Accepting people as they are is complex and nuanced. They did the best they could from the level of consciousness they were at then. It’s easy to say statements like these and like all cliche’s, they hold some truth.
“When we know better, we do better.” Maya Angelou
So much of our “better” depends on the influence of our individual and cultural environments on our biology. We all move up and down the polyvagal ladder from ventral (calm, trust) down into sympathetic arousal (fight, flight), and sometimes further down into collapse or freeze (dorsal). We carry our history and experiences of safety and threat, connection and disconnection in our nervous system.
Our threat perception is unconscious, and so is this response or movement. Through mindfulness, we can be aware of when we are going into fight/ flight/ freeze or emotional flooding. The benefit of practicing emotional regulating is that we develop a new baseline of resilience, and we know how to come back more quickly into a state of calm and connection. We develop confidence that we can manage our nervous system without so much reliance on external aids like food, screens, alcohol and other drugs.
Many people don’t know how their nervous system works and feel like they are at the mercy of other people and life. They are continuously triggered into fight/flight/freeze and survival strategies like fawning, defiance or compliance. This feels overwhelming, as though they are helpless, especially when things are as difficult as they are right now.
Why is it that even when we are suffering, it feels safer to keep suppressing and distracting ourselves? Fear and shame. When we turned away from the trauma that is now stored in our body, it was the only option we had. Children have very little power over their life circumstances. We routinely turn on ourselves and develop false core deficiency beliefs in order to stay in the closest possible connection with parents. This is a survival level need when we are a child.
Many adults now are working on their past hurt through a somatic mindfulness inquiry practice like the one I do, or are in various forms of therapy. We need to respect ourselves and others for the courage and persistence it takes to heal from our past and be free. Our impulse is to avoid pain, and this includes painful memories of our past.
A foundational step is to work with healing our own childhood pain. We become able to connect with ourselves at young ages. An outcome of this deep work of turning towards ourselves is a heartfelt empathy and compassion for ourselves. We see that what happened to us as children was not our fault. We no longer shame ourselves, believe we are unworthy or unlovable, and we no longer have to avoid ourselves.
Our adult children may be working on their own childhood and want to engage in meaningful conversation about how our unconscious behavior and limitations contributed to their pain. Some of our present day behaviors or comments may be difficult for them as they become more aware and more present. Some adult children are not willing to connect. Depending on how this is handled, we may be able to forge a closer connection, or we may end up estranged from our children or parents. We need to be able to listen to understand and validate their experience. This begins with our own inner work.
I know from experience how difficult it is to let in the pain of how we have hurt others, especially our children. As I went deeper into healing my own childhood trauma, I was able to understand what had happened and that I was not at fault. And like everyone, I brought my own unhealed trauma into relationships and into parenting. That is how it works.
It is painful to see the effects of our unhealed trauma on our children. We love them and want the best for them. When my son was young, I was struggling. When he was ages three to five, I drank and used drugs. I got into a long term relationship with someone who was abusive. I see it clearly now and it breaks my heart.
I wish I could change the past and I cannot. What I can do is reckon with the truth myself. What I can do is listen and accept his experience as valid. What I can do for both of us is work on healing myself. I know how much I longed for connection and validation from my parents.
Through this work and our deepening ability to stay emotionally regulated, we are able to be present for others we have hurt. Without it, we are emotionally flooded and go into a defensive mode. We might give a surface apology that isn’t received well. We might recount all the things our child did wrong and defend what we did. We might go into despair and look to our children to reassure us. We could hold firm in our conviction that everyone needs to leave the past in the past and start fresh, not realizing that we need to clear the air to open a possibility of an honest relationship now. When we are in fight/ flight/ freeze, we are not able to be present for ourselves or for them.
Our children experience this as another painful turning away. They look to us to be mature and wise, to be able to stay calm and hear them out when they are ready to engage with us. It is deeply disappointing for a child to realize that is not the case. Our parents may truly not have the capacity to be with the truth of what happened when we were children and to take adult responsibility.
This feels so unfair. We’ve done the painful work of our own therapy and they just get away with their excuses? They get to carry on and we’re expected to swallow our hurt and anger so we can pretend and be polite at family get togethers?
It is a deep practice to maintain respect and compassion for people whom we see as failing in courage or capacity. We long for a deep connection that can only come from authentic truth telling and they turn away. Again. I am a child whose parents are now dead and I understand a lot of their strengths and challenges. We never had a chance to have the deep conversations I wish we could have had.
Life is really hard! Our best in the past was not enough and we caused harm. Our best now is highly dependent on how stuck we are in defending ourselves. Kindness and love for ourselves is the foundation. Being willing to engage in tough honest conversations is essential. It is hard to accept when someone is not able to have those conversations with us. In that situation, we are limited by their capacity. It truly is not personal to us. Just as we cannot stop someone from drinking too much, we can’t force someone to see what they cannot afford to see.
These are some common misconceptions and ideas that keep us stuck in suffering:
- It’s not fair. This is true. It isn’t.
- Why did this happen to me? This is not a relevant question and tends to take us into shame or blame.
- What did I do to deserve this? Nothing. What happened when you were a child was not your fault.
Instead, we could work with these:
- I feel sad (or ________) about my childhood (or about not being able to connect deeply with my parents)
- I know there are things I’m not able to let in, just like there are things they can’t face
- I can’t change the past and I can change my relationship with the past
- I know that someone else’s healing journey and reactions are their own and are not personal to me
- I can always offer myself kindness and loving connection
It is unsettling to realize that we may be more emotionally mature than our parents. Everyone is doing their best and that is highly affected by past trauma, our sense of what is possible for us, and our nervous system. Our best as a parent is sometimes not what our children need. Our parents’ best was sometimes not what we needed, and we are left to deal with the effects of that. It is normal to be angry and feel grief. It is normal to want to hold them accountable and for them to do enough internal work that they can reach out to us with a sincere, meaningful apology.
“A good apology is when we take clear and direct responsibility without a hint of evasion, blaming, obfuscation, excuse-making and without bringing up the other person’s crime sheet. The hurt party wants to know that we really get it, that we validate their feelings, that we care about their feelings.” Harriet Lerner. Listen here
We are wired for defensiveness. We listen for what we don’t agree with so we can defend ourselves and correct the facts. Listen only to try to wrap your brain around the essence of what that hurt party needs you to understand. And even if it’s only 5%, apologize for that 5% first.”
As we work through our feelings, we may come to a place of acceptance of what is someone’s “best” at this time. Regardless of what anyone else does or does not do, healing our own side sets us free. We deeply appreciate how hard it is to see what is difficult for us to accept, especially when we are hurt someone we love. This is true for others as well.
We cannot make someone feel safe enough or be inspired to do this deep healing work. As we continue to evolve and become healthier, we will find that some old relationships fall away or we set up new boundaries. We raise the bar in relationships with others and with ourselves, and we become increasingly able to move through our days with kindness, compassion and emotional maturity. Our “best” continues to elevate and we enjoy a life of meaning and connection.