Every parent that walks into my office asks a variant of the same question: “My child is working on getting well. I would like to know how to help them, can you teach me how to better help them with [insert issue]? More importantly, I didn’t catch it soon enough, and I know I am to blame, so how do I fix it?” No. Well, yes, I can help you learn these new interactions and teach you more about what you want to know, but that’s not actually why you chose to walk in. You chose to come into the office and sit down because you feel that the road is unstable and your brain hasn’t forgiven itself for not having advance notice and knowledge of their above stated issue. That’s what it really craves and that’s what I will provide: skills to learn to forgive yourself. Because it isn’t your fault.
Of course, there are some very important points to remember as we go forward:
- Utilizing a healthy combination of logic and emotion
- The possibility of feelings of grief
Knowing the key points is not the end goal, it’s about the growth within them. It’s about using them in their unique combination that will help you on your journey. I am not sure if I know anyone, including myself, who truly masters all the points since the way they have been taught often makes our conceptualization of these concepts inaccurate.
Take Self-Care as an example. It’s the new, dawning knowledge that a massage is not self-care, even though you possibly once heard it was. Sure, it feels great, but I haven’t met one person who can honestly tell me how that one massage made everything better. All the stress, the balancing acts of work and home, relationships, everything stressful vanished with that one massage.
No, self-care is a deep need, and it requires life-long reflection. The massage does seem easier so I believe that’s what makes us want to believe in the power of it. (Side note: You should still treat yourself to the massage, though, since it feels great and can provide a place where they take away the negative physical feelings). I can talk about these ideas for days, maybe months, maybe forever. The true reason that I want to write about forgiving yourself, and why it should be one of your resolutions, is because of the amount of parents I have met that struggle with this issue while not even knowing they are struggling with it.
Very often, the reason people don’t realize they are struggling with their internal self is because the issue can often seem external. A common example that may help to illustrate self-forgiveness is one that I see in my office almost daily – one likely very dear to your heart.
Imagine this scene (or, even better, take a walk down memory lane from the birth of your own baby):
Your baby was just born. Maybe you just finished counting all ten toes and all ten fingers, maybe over and over again as you finally relax into being a parent. That was the time when you began to imagine what life would be like – for you and for your baby. Logically, you know about the night feedings, the crying, and have heard that you might become overwhelmed – both now and as they grow. In this moment, though, you are content as your baby finally sleeps and your emotions take flight as you imagine the very far future. Your perfect baby will have the perfect life. Maybe your baby will be a teacher, or a doctor, or an electrician! So many things they can be, but they will always be your baby first – even when they find the perfect person to marry, buy a home with, and have a baby of their own. All of these thoughts, coupled with their respective emotions, zip through the mind simultaneously: The logic of how hard raising a child can and will be, along with the emotional fantasies of the present moment and the future to look forward to.
The problem is that the logic and the emotional beauty make you forget about things. Even the logic, continuously tapping you on the shoulder, reminding you about how tough times may get… logic still doesn’t remind you to think about everything. Nor should it – this is your moment to treasure and enjoy.
That moment leads into years. Your baby grows into toddler, tween, adolescent, and adult. Regardless of what stage of life your child is in, they will always be your baby… you know this logically and emotionally. Sometimes love means we don’t want to believe struggles will, can, or even should happen to them – which become your struggles as well.
You can read every parenting book a thousand times or more, but it’s hard to find one, and you will likely find none, that mention how your baby may grow up to struggle. Some of those struggles will be mental health issues, short or long term, and some will be life struggles, bullying or substance abuse (both of which and more can lead to mental health issues).
One thing to remember is that mental health struggles are okay, they are just as normal as those ten fingers and ten toes, even if we can’t see them as easily. Instead we see symptoms. Those struggles our children go through can easily become abnormal when we refuse to see them because they hurt our underlying emotions, such as our self-acceptance or self-confidence, because we were not prepared as parents. You will likely be thinking, “Who wouldn’t have their emotions hurt realizing that they don’t have the ‘perfect’ baby?” Oh, but you do! Every baby is perfect and every perfect baby struggles, some more than others and some less, but everyone struggles.
This is about the time when you struggle to sort out the two–part issue that wasn’t in the baby books: “How can I be a good enough parent when I didn’t notice the symptoms or prepare for this?” The third point was forgotten in the frantic rush to help your child: “How do I start to feel better again?”
Remember when your thoughts and emotions zipped through your mind simultaneously much earlier in your child’s life? It’s happening again. This time may you may feel scared, but truly you’re just as scared as when you took that step into parenthood. The difference is that you felt prepared from the books, your parents, and your community. You learned by example, and this moment is reminiscent of that same feeling of new, unknown territory.
This journey will teach you about a world that is new to you – mental health, which is a part of being our healthiest selves. Psychiatrists, therapists, and psychologists are a part of your world via your baby now. Once again, there will be books to learn from, your parents and community to support you, and a slew of new resources.
Maybe, your brain considers, this can be for me too. Maybe you can learn some new things about your baby, about yourself… and, just possibly, it can feel good to talk with someone who cares, wants to help, and will be your ongoing advocate during dark and light times.
Forgiveness is a complex, intricate concept that cannot be defined in one book, the same as your baby was not defined in one book. It is a deeply personal journey that you are now discovering.
Often parents feel as though they do not deserve to be forgiven because they were meant to be the “perfect” guide to their child. Sometimes fear also gets in the way… how would speaking to someone that doesn’t know you, your family, or your life help at all? Fear can be the biggest deterrent to getting the help that you deserve and need. It can possibly be fear of judgement by “the person in the chair,” assuming their life is perfect. But it’s not – my life is no more perfect than yours. That’s okay because we’re all growing so that we can be each other’s’ guides in life. You will guide me in knowing your family and you, and I will guide you in skills that you seek.
If your baby was not defined in one chapter or one book, then neither are you. You have gone through the process with them, and possibly considered how it has helped and how it may even help you. Taking the step towards forgiving yourself may seem scary after plummeting into a world you may not have known existed until now. Now that you know, it’s time to focus on you. It’s all too easy to let the blame fall entirely on yourself – you are believed to be the one guiding light to your child. You are the one who read all the books, consulted the experts, and discussed with great care what the plan was to be. Even if the plan may seem off course at this moment, it is simply another time for growth. I have had so many parents ask me, “I let this happen so how do I fix it?” I have reminded every single person that they did not let anything happen, it just happened – and now it is time to choose your course.
The points mentioned at the beginning of the article are a good place to start. Is anyone of us truly perfect at all of those things all of the time? We know the answer is no, but it can be difficult to acknowledge that it is your time too. Working on yourself is not selfish – it is the exact opposite. It is the process of allowing yourself to have what you may have always needed, and that is different for all of us. Some need a guide so that they can know how to best guide during the struggle, some need an advocate for learning those resources, and, truly, everyone needs an ongoing discussion about it all. You may be in a small process of grief knowing that your child is or was struggling, but you can forgive yourself for not knowing the perfect things to say at the perfect time. As we know, everyone struggles, so no one can be perfect. We become our idea of perfect as we continue to grow.
Forgiveness also gives us room to be ourselves during times of joy and times of hardship. It reminds us that perfection is not required – all that is required is that you take care of yourself. You are important and you can utilize those skills to help yourself in areas you may have always wanted to.
Part of forgiveness is finally knowing that the imperfections or the issue that your child went through wasn’t all your fault. It is also knowing that growth and forgiveness do not have an end date as they require you to always think deeply, work hard, and push yourself into self-actualization.
Is self-forgiveness actually possible? Yes!
Self-forgiveness will always be possible if you are dedicated to your personal, ongoing self-care. Just as forgiving others who cause you pain will help you be at peace, forgiving yourself will keep your internal peace. If you would feel ready to take the next step, contact LifeStance Health. We are always ready to help, guide, and aid you in your journey. Remember that you are worth it.