Tag Archives: group therapy

Perfect parents

Women’s group.  Six members.

All mothers.

One has been discussing problems her grown children face.  Which leads into reviewing her failures as a parent.  Which makes her cry.

The others listen and nod sadly.

After a minute I say, “Question for the group.  Is there such a thing as an unguilty mother?”

They look at me, startled.  Then at each other.

“I doubt it,” I say.  “Every child deserves perfect parenting.  No child ever gets it.  And every mother knows this and feels bad about it.  So feelings of inadequacy and failure and guilt are built into being a mother.”

“Always?” one asks.

“Maybe not,” I concede. “Occasionally I meet a parent unaware of his or her inadequacies.  But they’re usually narcissists, and they usually scare the crap out of me.”

The crying mother sniffles.

“I can’t help feeling guilty,” she says.  “When they hurt it feels like my fault.”

Right, Mom.  You, me, and most every parent I know.

Look, guys.

Perfect parenting is not just impossible, it’s unnecessary.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once famously argued that kids don’t need perfect parenting — just parenting that’s “good enough.” Winnicott wrote,

The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.  Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.

Catch that last line?

The mother’s imperfection is what helps her child adapt to reality.

So relax if you’re not perfect.  You can’t be, and you don’t have to be.  And it would probably be bad for your kids if you were.

Personally I take comfort in how one of my supervisors once defined good-enough parenting.

“The sign of successful parenting,” he said, “is that your kids can pay for their own therapy.”

Group anxiety

Most people are anxious when they first join a therapy group.

Some take a long time to get over their anxiety.  A few never do.

Usually they don’t understand why.

It’s because on some level they expect to be treated in group as they were treated in their family of origin.

If they were abused or neglected as kids, they expect the group to abuse or neglect them.  If they were controlled or criticized or rejected or shamed, they expect the same treatment again.

For this reason even the idea of group is terrifying to some.

But it’s also what makes group such a powerful therapeutic tool.

Because when an emotionally wounded person joins group and nothing bad happens — when instead they receive the attention, acceptance and caring their family couldn’t provide — they have what’s called a corrective emotional experience:

Some deep part of them starts to realize they’re not kids anymore, and that not everyone is like the people who disappointed or hurt them when they were.

It’s a realization I’ve seen change lives.


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