I sat with a young mom a few days ago as she lamented the poor parenting she had received in childhood (and beyond) and worrying aloud, “Will my kids experience me the same way?” This mom is not alone. So many of us worry about the impact of our own brokenness on our children, even as we heal. We want to do things better. We want our kids to be the generation that doesn’t need counseling. We want to offer them perfect. All. The. Time. And it’s impossible.
But parents sure can look the part to their kids. They can hold out an illusion of authority and righteousness and Always-RIGHT-ness to their children that makes them seem infallible. God-like. There is an assumption that kids need parents to be above reproach.
But is that what THEY need or is that something WE need?
Whether you are an individual processing your own experiences or a parent determined not to repeat mistakes, looking back on our childhoods can be helpful.
I can’t begin to tell you how often someone comes in for counseling and, as we are getting to know one another, pronounces what a great childhood they had, and how perfect their parents were and how there’s no need to look back. And indeed, this was my story, too. My home was idyllic. I love(d) my siblings.
Childhood? Beautiful. Parents? Perfect. Reasons to look back? None.
And here’s the thing: There was truth to that story. I DID have a great childhood. I DO love my siblings. My parents were… well… NOT perfect. But they were great! Wonderful. Loving. Tuned in.
Almost inevitably, over time, in the safety of our therapeutic conversations, the façade of the perfect childhood begins to give way, cracks appearing in the flawless veneers. Memories emerge. Narratives are spoken aloud, sometimes for the first time, reaching fresh ears upon which unhealthy behaviors have not been normalized into acceptance. Maybe the father’s emotional distance was not “just how men are.” Maybe the mother’s insulting comments meant to motivate were at best, unloving, and at worst, inflicted long-term damage. Dad’s occasional but incendiary rages may have been evidence of trauma in his history, and Mom’s co-dependent enabling, enduring markers of survival techniques as the child of an alcoholic. These realities do not negate the goodness of your experience. When your dad hugged, he hugged hard. Your mom’s compassionate desire to rescue others from pain often came from noble intent. Together they were trying to build a life and raise their children well in a world that sometimes seemed set against those very goals.
Can all those things co-exist? You bet. Relationships are complicated and the human experience is hard. None of us comes through it unscathed. We look back not to place blame, but to find understanding. We look back to make meaning, but also to make adjustments to the way forward - to benefit our own relationships and often future generations.
What happens in the eyes of children when we present “perfection” as our standard for adulting? We can get a little bit of an idea by looking at how perfect-presenting adults (maybe your parents) may have affected you.
You may struggle to be imperfect yourself. It’s ok to want to do things well. But we are deluded if we believe we must or even could do everything right EVERY TIME. Human beings are not machines. We make mistakes and learn from them. Failure is a critical component of learning and fear of failure will keep us from the very experiences and discoveries necessary for growth in life.
You may struggle to forgive imperfection in others. You may use “black/white” thinking to make judgements about people (often your own loved ones), rendering imperfect people into categories of “good” or “bad” and robbing you of opportunities for deeper, more complex intimacy in even your most important relationships.
You may struggle to consolidate that “perfection” narrative with some of the very real memories of conflict, disconnection, or outright dysfunction you experienced. You may even keep those out-of-sync memories buried to avoid the cognitive dissonance caused by the opposing paradigms. But “buried” doesn’t make them go away.
You may struggle to apologize, as an apology is an admission of guilt or responsibility, which directly challenges the appearance of perfection you are working so hard to keep up. An apology exposes you to the (likely unforgiving, your fears tell you) eyes of those whom you’ve wounded or offended. You’d be found out. Disqualified. Discarded.
You may struggle to maintain consistent relational intimacy, as you believe your flaws disqualify you. You create emotional distance as a barrier between your true self and the prying eyes of others. You work hard to look good at the surface level and rarely, if ever, let anyone in at a deeper level, because you can’t risk exposure.
Keeping up the illusion of perfection puts you in a constant, exhausted state in which you must continue “tap-dancing” at all costs to keep up appearances. The show must go on!
Did you see yourself in any of those?
What if we could avoid visiting this impossible standard on others? Can we avoid passing these traits along? And, if perfection is NOT the bar, then what is?
Hear me out, now…
Lower the bar.
That’s right. Lower the bar.
Please don’t hear what I’m NOT saying - I’m not saying, “Take yourself off the hook.” If you are a parent, you are ON the hook. Period. You are responsible for the well-being of your child(ren). But - their well-being is NOT dependent on your perfect parenting. What your child’s well-being IS dependent on is your connectedness. And if you are not a parent, your relationships still need some of the very same things to thrive. Turns out, we are all human!
Your people, adults OR children, don’t need you to be perfect, but they do need you to be emotionally present and tuned in. That means a lot of things:
Put the phone down.
Make eye contact.
Listen to understand before responding.
Say “hello,” “goodbye,” and “I love you.” Check in. Ask how they are doing. Do less texting and more talking.
Spend time: Pray with them. Dream with them. Lament with them. Laugh with them. Read with them. Hike or bike with them. Play with them. Eat with them. Dance with them. Sit with them. Watch with them. Think with them. BE with them. (*key word: with)
Set appropriate boundaries.
Be a safe haven.
Affectionately and appropriately touch – a hand on the shoulder, high fives or hugs… people need these things.
This list will take you a long way toward healthy emotional connectedness between you and your people. Try them. They work.
And still, conflict will arise. It happens when we (or they) are tired or stressed. It happens when we’re hungry. It happens after a bad day or not enough sleep, or when we have an internal struggle going on that consumes our emotional energy. It happens. So, what do we do about it?
Well, listen up. This is almost magic.
It has been known for quite some time in the psych world that a crucial key to resilience in life and in relationships lies not in perfect behaviors of the involved parties, but in the healthy repair of a relational rupture (more on this here). In fact, renowned Psychologist John Gottman suggests that successful relationships don’t succeed because the parties don’t fight. They succeed because when there is a relational rupture – and there always is – relationships have bumps – it’s followed by healthy repair. And when the cycle of relational rupture is consistently followed by healthy repair, our bonds are actually strengthened, leaving the relationship stronger than before.
That’s great news, right? Score another point for imperfection!
Owning up to your own failures allows your loved ones to feel safe in their failures. Freedom to fail creates fertile soil to risk trying new things, putting voice to dreams, or attempting important changes. Vulnerability around your weaknesses and transparency about our blunders increases levels of mutual emotional intimacy. The very thing you fear might disqualify you actually increases connection. There is not much that is more powerful than a heartfelt apology followed by actions to back up your words. When you sincerely apologize, you model humility, leading the way for reconciliation as grace becomes central to your relationships.
When you remove the mask of perfection, and instead foster connection, you’ll see growth and goodness begin to flourish in your relationships… and, you can stop tap-dancing.