Did that title get your attention? So click-baity, I know. When I title these articles, I find myself waffling back and forth between using phrases that I know will get your attention, actually lead you to click, and therefore get you the information you need OR using phrases that are truer to the ultimate message of the post. This time, I went with the click bait. If I hadn’t, this article would be titled: Self-of-the-Parent.
Sounds weird, right? Hear me out. First, we need to understand the principle of self-of-the-therapist. Self-of-the-therapist is the phrase we mental health professionals use to describe the natural processes that occur within the person who is the therapist. Essentially, this is the human side of the therapist. Countertransference (consciously or subconsciously viewing clients similarly to people in the therapist’s personal life), natural emotional responses, and personal history all combine to inform a practitioner’s self-of-the-therapist. Self-of-the-therapist work is required for healthy therapy and includes the therapist practicing openness to her own countertransference, emotions, and experiences, holding that awareness with curiosity and consistency, and practicing acceptance and understanding of her own biases. In short, this is what we therapists are referring to when we say we’ve done our own work. To be cognizant of self-of-the-therapist means to have a practice of continual awareness of what our humanness is bringing into the therapy room. (This article has more detailed information about self-of-the-therapist.)
Some concrete examples of how self-of-the-therapist can play out: I entered this field with the intention to work with military families. After a few rocky experiences with that population, I realized those clients hit way too close to home for me, an Air Force spouse. I’ve known therapists whose parents had personality disorders so they deliberately avoid working with clients who have personality disorders. Of course this can swing the other way: A clinical social worker I know whose brother died from suicide when he was young now works with suicidal youths. Once I’d found military clients were not for me, I honed in on couples and betrayal, a few years on the heels of my own parents’ experiences with betrayal and a lengthy separation. I am constantly noticing the space this question takes up for me: Am I devoting my career to helping do for other couples what I couldn’t do for my parents?
Self-of-the-therapist work is endlessly fascinating and, well, endless. Change never stops, adjustments are consistently required, we are always experiencing our lives from ages, stages, and histories we’ve never held before. Like I say to my oldest kid all the time, I’ve never parented a seven-year-old before. He’s never been seven before. We’re doing this for the first time, together.
Which brings me back to my click-baity title. (And you were worried we’d never get there!) As parents, the best thing we can do for our children is also the best thing we can do for ourselves: Operate from the deep and well-practiced understanding of, curiosity about, and acceptance for our whole selves. Okay, you got me – this isn’t exactly a hack. But it is the only thing you need, the well from which all other good parenting can spring. Let me use myself as an example (as usual).
As an unsteady young adult who had moved across the country to attend college, I felt totally alone. When my parents visited twice in four years, I felt completely abandoned. I framed their not visiting as a defining rejection, a sign of my unacceptability, unwantedness, unlovability. And, at 22, I vowed when my someday children went away to college, I would visit them once a semester no matter what. Later on, I shared with my husband this decision and he was game. We had a plan. Our kids would never feel abandoned! Easy.
Of course, as life progressed, and as I progressed, I realized there is no preventing my children from feeling abandoned. There is no preventing them from feeling anything. For all I know, me showing up at their colleges every semester would leave them feeling stifled, send them the message I didn’t think they could handle their lives without me, or that they needed to be checked up on and managed. This is also NOT what I want for my kids.
And there, my friends, is the problem: I was using my experiences with being parented to identify what I DIDN’T want to happen to my own kids. Like riding a bike and focusing so hard on not hitting the tree, our brains pull us like magnets toward what we focus on. (Anyone else love this scene? Starts at minute eighteen.) Another way to put it: I was trying to work out my own traumas through my children. Using their lives to process what had been unhealthily processed in my own life. Yikes.
Here’s the thing: I am a mother. I am never not a mother. I am a therapist. I am never not a therapist. I am a wife. I am never not a wife. I am a friend, sister, daughter, and never not a friend, sister, daughter. In short: Yes, I am a mother, and I am never ONLY a mother. There are so many other facets of my identity, so many other layers to my human experience, so many other roles I had to fill in order to even become a mother in the first place. Denying those other parts, those sister selves that are all filed alongside each other within me, is impossible. Trying to be a mother and a mother alone calls for a permeating, all-encompassing rejection of myself which is not only impossible to achieve but also, and because of its impossibility, harmful to attempt. As in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, in which a little black girl wills herself into a psychotic break in order to “become” white, wishing for changes that are impossible and require self-rejection creates constant failure and consistent pain.
A self-rejecting parent is likely to raise self-rejecting children. An unfulfilled mother is likely to raise unfulfilled daughters. An addicted father is likely to raise addicted sons. This list could go on and on. We ourselves are our best predictors for who and how our children will become.
So here’s your hack: Make a list of the top three most important characteristics you hope your children grow to embody. What do you wish for them more than anything? How do you hope they live their lives as adults? What do you yearn for on their behalf? Really, stop right now and write it down.
Did you write it down? Come on – DO IT. This won’t work if you don’t write it down. Use your phone if you have to, send a text to yourself even. Just don’t keep reading until you’ve done it.
Are you sure you did it?
Okay – last part: Look at your list. Do you embody those three characteristics? Do you model for them the traits you hope they learn? Are you living out those traits yourself?
If the answer is yes, you’re all set. Don’t read anymore parenting articles today; you check that off your list.
If your answer is no, you’re all set, too. You now know everything you need to know to parent well. The trick now is to act on that knowledge. Deliberately work to develop in yourself those characteristics you want for your children. Share with your co-parent, your friends, your family, your therapist, whoever you trust, and start this work. It’s never too late to begin.
What was it like to do the exercise in this article? Have you ever done anything like that before? I’d love to hear below. And, as always, thank you so much for being here.