Shepherding is Not All Green Pastures: Five Ways to Maintain Strength as a Parent
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a shepherd in fields of green pastures? A few years ago I became interested in more about the job as a shepherd. I did some research and found some fascinating similarities between shepherding and parenting. Let’s first look at how Merriam Webster defines shepherd: “a person who tends and rears sheep”; “to guide and direct in a particular direction”. Guide and direct are two powerful terms. What struck me in further reading is that shepherding is not all green pastures and caring for fluffy little sheep. It is actually quite the opposite. Shepherding is one of the oldest careers on record. The job is one of the lowest paying occupations and is known for its challenging physical labor as well as emotionally taxing. (Are There Still Shepherds Today?, n.d.) Let’s see how an actual shepherd describes their role.
I discovered a picturesque Vermont farm that raises Gotland sheep. The owner/shepherd, Kim, describes poignantly some key aspects to the art of tending and rearing sheep. On the Vermont Grand View Farm, LLC’s website, Kim outlines the skills of a shepherd: (Goodling, 2019)
A shepherd must be:
Tough at heart.
Willing to do hard work.
Willing to be humbled daily.
Must not be afraid to learn new things.
Must have great endurance.
Must exhibit the ability to observe.
Must have the patience of a saint.
Read through that list again. Each of these qualifications could be listed in a parent’s job description. Often I have parents come into my office that are tired, feeling fearful and anxious, and searching for answers. Looking back up to the definition of a shepherd, the words direct and guide are the key terms. In this day in age, it is a challenge on so many levels to shepherd our children. With all that is being thrown at them by the media, friends, school, and even us as parents, they are tired, too. The family system’s individuals coregulate off of each other. We all influence each other’s coping strategies.
In order to be “tough at heart”, “willing to be humbled daily”, and to “have great endurance”, parents must strengthen their Self to “have the patience of a saint.” There are some key ways parents can build up their emotional muscles to handle directing and guiding their children. In working with parents for years, I have found the following five areas as cornerstones to survival as a shepherding parent: self-care, taming the inner critic, regulating their own triggers, acquiring knowledge, and surrounding themselves with a caring team. Let’s look at each of these areas in more detail.
1. Self-Care: Self-care can be defined as actively taking care of oneself. I will say actions can be actual movements but it can also be passive activities as well. Before I get into ways we can do self-care, let’s look at how we even understand the idea of Self. How do we define self and ego? This has been a debated topic in psychology and in religion for decades. Personally, I define ego as an individual's collective consciousness defined by outside reality. My definition of self is more rooted in spirituality as the center of my soul that is made in the image of God. This is not to be misunderstood that the ego is not God-given. God created all of me including the ego and self. The self can be thought of more as my True Self. Sue Monk Kidd in “When the Heart Waits”, explains, “...the ego is like the window pane of the consciousness toward which True Self grows and expresses itself in one’s life. We can’t do without it.” (Kidd, 1992, 52) There are several ways we can attend to our True Self. We all have different personalities, therefore, each of us heals and grows differently. Pick a few of these suggestions and figure out which ways resonate most with your True Self: journaling using words, your voice, and/or pictures; movement (yoga, stretching, walking, dancing, running, etc); taking a bubble bath; reading; listening and/or singing to music; being out in nature; doing a craft; breathwork; writing; and being with your girlfriends or guy friends; prayer and meditation.
2. Taming the inner critic: What exactly is the inner critic? I like to think of it as the little birdie that sits on your shoulder and tells you lies all day. We all have one and there are days when it feels like the birdie is winning the battle. Dr. Alison Cook discussed this part of ourselves that has learned some bad habits. Refer to her article for some wonderful tips about taming the inner critic: https://www.dralisoncook.com/boundaries-with-a-shaming-inner-critic/ Parents are experts at listening to their inner critic when it comes to falling prey to the comparison game. Have you found yourself ever asking any of the following questions?: “Why can’t I do crafts like that mom?”; “If I just had a bigger house like they do, then I could feel I could take better care of myself.”; “I bet they are not having to send their child to therapy, what is wrong with us?”; “I am the worst parent in the world!”; “There I go, hurting my children again.” These accusations are all lies. Dr. Alison Cook gives us a step by step process to reframe the inner critic’s lies in her book, The Best of You. She refers to the process as “minding the mind”. First, we are to just simply notice our negative self-talk. Second, get curious about your inner critic. Third, befriend the critic with gentleness. Fourth, reframe the lies with holy Truths. Once you are able to begin this process of taming the inner critic’s lies, you can tell that birdie on your shoulder to fly away. You can then develop your own truths that will help you to soar with new wings.
3. Regulate the triggers: To understand about triggers, first it is helpful to know about the
four fear responses. When our brains sense perceived or real fear, our mammal responses kick into gear. The birdie on our shoulder that tells us those lies can actually ignite a fear that will send our brain into a reactive mode. The four fear responses are: fight, freeze, flight, and fawn. All can have a physical and an emotional component. Remember our brains trick us by misreading an actual vs. a perceived threat. If fight is your response, you might have a bull-in-the-china shop reaction by going head first into reacting to the fear by actually yelling or just raising your vibrational energy state. Those who go toward freezing, will go almost into a dissociative state. You may have heard of the idea of stress paralyzation when you feel frozen, unable to respond. You can think of this response similar to an animal that plays dead when threatened. The flee response can actually cause an individual to literally or emotionally run away. Avoidance, deflection, and projection will be common responses for flight. The fawn response is a bit harder to detect because it has a face of being nice; however, it is rooted in dysfunctional codependency. The individual who fawns is the one who will head up the meal trains, want to make sure all are okay, and are the ultimate peacemakers, but quickly that response can lead to enabling. When the brain senses a fear, the response is then triggered, and quickly the shame spiral can begin to take over. Regulation simply means to maintain balance and help your brain to calm down back to homeostasis. This is where the self-care actions will come into play. All those techniques will help your amygdala to stop driving the car and the prefrontal cortex region of your brain will then be able to regulate the big emotions from the big feelings.
4. Knowledge is power: As Fred Rogers said, "Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime's work, but it's worth the effort." One of the most important parts of ourselves to learn about is our beautiful brains. Understanding that our brains are a powerful vehicle to freedom will release you from the clutches of the inner critic’s lies. Studying the God given gift of epigenetics, the power that we can change our brains, is empowering. The fact that our brains are neuroplastic or changeable is liberating. For a quick review of the basics about brain development, refer to this past article: https://www.triciathorntontherapy.com/post/how-to-easily-understand-brain-development
A couple of authors who study the brain, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and Dr. Dan Siegel, are
ones to check out.
5. Surround yourself with a team: This is so key. You are not on a mountain or in a
valley alone. Inviting a group of like-minded individuals does require putting some solid
boundaries in place. It also requires vulnerability to ask for help. My passion is to come alongside parents to help guide and shepherd through the valleys and even the mountain tops. My new parenting coaching/training program does just this. Refer to this flyer for more information. In five sessions, I will guide parents as we learn all about the five love languages, how to fill your child’s bucket, setting boundaries and limits, attachment styles, brain development, how to grasp your window of tolerance, diet and nutrition and about self-care. Surrounding yourself with people who will uplift you and encourage you is key to survival as a parent. Each shepherd always has another shepherd nearby when a sheep is lost, so they can work together to bring the one back to the flock.
To close, let’s look at Psalms 23. (Psalm 23 NLT - Psalm 23 - A Psalm of David. The LORD, n.d.) Throughout this passage, we see all five of the ways to sustain us as parents. David, the author of the Psalms, opens up with an important statement. “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” Wow! That is a declaration. God provides all we need to be a parent. There are days that we may not feel that way, but ultimately, God directs and guides us on this up and down journey of parenting. David shows us all five of the ways for parents to build up their strength. I love that David gives us a charge of self-care right away: “He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.” When we slow and allow ourselves some rest, God provides the meadows and the water to sustain us. David then goes on to tell us that even when we “walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.” God helps us even when we feel the lies of the inner critic raising fear within us. God is right beside us through the hardest seasons of parenting. With “your rod and your staff” to protect us, we have the tools to regulate our triggers. Just as a shepherd has to have a rod and staff to direct and guide the sheep away from dangers, God will help to protect parents as well, and in turn parents will lead their children. Even in the “presence of enemies” God gives us what we need by “preparing a feast” for us. God gives us the knowledge we need when we feel attacked and surrounds us with a team to feel His “goodness and unfailing love”. What a confirmation that God is right there during the darkest times and most peaceful times. By no means am I saying this journey is without trials and we can just read this scripture and rest in green pastures. I believe that parents are called to be shepherds to their children because we have the ultimate Shepherd guiding us along the way. By strengthening our emotional muscles, parents will be able to "be willing to do to the hard work", "not be afraid to learn new things", and to be still and present and have the "ability to observe".
Are There Still Shepherds Today? (n.d.). Wonderopolis. Retrieved September 11, 2023, from https://wonderopolis.org/wonder/are-there-still-shepherds-today
Cook, P., & Cook, A. (2022). The Best of You: Break Free from Painful Patterns, Mend Your Past, and Discover Your True Self in God. Thomas Nelson Incorporated.
Goodling, K. (2019, September 24). How do I know if I have the skills of a shepherd? Living with Gotlands. Retrieved September 11, 2023, from https://www.livingwithgotlands.com/2019/09/skills-of-a-shepherd/
Kidd, S. M. (1992). When the heart waits. HarperCollins.
Psalm 23 NLT - Psalm 23 - A psalm of David. The LORD. (n.d.). Bible Gateway. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalms+23&version=NLT