By Catherine Liggett
“You have to stop. It’s killing you.”
My husband’s eyes pierced me like lasers. He was dead serious.
“Either she gets hurt, or I do,” I said between gut-wrenching sobs. “There’s no getting around it. And there is absolutely no way in hell that I’m going to let it be her.”
You might have thought that this sobbing woman, shaking and curled into herself, had just gone through a war.
But no. It was just another bedtime.
If we back up just one minute prior to my collapse, the scene in our living room was this:
Poised like a steel statue in front of my husband, I made this declaration:
“I am so f’ing proud of myself. So. F’ing. Proud. Did you hear how I spoke to her while she was having that tantrum? My voice was so calm, so soothing, as she had her big feelings. I walked her gently and mindfully through getting each pant leg of her pajamas on: ‘We’re just going to do this leg right here. Now this foot right here. That’s it, sweetheart.’ I picked this screaming girl up with total love and softness. I am so proud of myself for showing up for her. For showing her that all her emotions are safe with me.”
There I stood, a triumphant warrior of empathy. A savior of softness.
I, Catherine Liggett, was going to break the cycle of family trauma once and for all. Smash it to pieces with my unyielding emotional attunement.
But there was a problem.
When I made that declaration to my husband like a superheroine who had just defeated her arch-nemesis, I was clenching every muscle in my body to keep the feelings out.
All that while speaking of softness.
And then, I collapsed. Because the feelings overflowed.
My husband had seen this far too many times to count, and he’d had it. He came to save me from myself.
He said, “It’s too much.”
In righteous desperation, I shot back, “Too much? She’s reading every single moment of my non-verbal communication and internalizing it. Her future depends on my ability to show up for her with a loving presence, now, in every single minute, and especially when she’s having big feelings. Every word I say and every look on my face is becoming what she will think about herself for the rest of her life. Do you understand? This is the most important thing I will ever do.”
Again, I collapsed into waves of sobs.
Clearly, something wasn’t right here. Something wasn’t what I thought it was supposed to be.
As the sobs began to quiet, and I began to allow the presence of my husband to comfort me, a small voice within began to speak to me.
It was the voice of the little girl who lives deep inside my chest, and she had something to show me.
She showed me the mother I was being to her in those moments that I was so proud of, and it was a horrendous sight.
As I was busy doing all the right things, that little girl who lives inside me had been locked in a cage. Abandoned without food or water. Frozen and alone.
That little girl is my most vulnerable, authentic self. By forcing myself to go through the motions of being the perfect, deeply empathic, unconditionally loving mother in a moment when every fiber of my being wanted to express my own emotion, I had abandoned her. I had abandoned myself - exactly as I had been abandoned by my own parents when I had big feelings to feel.
Here’s the truth, and it’s hard to hear:
Striving to be a perfect parent and beating myself up when I had human feelings is absolutely not breaking the cycle of family trauma. It is a covert continuation of the same abandonment I experienced growing up, now turned on myself.
My daughter is witnessing her mama abandon herself in the name of being perfect.
As the clouds in my mind parted and I began to think more clearly, these questions gently arose and began to open something new within me:
What if my daughter senses the illusion of my calm demeanor and sweet words when she’s having a tantrum?
What if the thing she’s actually internalizing in those moments is how hard I’m working to suppress my own feelings? In other words, my own self-distrust?
What if, because of my striving to be perfect, my daughter is learning that she cannot be Whole, because mama isn’t allowing herself to be?
If I don’t trust my own Wholeness, how can I raise a daughter to love all that she is, as is my highest aspiration?
My heart dropped into my stomach at the gravity of this opening. It began to work on me, getting into the dark corners of my identity as a mother and leaving me irrevocably changed.
Right there on that stained couch, under a heap of wet tissues and tears streaming down my face, I placed my hands on my heart, and made a vow to that little girl who lives deep within me:
“Sweetheart, I am so sorry to have abandoned you. From this day forward, I vow to care for you as I care for her. I am here with you.”
With those words, she was freed from her cage. I saw my adult self embracing her, perhaps for the first time.
I have to say that as beautiful as all this sounds, I’m also terrified. Terrified, because my indoctrination as a child taught me that if I don’t keep my authentic feelings “under control,” something terrible will happen. I will hurt people, or lose the right to exist at all.
In other words, my perfectionism is a trauma response. It’s a pattern of thinking and behavior that my child-self developed unconsciously to get parental approval. Because I was punished if I didn’t stay “under control,” I internalized the punisher to keep myself safe.
As a parent with a trauma history, my mind tends to map my past onto my present-day reality with my children. This frightened child within me believes that if I’m not constantly trying hard to be perfect, then I will hurt my daughter, just as I was hurt as a child.
But is this fear real, or just a useful strategy that helped me survive growing up? Is it really true that if I “let myself go” from the cage of perfectionism, I will hurt her?
As I sit with this question, the answer comes to me from a higher place. It says this:
“Yes, dear one. You will hurt her, no matter how perfect you try to be. If you strive for perfection, she will learn to split herself, and live a lie. If you set yourself free, she may feel anger toward you, but she will learn to live in truth. Know, my darling, that she loves you, and you mother her so much more beautifully than you believe.”
I sit with these words, and breathe.
More than anything in the world, I want my daughter to to know and love herself exactly as she is. For her to be free herself, she must see it in me.
Beyond the black and white thinking of perfectionism, I know that there’s a middle way. There’s a way to set myself free while also using the parenting tools I’ve learned to cultivate healthy attachment and emotional intelligence.
I can’t tell you what I’m going to say or do the next time my daughter has a tantrum and I’m at the end of my rope. But I can breathe, and hold on to this little girl inside me while also showing up for my own child, now as the fullness of myself.
So this is my task. I will venture into this great experiment of setting myself free from the cage of perfectionism. Of trusting myself one breath at a time.
My daughter’s future depends on it.
Catherine Liggett helps sensitive people boldly create true and expansive lives through shadow work. You can get her free e-book, “The Step-By-Step Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work,” and learn more on her website here.