Updated: Apr 16, 2020
DO NOT read further than this if you are not ready to. I'm going to share my thoughts on a very controversial idea (seriously, stop reading now).
Again, stop reading if this is an idea you're not ready or willing to explore. Last chance. Or take a break and come back later.
The blog article continues after the image.
The uncomfortable, but empathetic truth is that your parents did their best.
I posted this idea to my Instagram, which resulted in an explosion of comments, reposts, anti-posts, demands, anger, agreement, bookmarks, replies, a couple emails and DMs as well. I was personally attacked and personally supported. There were emotional responses (mostly against it or me), but also very measured responses. People agreed but didn't like my approach, my wording, how authoritative it sounded and on and on. And even a couple of measured responses of those that understood and simply disagreed with the premise and led to interesting discussion.
I ended up archiving it on my Instagram, simply due to not being sure how I wanted to handle content that was potentially as triggering as this one. I think it's an idea worth delving further into and my blog seems like the best avenue.
These are the important components of the substance of the idea:
the #stucknotbroken paradigm
how they were raised
precontemplation stage of change
lack of safety & co-regulation
the vagal brake
story follows state
other components of change
an uncomfortable truth
an empathetic truth
To address a few concerns that came up:
Am I trying to tell you to forgive? No. (I actually posted "You don't have to forgive" on Instagram on 12/3/19.)
Am I telling you what is necessary for your own healing? Not at all.
Am I telling you how to feel? Of course not.
Am I telling you what to think? Nope. You can reject this.
Am I excusing the parents' behavior? Not even a little bit.
Am I minimizing the experience of the trauma survivor? On my end, I don't think so. Definitely not my intention or mindset in the least. In fact, people in the comments and my clients have found this idea to be expansive, more encompassing or even a part of their healing. So no, I don't think this is minimizing.
Do I tell this to clients? No, it's a conclusion they come to when they are ready. That may not sit well with you, but it's true. And again, in the comments, this claim was echoed repeatedly.
I believe this holds true not just for parents, but for all of us. I believe we all do "our best." This blog focuses just on the parents. And I believe it applies to all parenting situations. Some commenters had an issue with me calling it a "truth." Some didn't and agreed on the wording. But the fact is - truths do exist. Saying, "nothing is absolute" is an absolute statement. It's self-defeating and proves the fact that absolutes/truths do exist. "Everything is subjective" is an objective statement and self-defeating.
As I wrote this blog, I kept in mind the worst and most evil situations I could imagine. On an emotional level, I wanted to agree that these parents were not doing their best. That they were simply choosing to be evil or were evil by nature. But I kept coming back to the fundamental pieces of what makes it someone's "best." So on an intellectual level, there's some disagreement with my emotions. It helped me to continue to return to the logical aspects of this. This is the discussion of an idea/truth, not of how to feel about it nor on what to do with it. You'll feel how you feel. And you'll do with it what you choose.
So you could very well agree with what I am laying out and not emotionally accept it. That's totally fine. It makes logical sense, but I'm mad as hell and am not letting go of that. I have no problem with this kind of statement. Do you.
And you can disagree with the premise itself. I'd be curious your rationale.
THE #STUCKNOTBROKEN PARADIGM
You must know by now that I think trauma survivors are #stucknotbroken. Not ill. Not defective. Very much normal like anyone else. But after surviving trauma(s), our autonomic nervous system can get stuck in a defensive state: flight/fight sympathetic arousal, shutdown or freeze. The same could happen to literally any of us. The Polyvagal Theory lays this out beautifully.
I like the word "stuck" here in particular. Because if we're stuck, that means that we have momentum to move forward. As if you're walking along when allofasudden a wall drops in front of you. The walking along is the momentum of life. A natural, instinctive drive toward healthy development, healthy attachment, safety, happiness. The wall representing trauma. Something that slams down in front of you to stop the progression forward.
But the momentum is still there. The natural, instinctive drive to find safety is still there. I'm imaging someone running into the wall repeatedly, maybe searching with frustration for a way around it or using a weapon against it, to no avail. Point is - the momentum is there. The progression of life is stopped or slowed in many ways, but the momentum to move forward is still there. I highly recommend Peter Levine when it comes to getting unstuck from trauma, his books and others I recommend can be found in my Recommended Reading page (In An Unspoken Voice is my favorite for learning. Healing Trauma is great for self healing trauma).
But just because the internal, natural momentum is there, doesn't mean the individual actually utilizes it, despite their best efforts. The wall isn't just the traumatic event(s). It's really the aftermath of the event(s). Long after the traumatic event(s) have ended, the memory persists - in the brain and the body. The memory in the body lives on as a dysregulated autonomic nervous system, one the survivor feels intensely as anxiety, panic, anger, rage, overwhelm, numbness, dissociation or depression. And in an effort to self-regulate, the individual may make adaptations to their behavior: addictions, self-harm and even harm to others, among many many other possibilities.
So the first piece to understand is that the parents I'm referring to that did "their best" are probably survivors of trauma themselves. And they are stuck in their own defensive state and have made an adaptation in their behavior as a result to being in that state. That adaptation to their behavior could be many many things, including abuse/neglect to their own children. This doesn't make it okay.
These adaptations can hang around for a long, long time. Even one's entire life. Think of the smoker that doesn't quit despite all evidence suggesting that they should. But the smoking is their adaptation to whatever they've got going on inside (not necessarily from trauma). Smoking, to this person, "works" or isn't a problem. They are not even to the point of thinking that their behavior adaptation is a problem.
HOW THEY WERE RAISED
It's easy to demonize parents (and perhaps they deserve this demonization) as if they are simply making a choice to harm their children. But this ignores the trauma of the parent. It ignores that parent has their own internal turmoil going on. Their own stuck freeze energy, felt as rage, panic or overwhelm. Or their own flight/fight energy, felt as intense anger, worry, anxiety. Or their own shutdown lack of energy, experienced as depression, numbness, isolation and disconnect. Combine this intense stuck energy (from their own trauma(s)) with the options they were taught on how to handle it.
How many of these parents were explicitly taught or shown through modeling how to handle their feelings? To recognize their feelings? To express them? Did they have safe people to express their feelings to? Or were they taught/modeled to express these feelings by lashing out in anger? By controlling and bending others to their will? Or to recede into themselves and hide?
Every parent I've ever worked with can identify in themselves where their parenting choices come from. They can see the multi-generational passing on of abuse. And the teens I work with can see the way they are being parented stems directly from the way their grandparents raised their parents. This component is nothing new or revolutionary. We all know that the way we were raised has a direct impact on the way we raise our own kids. If we don't parent mindfully, nothing changes from one generation to the next.
PRECONTEMPLATION STAGE OF CHANGE
The Transtheoretical Model of change has "precontemplation" right at the beginning. In this stage of change, the individual is basically unaware that there is a problem. They aren't even to the point of being able to think about making a change, because they don't see an issue. Just like the smoker I mentioned above. Or the alcoholic CEO that hasn't yet experienced the negative consequences of alcoholism. Or the abusive parent that isn't reported to CPS, while also feeling powerful and in control through their abusive behavior.
I bring up these negative consequences because these are often what needs to happen for someone to begin to think about making a change. ER visits, seeing their children suffering, a spouse leaving them, developing medical issues. These natural, negative consequences can be valuable to someone that is able to learn from them. They can be valuable to someone that is able to take in and hold the pain of others and use it as motivation for change. They can be valuable to someone that cares about themselves enough to notice their own internal pain, hold it, and use it for motivation to change.
I don't think negative consequences are the only path to getting out of precontemplation, but they're often the catalyst. The show Intervention is a good example of this. Part of the actual intervention is confronting the addicted person and laying out the natural consequences of continuing to choose the substance over their loved ones.
The parents we are discussing here - do they have the capacity to learn from negative consequences? Were they confronted with negative consequences? Was anyone holding them accountable for their choices to harm their children? No, I don't think the children have that responsibility.
There is another piece to coming out of precontemplation which I will discuss in the next section - safety and co-regulation.
One of the rebuttals to my claim was that parents "know better" or knew of different options for how to parent. Or were told/informed that what they were doing was wrong. And I agree, I think these parents may actually know better. But that's got nothing to do with their willingness or ability to make change. Just because they may know of other parenting options, doesn't mean they're actually in the stage of thinking about using those or seeking out more information. That would be the "contemplation" and "action" stages of change.
One can be in the precontemplation stage of change for a long, long time. Denial keeps us there, lack of consequences keeps us there, finding/using behavioral adaptations keeps us there, avoiding problems or numbing our minds with entertainment keeps us in precontemplation. But so does a lack of co-regulation.
SAFETY & CO-REGULATION
There is another piece to coming out of precontemplation. And that is co-regulation from safe others. It's a lot easier to make change when you have support. When you have encouragement, positivity and love. Think of Intervention again. The loved ones doing the intervention read from a letter they've written for the addicted person. The letter sets firm boundaries and expectations, but also comes from a place of deep, deep love and hope. The two go together.
The parents we're discussing here who "did their best" - did they have co-regulation from safe others? Were others holding them accountable while also giving them their love? Were others giving them their hope and positivity? Did they have anyone in their life like this? No, I don't think it is the responsibility of the children to do so.
Through co-regulation, we can climb the polyvagal ladder and get back into our safe and social state. Once there, we can reflect on our behaviors, our choices and set the intention to make better choices. Because we can empathize with the people we've harmed now. We aren't able to do so unless we're in our safe and social state. If we have enough access to our safe and social autonomic state (the ventral vagal circuitry), we can make new plans. We feel motivated to make change, to right our wrongs, to apologize and keep our loved ones safe.
But we have to have a co-regulator or our own ability to tolerate distress and climb our own polyvagal ladder. A co-regulator is someone that provides cues of safety: listening, caring, warmth, gentle eye contact, smiles and a general sense of safety. When we are around these people, we are able to access the circuitry of safety. Once there, abuse stops. You can't be abusive while also in your safe and social state. It just doesn't happen. I don't even think you need to be 100% in that state; maybe just enough to hold onto your problem solving ability and your values to ground your decisions.
The parents I'm talking about when I say "did their best" don't have access to their safe and social state. They are fundamentally incapable of acting from anything but their evolutionary defensive states. They do not have a co-regulator to help them be compassionate, empathetic or kind to their children. They may not even have a safe environment in which to climb their polyvagal ladder either.
For a parent to not be abusive, they need to have access to their ventral vagal autonomic state of safety, connection, empathy and compassion. They need to be able to self-regulate or accept the co-regulation from a safe other.
THE VAGAL BRAKE
Now, one may say that their parent was very "bipolar." That they were safe sometimes, but dangerous otherwise. This sounds like an issue of the vagal brake, or the window of tolerance, or distress tolerance; whatever you want to call it. The capacity to tolerate moving down the ladder and self-regulating back up. A parent with a strong vagal brake can do so. A parent with a weaker vagal brake is going to have a harder time. A parent with virtually no vagal brake is basically never in their safe and social state. They are always in a defensive state.
Without a strong enough vagal brake, the heart rate increases significantly, breathing gets more shallow - the body is primed for danger. The body is ready to run away or to fight. Thoughts follow and become more fear-based, more anxious or aggressive.
So the parent who is able to access their safe and social state may not be able to hold it, due to many factors, some listed in this blog. Their drop into sympathetic flight/fight energy seems instantaneous. Once they neurocept danger, they are ready to run or fight. The neuroception of danger probably will come from something that is not actually dangerous. Not an actual threat to their safety. Like a child saying "no." A fairly typical, benign thing that kids do. Parents with a strong enough vagal brake will roll with it and get creative. Parents with a weaker vagal brake may become more controlling. Louder. Aggressive. (Their reaction to the their defensive state is extremely dependent on their own upbringing, what was taught and what was modeled for them.)
Being in a state of safety doesn't just mean the parent was fun. It doesn't just mean the parent was exciting. It doesn't just mean they expressed their love. A parent who was in a state of safety - and able to hold it - would be gentle, approachable, exciting, playful, encouraging, soothing, positive, empathetic, compassionate and more. Not all the time; I don't think that's possible and seems an unrealistic expectation for parents.
This "safe parent" would predictably be approachable. That's different than the parent who was more erratic and unapproachable. The one who is fine one moment, then the opposite at the drop of a hat. The safe parent is predictable. Their emotions are not seemingly random or "0-60."
The parents who I am speaking about that "did their best" - did they have a strong enough vagal brake? Even if they knew better. Even if they had support. Did they have the vagal brake development to tolerate their own distress?
STORY FOLLOW STATE
The thoughts in our head match our autonomic state. "Story follows state" as Deb Dana says so perfectly. If we're in a safe and social state, our thoughts match. We see hope. Possibility. Goodness in others. We have loving thoughts about our kids. We empathize with them.
The parents I'm referring to, that "did their best," are probably not having these types of thoughts. They're in a severe stuck defensive state, so their thoughts match. There is simply no room to have the types of thoughts necessary to make a change in their behavior, not while they are in that defensive state.
Even if they learn new information. They may have just as easily dismissed it as nonsense. They knew best. They were "raised a certain way and they turned out fine." The new stories - of improved parenting skills, of how their children are being affected, of the possible consequences of their actions - these stories had no place in their state. These stories don't register with someone who is in a defensive state and has a compromised vagal brake.
If anything, their autonomic stories probably reinforced their state - "You deserved it," "I wouldn't have to hit you if you would just listen" and so on. These stories are reinforcing. And that makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. If you're in a flight/fight mode, thoughts need to be concise, concrete and decisive. If not; if you have to pause and reflect, you risk exposing yourself to the danger that is chasing you. No, this doesn't mean the thoughts are accurate. No, this doesn't mean the child is actually at fault.
For the parents I'm discussing - were they able to take on new information? Did their autonomic state allow the mental space for new information? For self reflection? For understanding the pain they were inflicting?
THE BIGGER PICTURE
So we've got parents that have made behavioral adaptations to their stuck defensive state. Most likely from their own trauma which is still living inside of them. Which also leads to a compromised vagal brake. They may not have received appropriate modeling or teaching from their own parents (probably a multi-generational problem). Their thoughts match their state and don't have the space for self-reflection to make change. They don't have safe relationships with co-regulation and possibly not even a safe environment.
All of these pieces result in this parent being stuck in the precontemplation stage of change. They aren't aware of a problem. And their thoughts are preoccupied with the faults of other people, what others need to change, who's guilty of what and what needs of their own are not being met (and so on). Or maybe they're even in the contemplation stage of change, but missing the other pieces required to take action and to maintain that change.
Considering all of these pieces - is this parent capable of doing better if nothing else changes? No, it's not the child's responsibility to improve their parents' lives. Yes, we still hold parents accountable for their choices. No, this does not excuse a parents' behavior.
OTHER COMPONENTS OF CHANGE
Like I said earlier, making a change isn't simply about knowing more. There's a lot more that goes into making a change. A lot. We briefly covered being in a safe environment, having a co-regulator, self-regulation, thoughts of change and empathy/compassion.
But here are some other components of change:
feeling as if change is possible
thinking one deserves change (Thanks to Irene Lyon for this one)
being confident in one's ability to hold onto change
being able to tolerate the vulnerability of change
the ability to set a clear goal and plan for change
the ability to make incremental steps toward change
the ability to sustain the changes one is making
the ability to problem solve when things go wrong
the ability to tolerate distress and frustration when things go wrong
and on and on...
With the parents we're talking about... were they able to do these things listed above? I highly highly doubt it. If so, they wouldn't be in a stuck defensive state. And they wouldn't be abusing or neglecting their children.
ARE THEY DOING THEIR BEST?
So I ask you - Is this parent capable of doing better? In my estimation, no. They're not. In these conditions, they're just not. Are they doing their best? Yeah. They are. And it sucks probably. These parents are going to look a lot of different ways - neglectful, abusive, minimizing, invalidating. Some downright evil. When I say "their best" I'm not saying it's good in the least.
I can see the issue here being with the words "their best." Because doing one's best implies that person wants to do better. That they are making an effort. And I know, with the parents we're talking about, that's probably not the case. There is no visible effort, therefore, they can't be doing their best. And that makes sense.
But remember - if you buy into my paradigm of "stuck, not broken," this necessarily implies that the momentum to do better is there. Though unconscious and trapped behind a wall (or two or three or more), it's there. In my opinion, even with the worst of people. I recommend watching the second episode of Larry Charles' "Dangerous World of Comedy" on Netflix. There's a very brutal/touching example of a warlord/mass murderer/human sacrificer who makes a huge change, stops his killing and turns to being a minister (if I am remembering correctly).
Point being - even if the conscious choice to do better isn't possible, I believe the energy to do so is still there. So in that viewpoint, yes, they're doing their best. They just can't access their will or their latent ability to do better. Maybe even at all. But we have to assume the best of people. We have to assume that people have goodness within them, even if they can't access it.
That's if you are with me on "stuck not broken." If not, then you don't have to assume people have good within them. Or that they are stuck and can do better. Your parents, without this belief, are indeed evil and that's all there is to it. If you're a therapist and don't believe people have good within them, I'd be very curious to see how you reconcile that with our basic tenet of "unconditional positive regard."
No, this doesn't mean we have to accept their behavior. Yes, they should still be held accountable for their choices. No, you do not have to forgive. No, you do not have to sacrifice your own boundaries or safety. Yes, we can assume there is good in someone while also keeping them at a distance if necessary.
Now if a parent is capable of doing all of the things from my non-exhaustive list here in this blog and they still choose to abuse, then no, they're not doing their best. I have yet to work with a parent that fits that bill. I have yet to work with a child who has one of those parents. I can't even fathom of a parent (or anyone for that matter) who harms others while also in their ventral vagal, safe and social state. That's like saying a square can be a circle or a bachelor can be married.
AN UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH
I know this is uncomfortable to say the least. To think that parents who are downright acting evil are "doing their best." When I say this phrase, it's referring to their potential to do better. If they cannot do better, then by definition, they're doing their best. This is the logical aspect that makes sense, but doesn't emotionally sit well at all.
I get that. And I am not attempting to change your feelings. Those are yours. You hold onto those. They are there for a reason. Be as angry or pained as you need to be. It's justified. It's valid.
The trick is to hold onto and honor your feelings, while also considering new information. Something can be logically true while emotionally uncomfortable. We can also have empathy for others, while not accepting their behavior.
AN EMPATHETIC TRUTH
Empathy comes once we are in our safe and social state. Not in a defensive state. If you're in flight/fight, you're not going to have empathy. Nor in shutdown or freeze. Empathy is strictly from access to the safe and social state.
In my work with clients who are currently in these homes, they come to this empathetic truth once they are in their safe and social state. Sorry, but it's true. After I've provided lots of co-regulation through the process of therapy, after they've done some somatic holding and cognitive processing, they're able to climb into their safe and social state. Once there, they reflect on their life, including their parents. And they may realize - independently - that their parents are not currently capable of meeting the need that is being discussed. They will often say that they recognize their parents are doing their best (and that it might suck) and that their parents' behavior is out of their control. They also recognize the multi-generational piece of the trauma, being passed on.
This is part of why I say this is an "empathetic truth." Because to look at the multi-generational piece requires empathy. Dismissing this piece out of anger is simply not empathy. And the anger may be well justified. I am not trying to take anyone's anger from them. Or tell them how to feel. It's difficult to look at the generational piece and use our empathy. Our thoughts quickly go to, Well then they should know better! And I don't disagree. But the reality is they may not know better or are missing all the other pieces of change I laid out.
Remember also, that empathy is not a feeling. It's a tool that is available when in safe and social. When we feel empathy, we take on the feelings of another. And those feelings might be unbearable. Too painful. Feeling the pain of your abuser, alongside your own pain is a lot to hold.
That's part of why I suggest that this empathetic truth arrives when one is in their own safe and social state. Not before. When one is able to hold onto their own safety, they can then tap into their empathy and hold the pain of another, even their abusive parents'. No, this is not necessary for healing. No, you don't have to do this. No, you do not have to forgive.
This line of thinking comes from a state of safety. Not before one gets to the top of their ladder. Only once they're at the top. Their story follows their state. And the story becomes more empathetic and compassionate. It's truly a beautiful thing to witness - to see these teens recognize the generational abuse that is being passed down, which their parents didn't ask for, but received. Just like them. And to also hear them say that it stops with them. That they won't be passing it on to their own children.
If you don't like my wording, fine. Saying "did their best" makes sense to me. It also implies some bit of positivity or hope - if they did their best, that's the literal past. The present moment is a new opportunity. Change may become more possible as their life changes.
I also recognize these parents are still in peoples' lives as the child turns into an adult. These parents may not have changed, even for their child who is now an adult. But saying they did their best applies not only to decades ago, but also yesterday. And also this morning. And five minutes ago. As a kid, there's not a whole lot that can be done about it. As an adult, you probably have more options at hand. You can cognitively accept the limitations of your parent, honor your own feelings and experiences, then make a new choice. Create a new path for yourself.
Is this even worth talking about? I think so. And many comments shared the same. This idea helped them in their own healing. It helped to release and to forgive. So as a tool or a new thought or a reframe, yes, I think it's worth talking about and putting out into the world.
I know this doesn't click with everyone. It pisses people off. I get it. It's like I'm sharing a possible end result of the process of healing from trauma. And skipping over all the stuff in between. Or making it seem like the pain of the victim doesn't matter. Of course it matters. And by and large, I think I have a lot of other content that addresses the stuff in between. And more will come. This is really just a small piece. A possible end result. Or a possible tool for you.
But why wouldn't I share the end result? Really, if this makes logical sense to you, but not emotionally, I'd recommend just tucking it away. This can be a barometer for where you are at in your process. As you do your own work, whatever that looks like, check in with this idea every now and then and see how you feel about it.
Or if you don't like it, don't agree, it doesn't make sense to you or you just think I'm full of s**t - fine. Do you.
What's the other option? To just not say it? There was a comment left that suggested that even though it was true, it didn't need to be said. That just doesn't sit well with me. This idea can be helpful, as many comments said. And one comment said they "needed this so much right now." So I understand this is a difficult, emotionally upsetting or "triggering" idea for some, which is why I moved it over to my personal blog and put a heavy content warning at the outset. But it can also be of help.
It doesn't seem right to ignore this. Really, pretty much anything can be a trigger. So should we just stop saying all of these things? Or some of them? Which ones? What's the dividing line between what is helpful or triggering? And if something is triggering, well, what do we do with that? Much of what I write and talk about is trauma related. It can't all be cozy. I'd even suggest that maybe the majority of it is upsetting on some level. But to how many? And how much? What is "potentially harmful" and what is not? I honestly have no idea.
But for now, I thought writing this out in my personal blog was the best option. And if I suspect that something is "too" triggering or "potentially harmful," I'll probably discuss it here and not in a one sentence image on Instagram.
I read every single comment. I considered it all. I thought, reflected, worried, empathized and meditated on it all. I appreciate every single person that put their thoughts in the comments, even the ones that were a direct attack on me or a response out of anger to others in the comments. I found this to be my best option, but I know it won't work for everyone. There is zero chance of that happening.