Every year in mid-June, my Instagram feed—and I assume yours too—is overtaken by “best dad in the world” posts, and the same social-media gushing is directed at moms a month earlier. I’ll admit, I partook in the public displays of appreciation this year by hoisting my parents onto a pedestal for a day—and I swear my sentiment was authentic. I’ve learned, after all, that it’s completely possible to recognize that my parents are people who aren’t perfect and have limitations while still having immense gratitude and love for who they are.
Still, I wonder if all this idealized celebrating of our parents on social media ignores the elephant in the Hallmark-card aisle: Parents, like the rest of us, are flawed beings. Maybe the cards and captions we write don’t need to say “cheers to the not-so-perfect human who raised me.” But it is important to see our parents’ fallibility and learn how to make peace with it. Because by getting ahead of the inevitable realization, you hold the power to handle the news like the well-adjusted adult they raised. Or at least, sincerely tried to raise.
“I have never met a parent who doesn’t want the best for their children,” says Robin Stern, PhD, a psychoanalyst and the associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “But, I have met many parents who do not understand the impact of their unchecked behavior on their children—including the negative impact of critical or dismissive words.”
The exact flavor of imperfection is of course different for every person, but whatever character flaws, emotional blind spots, or limitations a parent has, the impact on their kids—including adult kids—is real. “When I opened my first psychotherapy office, my mom said to me, ‘Well this is pretty cool, but did you ever think about having a radio show?,’” recalls Dr. Stern. “Over time, I realized that the expectations she put on me were a result of her insecurities and being too afraid to go after the things she wanted for her own life.” The epiphany that her mother possessed personal goals and regrets ultimately helped Dr. Stern contextualize why her mother seemed to be often overly critical of her choices.
Parents are people. People who’ve experienced their own traumas, insecurities, and setbacks in life and do the best they can with whatever tools they have in the moment.
Yep, hard as it may be to believe, parents are people. People who’ve experienced their own traumas, insecurities, and setbacks in life and do the best they can with whatever tools they have in the moment. But for some reason, when children—of any age—come to realize this fact, it’s rare for peaceful acceptance to be the immediate course of action. Some of us point the critical finger back at ourselves, thinking we must not deserve more nurturing or better care. Others go into denial, minimizing parents’ flaws on the basis that if nothing overtly abusive or egregiously dysfunctional transpires, everything is great and there’s no reason—or even earned privilege—to complain. Then there are those of us who forever hold out hope that our parents will one day be different (more approving, less neglectful, or whatever the specific “flaw” in question may be). And some see the flaws of parents clear as day, and hold such deep resentment that the development of toxic relationship is all but inevitable.
While none of these paradigms are gold-star-worthy coping mechanisms, unresolved anger is the real doozy. “I see people from their twenties and thirties all the way up to their sixties who are still angry about what they got or didn’t get from their parents. They carry it around,” says psychologist Bernie Katz, PhD and co-author of Actually, It Is Your Parents’ Fault: Why Your Romantic Relationship Isn’t Working, and How to Fix It. “Often, these are patients who are struggling with depression, anxiety, or even physical symptoms related to their anger, like unexplained pains, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and back pain with no obvious cause.”
While resenting your parents doesn’t have clear-cut health implications, studies have backed up the idea that holding onto anger is associated with higher levels of inflammation and chronic illness over time. Still, understanding the mental- and physical-health manifestations associated with toxic anger doesn’t help us release parental grudges and move on. What might, says Dr. Stern, is reframing negative thoughts into more positive statements and loosening the grip that the anger has on us. For instance, instead of telling yourself, “My mother is impossible and controlling,” you could say, “My mother is doing the best she can and I don’t have to follow her ideas about what is best for my life.”
“If you reframe [the realization], it can be very liberating—a reminder that none of us are perfect.” —psychoanalyst Robin Stern, PhD
People sometimes resist letting go of blame or anger because they think it means they’re condoning a parent’s bad behavior. But that’s not how forgiveness works, says Dr. Katz. “It can help to think of it as forgiving the past rather than forgiving the parent.” His view reminds me of one of my favorite Oprah-isms: “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different; it’s accepting the past for what it was, and using this moment and this time to help yourself move forward.”
Ultimately, accepting that parents are people, and sometimes, people disappoint us can be a gateway to establishing a stronger sense of self-compassion and self-forgiveness. “If your role model isn’t very secure or did something unethical or unseemly, it can shake your world a bit,” says Dr. Stern. “On the other hand, if you reframe it, it can be very liberating—a reminder that none of us are perfect. And we don’t have to be perfect to be successful parents or children in the world.”
Another take on forgiveness? The most important part happens before anyone says “sorry.” Back to parenting, if you want a tip on how to conquer child-rearing challenges, check out how Hilaria Baldwin uses yoga.
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