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Re-parenting Yourself by Not Pushing Yourself

Personal Perspective: Re-parenting can mean learning how to honor our limits.

Key points

  • For those with relational trauma, learning to say no to choices that would overwhelm our nervous system can be a challenging healing task.
  • When our childhood was defined by parentification or over-functioning to survive, it can be really hard to learn how to be gentle with ourselves.
  • Good-enough re-parenting is learning to respect the limits that our body and feelings send us as signals to slow down and choose gentleness.

“Yeah, I don’t know if I can do this….”

I was standing in the parking lot of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, diaper bag in one hand, our tickets to the tramway in the other.

I stared up at the tramway and the jagged mountain peaks it would ascend and felt my heart starting to race and my limbs going loose and rubbery as adrenaline coursed through my body.

My kind husband reassured me, “We don’t have to do this, honey. We can get back into the car and go.”

I protested, “I don’t want to waste the money! Plus, we’re here, and she loves trams. Look, she’s so excited….”

And it was true.

My 3-year-old daughter was bouncing with excitement, looking at the massive tram going up, up, up the mountains.

I don’t like heights, but I knew going on the tram would make my daughter happy.

But as I stared up at the practically vertical ascent path of the tram over jagged, mountainous terrain, my slight unease turned into full-fledged fear.

I stood in the parking lot while my husband looked at me, waiting to decide whether we would go up or not, my daughter tugging at his hand, trying to walk towards the departure building.

I felt so torn.

Every cell in my body didn’t want to go on it.

But my mind was telling me, “Annie, don’t waste the money! Probably nothing bad will happen. You should confront your fear of heights. Your daughter will be disappointed if you don’t go up. Don’t waste the money!”

I walked forward 10 feet, then stopped, turned around, looked at the car, and felt tears come to my eyes.

“No, I don’t want to do this. I’ll be terrified the whole time. Let’s go. We’ll find something else to do this morning.”

And so we left.

We bundled our daughter back into her car seat (she was fine with leaving the tram), drove back down the mountain, and headed back to Palm Springs, where we had the loveliest, non-terrifying morning celebrating my daughter.

That day happened about a year ago when my daughter turned 3 (she’ll be 4 very shortly), and still, I think back on that day as an example of when I re-parented myself well by honoring my fear and saying no (a huge growth edge for me).

I wanted to share this story and use today’s post to illustrate how saying no and choosing easy can be an act of self-care and good-enough re-parenting on our relational trauma recovery journeys every bit as much (if not more) as saying yes and pushing ourselves to do the hard thing.

What is good-enough re-parenting?

Good enough re-parenting is a phrase I use to describe how we—as adults on our relational trauma recovery journeys—should aspire to show up for ourselves.

The good-enough part is derived from the concept of the “good-enough mother”—a contribution by pediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, who posited that “good enough” means attuning to, loving, and providing for a child but also “failing” them at times in developmentally appropriate ways and, critically, that this failing is beneficial for the child’s growth and development.

It’s the antidotal idea to the idea of a “perfect parent”—our flesh-and-blood parents couldn’t be this, and we can’t be this for ourselves either.

And not only is that OK—it’s best for our overall development.

And, of course, re-parenting ourselves means treating ourselves as a good-enough parent would have ideally done, consistently and constantly striving to honor our personhood and dignity, creating a safe environment for ourselves, loving us unconditionally, etc.

In my personal experience and professional opinion, good-enough re-parenting is central to our relational trauma recovery journeys.

But good-enough re-parenting does not mean blasting through fear and terror in unmanageable ways.

For many of us, our re-parenting growth edge is not pushing ourselves.

For many of us who grew up in relationally traumatic homes, we acclimated early to hardship.

We know what it’s like not to get our needs met, to over-function amid dysfunction, and to use an endless array of creative behaviors to guard against feeling vulnerable, weak, and needy.

For many of us who come from relational trauma histories, doing hard things and pushing ourselves beyond our limits is not our growth edge.

Choosing what is easy is our growth edge.

This is so, so hard for me.

My growth edge is not doing the difficult.

I’m acclimated to hard work, self-discipline, and showing up and doing challenging things because my life (running two companies, carrying a full clinical caseload, being the sole breadwinner of my family, and raising a preschooler without any family support) requires that of me on the regular.

My near-default setting is doing what’s difficult.

So instead, my growth edge is giving myself what I give so readily to my daughter: permission and support to say no to what feels excessively hard and eclipses my capacities. Like saying no to going on a horrifying tramway.

I didn’t push myself beyond my capacities.

I re-parented myself well.

And now, to support your own relational trauma recovery journey and self-inquiry process, I want to ask you:

  • Is there any way where you could be a better, good-enough parent for yourself by not pushing yourself?
  • Is your growth edge—like mine—choosing the easier, more self-supporting path and honoring your fear and limited capacities?
  • Is there any way you could extend the same support you show your child (if you have one) to yourself more in any way?

If you know or suspect that you come from a relational trauma background and would like support on your personal growth journey, you can find a therapist in the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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