“Today is a new day…This moment is a fresh start…”
I love the idea of those phrases. Most of the people that I’ve met over the past 20 years battling depression have a hard time believing these phrases. People tend to keep a record of their wrongs, their mess-ups, shortcomings…but that little phrase can release it all. I use it with kids often in the office. Just last week, I was moved to tears while a young man wept in my office over a poor choice. We discussed self-forgiveness. He discovered that you can’t forgive yourself until you find compassion for yourself.
Why do real people struggle with forgiving themselves for shortcomings? Personality is one factor: Some people are just hard on themselves, demanding perfection in every small thing. Sometimes it is something they have learned – mom or dad drilled into them that there is no room for mess-ups and that there is no way to right something once it has gone wrong. Children in these environments end pointing the finger at themselves and believing that they could have made things better.
Many of the young people I work with are perfectionists: It’s the way they make sense of a chaotic environment. They think, “If I’m perfect, and all is in order, then I’ll be safe.” But just like a cook who is trying to handle too many pots and dishes, things can get out of hand quickly. Then they are left with sadness and fear which is a terrible combination.
Are you a “parent perfectionist?” If so, you probably beat yourself up at the end of day reviewing all your failures and shortcomings with your kids. Thinking of where you snapped, that time that you angrily kicked a shoe out of the way or grabbed the whatever… “Oh, here, let me do it!” I come across these a lot and my heart goes out to them. I work hard to give them encouragement and help them learn to let things go. Many of the parents with whom I work are dealing with immensely difficult developmental problems that their kids have. This brings many frustrations and challenges that many of us would buckle under in less than an hour, me included.
The danger of not being able to forgive ourselves and see each day, each moment, as a new opportunity is that we carry the tally sheet with us into the next situation and relationship is lost. If I don’t feel worthy, there is no way that I can join my partner, my child, or neighbor in deep sustained relationship. My instinct will be to run and stay away. Or, I end up hurting others because of how much I hate myself.
What can we do about this as parents of young people who desperately need us to remain in relationship with them?
First, model the great act of accepting responsibility and making amends if you have done something to hurt your child. There is nothing greater than a parent who owns their behavior and then restores relationship. It shows the child humility and the process that love is not lost. It shows that despite human emotions which caused some fog, there is a light that blasts through it and brings love back into the picture.
Second, be mindful of what you are feeling and thinking in the present moment with your kids. When you feel anger or frustration creeping up, look for the cause then take a step back with a deep breath and regroup. Think forward – instead of being reactive.
Third, release your shortcomings through purposeful and intentional behavior that refuses to frame you as a failure or a mess-up as a parent. This is done by pushing through the feelings and going to your child or adolescent to join in relationship, even if it is plunking down next to them while they are playing a game. Invite them into your space too. Go on a walk, throw a ball, go for a drive. Don’t let a past mistake define what you choose to do in this moment. This moment is new – the past is gone.
If I define who I am by what I’ve done, then I’m a prisoner to the past. If I define who I am by who I am in this moment, I am free to choose how I will act and believe in this moment, which propels me into the future as a better, wiser person.