourself together.” That, my friend, is you being a loving parent to yourself.
Be mindful of the way you talk to yourself in this step. The point is not to beat yourself up for being such a childish wimpy baby that can’t handle things. The point is to start accepting that you get overwhelmed or anxious or sad or disappointed or whatever it is that doesn’t feel good. I like to call emotions simply energy in motion — let it out so you can move on.
My practice looks like this: I will say aloud, “Oh, I feel some sadness coming up.” I use this phrase to give myself permission to cry. I’m at the point where I don’t even care who’s around. I let it out and have a great ugly cry. I find now that it lasts no more than 10 minutes before it’s over.
2. Provide for Yourself Whatever You Lacked as a Child
Now that you’ve wiped away your tears, made yourself a cup of hot tea, and blew your nose, you’re ready for the next step in self-parenting: showing yourself love in a way that you’ve never known before.
Look, some people are better prepared for raising children than others. It’s not your parents’ fault that they weren’t able or willing to provide you with exactly what you needed to reach your full potential. That’s actually your job, now that you’re an adult.
For example, I’ve always been a creative sort. When I was a kid, I used crayons to write and illustrate books bound with scraps of yarn. I’d hold imaginary activities with imaginary friends. I taught myself songs on the piano. Yet my parents never gave me art or music lessons. They told me I never asked for them, so how could they have known that I yearned for such instruction?
While it’s easy to feel deprived — after all, how many children have the ability to advocate for themselves? — it’s better to simply become the parent you always wish you had. Now, I take lessons to learn musical scales on my ukulele. I buy myself paints and head to local parks to create plein air. I write creatively and publish on Medium and elsewhere.
This step will look different for every person. Perhaps what was lacking was a sense of stability. Maybe you didn’t even have enough to eat. Maybe you didn’t feel accepted. You can provide all of these things for yourself. You have that power.
3. Accept Your Parents as They Are
If you are one of the millions of people who have challenging relationships with their parents, you’re probably still hung up on the idea of choosing your womb. Cut yourself a break: You don’t necessarily know what you went through in your previous life, so perhaps there was something about your parents that attracted you. You made the best choice at the time.
Parents are humans, which, by definition, means they are imperfect. Even if they present themselves as omnipotent, they had no idea, really, what they were doing with you. No one does. A baby just appears one day and suddenly you’re responsible for keeping them alive until they can fend for themselves.
When you are self-parenting, you must detach from the expectations that are completely normal within the special relationship with your mother and father. Look at them for who they are. I’d say that parents are only trying their best, but the reality is that many parents don’t even do that.
But then, I bet there are a lot of people you’ve met as an adult who don’t try their best either. This could even be you. As your own self-parent, you now can try your best to care for you in the way you deserve. This frees your all-too-human parents from retroactive blame for the job they did. They tried, maybe. Now you can step in and do even better.
Seeing your parents as temporary caretakers is an important step toward self-mastery. Even if they did things that were truly victimizing, you don’t have to be a victim. Just as you can learn from your parents about how you should present yourself in the world, you can also learn how not to be. Perhaps those lessons are why you thought it’d be a good idea to choose that womb.
Let’s say you had an elementary school teacher who was really mean. He called you stupid. It’s easy to internalize that assault and believe it. It’s just as easy, with a little compassion, to think, wow, that guy must have had a lot of problems to be mean to little kids like that. It’s the same with parents. They have problems just like you and I do.
Accept them and free yourself from their often-misguided expectations of how you’re supposed to be. After all, you’re the parent for yourself now. Their work is done.
4. Do What You Always Loved
It was an epiphany when I realized that I could pick up an instrument and schedule lessons for myself. I could take art classes. I could go to the art store and spend however long I wanted to pick out the perfect brushes for a project. All those things I loved to do as a child — especially those activities my parents never fostered in part because they also didn’t do those things — I get to do now.
My parents were excellent at creating a life with boundaries, which has helped me foundationally. But as a child, I always wanted to roam freely. Now, I live nomadically and travel internationally wherever and whenever I want. I understand boundaries and know which ones I need and which ones I don’t.
Think about what you loved to do as a child and give yourself permission to explore those interests. I loved to pick dandelions and make bouquets for my mother, who rolled her eyes at the handful of weeds I’d present. Now, I pick wildflowers during hikes through national parks and create sweet arrangements for myself. It’s like my inner child is presenting my self-parent with the same gift — yet this time the flowers are displayed proudly until wilted.
5. Think About Your Future
Good parents plan for their children’s future. Whether your parents did this or not, now it’s your turn to think about your future. You must take care of yourself so that you can grow into the person you’ve always wanted to be. This is a big shift from becoming the kind of person your parents would be proud of. That’s seeing the world through their eyes. Use your own.
When you are self-parenting, you must think about your own mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial health. It’s your job to figure out what isn’t working, just like your parents had to do. They may have had to rely on notes that teachers sent home. You may need to rely on the outside help of a caring adult professional, too. Therapy can be a powerful tool.
I recently realized I was spending too much time on social media. I could scroll Facebook for hours! When I decided to focus my attention on things that mattered, I knew I had to get my social media habit under control. Thankfully, technology can help. With just a couple of clicks, my phone now shuts down after 15 minutes on these apps. I honor the boundaries I set, most of the time.
I don’t always want to eat healthy or exercise, but I do it because I want to have a functioning body for years to come. I don’t want to work, but I do it because I want to save money and support myself. I don’t exactly want to tidy my living space, but I do it because it’s easier to accomplish my goals when things aren’t a mess. That is, self-parenting isn’t always about giving yourself the freedom to do what you want. It’s also setting boundaries for yourself.
Often, imbalances in adult life reach directly back to our childhood. Either consciously or unconsciously, we make choices that don’t exactly serve our current and future selves simply because we want to prove that we are independent. If I want to eat ice cream for breakfast, I can! But that’s teenage talk. Self-parenting means being the adult you are — and that means loving yourself enough to say no sometimes.
Bonus Action Step: Keep Your Own Baby Book
A reason many people don’t want to put in the work that is necessary to be their best self is because it’s so hard to know if the work is, well, working. Parents get to see external milestones, memories they sometimes use to fill baby books. They can see their child is still alive. They see the kid graduated high school. Their kid got a job. That work paid off.
You can see the benefits of self-parenting, but it’s a little trickier to track your own results. We often look at ourselves in a funhouse mirror, distorting our success with measuring sticks that don’t fit our lives. No, you’re not as good as your brother. But you’re not as bad as he is, too.
Use a journal to track your results. I like bullet journaling to track healthy habits. Every day, I might not exercise, meditate, eat healthy, avoid social media, make money, help people, read a book, and other habits I am trying to integrate into my life. But I try. If I do something creative, for example, a healthy percentage of days each month, then guess what. I’m a creative person. I can prove it. If I exercise most days, then surprise: I’m more fit than I was a month ago.
Action creates your life, but growth requires a strong foundation. You can build your own foundation, even if you have to hobble together your own version of sticks and rocks to do so. Use your strengths to your benefit, just as any parent could do.
You won’t turn into what you wish for yourself instantly, but you can if you take action. You can start by caring for yourself in a way that no one ever has before.