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Mirrors & Shadows: How to Heal

When I was younger, I had a terrible temper. Those who know me now might find this hard to believe; friends and clients describe my presence as calm and regulating, my voice as soothing, my general demeanor as easy-going. But I have had to work hard to cultivate this. I wasn’t always as grounded as I am now.

As an adolescent, my temper sometimes felt like a bomb going off inside my skull. Fights with my mom would devolve into screaming matches that left me with a sore throat afterwards. One memorable fight with my dad over what shampoo I was going to take on a trip ended with a grocery bag of tiny hotel shampoo bottles scattered all over the sidewalk and a flood of angry tears. In my anger, I slammed doors; I drove off in the middle of the night; I said hurtful things. I hated who my anger turned me into.

Years later, medication, counseling, and a little bit of maturity gave me more self-control. I found immense relief in being able to avoid angry outbursts; my body was calmer and there were no more bombs going off inside my head. But I took my newfound self-control too far; I started banishing all anger from my conscious awareness, and I began to avoid expressing, feeling, or even acknowledging anger whenever possible. I became afraid of my anger. I rejected that part of myself, and labeled it “bad,” “wrong,” “shameful,” “forbidden.”

The problem with that response is that anger is a part of being human. But for me, it felt safer to be less human than to experience anger.

In my twenties, a mentor told me that I needed to become better friends with my anger; I smiled politely, but inside, I vowed to be the one human being on the planet who could fully eradicate anger. Even after a year of teaching anger management classes, learning the difference between primary and secondary anger, and learning the biological purpose (and necessity) of anger, I still struggle to allow myself to be angry. While I now strive to embrace all the parts of me, the angry parts still scare me to death.

Now, I have a daughter. She’s two-going-on-three, and full of big feelings—all the big feelings. On a daily basis, she feels overwhelming joy, deep sorrow, irrepressible mirth, perfect contentment, intense fear, loss and hurt and disappointment and betrayal. She also feels anger in all its many shades and intensities—frustration, defiance, outrage, and even fury. And you know what? I’ve realized that her anger makes me just as uncomfortable as my own.

I feel totally at ease holding my daughter when she is sad. It’s not challenging to get down on my knees and help her find words to express when she feels nervous, or anxious, or scared. I can hold space for disappointment. I can welcome confusion, repair hurt, and embrace overwhelm. But when she gets angry, something inside me locks up. The gears grind and stick. My brain registers a threat and all the alarms go off.

Sometimes, this means that my entire body tenses and my temples start pounding and my own scary anger starts clawing its way up from my chest into my throat. Sometimes, it means I just shut down; I’ll go a little numb, and just sit there in silence while my daughter rages, or even walk into another room because I can’t take it. Sometimes, it means I catch myself bending over backwards and going against commonsense to try to appease or entertain her, desperate to do anything that will just make the anger go away now! Suffice it to say, my daughter’s anger triggers me.

Sometimes, I catch myself, and I can course-correct and keep us both on track. But in the moments when I fail to notice that I’m triggered, I’m not the parent I want to be. My responses can escalate her anger, create a rift between us, shame her into compliance, or teach her that throwing a temper tantrum is the perfect way to get what she wants.

When I get triggered, I step out of my role as the parent—and that abdication can feel deeply unsettling to a little person who is incapable of navigating a big, overwhelming world on her own.

Now pause with me for a moment. This blog post is not about anger. Anger just happens to be my kryptonite. Yours may be shame, or feeling out of control, or sadness, or abandonment, or disrespect, or any one of a hundred other uncomfortable human experiences. Sometimes, if there’s enough trauma, even positive emotions like excitement or hope get coded as dangerous as set off the alarm bells. I’m only writing about anger because it’s the clearest example of how my own unresolved issues impact my ability to show up and be the kind of parent I want to be. I know intellectually how parents ought to respond to anger; I know how to coach others in threading that narrow course between control and permissiveness, shaming and amplifying. But knowing how to do it doesn’t make me able to do it. This is what I mean when I say that parenting is not a technique.

Parenting is not about what we do. It’s about who we are.

In my work with parents, whether counseling or coaching, I have learned that our relationships with our children are one of the clearest mirrors we will ever have the good fortune to encounter. These precious relationships reflect back to us every issue we have left unresolved and every flaw we have tried so hard to correct. It’s true, this can feel like a heavy burden sometimes. But I am starting to see it as an incredible gift. When our children reflect back to us wounds that we have not yet healed—or perhaps have not yet even identified—it’s an opportunity to do work in which we might otherwise never engage.

Close your eyes for a moment, and consider your relationship with your children. What are the emotions, behaviors, or reactions that are the hardest for you to handle from them? What are the situations that are the most difficult to navigate? When do you feel the most ill-equipped to be what they need you to be? Okay. Do you have your answer? Now, take that answer, and spin it around. This is not your deficiency as a parent; this is your path toward wholeness.

Whatever you struggle to accept in your children is also what you struggle to accept in yourself.

Often, this struggle is simply something we internalized in our own childhoods from the responses of our caregivers to our emotions, behaviors, or reactions. Here’s an example: If sexuality was taboo in your family, and your caregivers shut down any of your curious questions or exploratory behaviors around sex when you were a child, then you may have internalized shame about your body and your sexuality. Sexuality got coded in your brain: “Warning! This is bad and dangerous!” Fast-forward thirty years. If you catch your toddler exploring their body in the bathtub one night, or the topic of pornography comes up with your tween, that same warning will go off in your brain: “Warning! This is bad and dangerous!” And what do we do as parents, when we see our child engaging in something that’s dangerous? We leap into action to shut it down as efficiently as possible, even if that means being a little rough.

Growth happens when we step back and notice the alarms going off in our heads, and respond with mindfulness and curiosity rather than reactivity. Growth happens when we start to examine how the alarm bells got wired up in the first place, and when we decide if we want to keep that system running or alter it in any way. Growth happens when we start to practice self-regulation when a trigger occurs; then, we’re able to respond with wisdom and kindness to our children. We can smile at the curious toddler in the bathtub, affirm their autonomy over their good and beautiful body, and provide some age-appropriate education. We can offer some safety to the bewildered tween, answering questions and helping them set boundaries. We can raise healthy children, and in the process, become a little healthier ourselves.

I believe that the best thing we can do for our children is to heal ourselves.

The most effective way to improve your relationship with your child is to improve your relationship with yourself. This principle has helped me respond to damaging parent-child interactions with compassion rather than judgment. No parent ever sets out to harm their child. When a parent mistreats a child, it’s a terrible thing—but what we’re seeing is an externalized portrayal of what is happening inside that parent every single day. The dad who’s screaming at his son beside the baseball field responds to his own failures with the same cruel intensity—and he learned that because somebody once screamed at him for failing. The mom who tells her daughter she’s too fat and ugly for anyone to love despises herself and her own body—and she absorbed self-hatred from years of steeping in the hatred of others.

But no matter how severe the trauma, we don’t have to transmit our own pain to the next generation. In amongst the critical parts, the angry parts, the shaming parts, the abandoned parts, and the scared parts that we find within us, there is also a wise, kind Self who has always known what we needed. If we can let this wise, kind Self lead, and welcome and care for the rest of our internal parts, we can start to cultivate secure attachment within ourselves. We can find Safe Haven inside. Then, we can become wise, kind mothers and wise, kind fathers.

Go back for a moment to whatever it is in your children that triggers you—whatever shadow part of yourself you have disowned. Today, find some time (even just two minutes) to sit down with that part and offer it compassion. It’s probably a young part; it’s probably a part that has been hurt at some point in the past. You don’t have to fix its pain, and you don’t have to make it get itself together or behave better. All I want you to do is sit there and offer that part of yourself compassion for a moment. Visualization can help with this, or some symbolic enactment like writing yourself a letter or resting a loving hand on your own chest. Just offer some compassion. Then get up, and go about your day. The next time the trigger comes—don’t worry, it won’t be long, kids are great at that—stop, take a breath, and try to get in touch with that self-compassion again.

And then? Just see what starts to happen.

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1 Comment

Helen Shultz
Helen Shultz
Sep 25, 2023

I would use the Buddhist term, "poison into medicine" to describe this profound healing process you have so beautifully and practically articulated. Thank you!

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