“I’m a Terrible Mother”

By Greg Baer M.D.

March 10, 2011

The Importance of Telling the Truth About Ourselves

All the principles of Real Love are relatively worthless unless we’re willing to actually tell the truth about ourselves and create the opportunities to feel the unconditional love that other people can give us. So this business of telling the truth about ourselves is crucial, and we must pay close attention both to how we do it and to how we respond when other people do it.

When people first tell the truth about their mistakes or flaws, they stand at the precipice of both tender and terrible opportunities. At such moments old bonds are broken and eyes once blind are bathed in light. People often feel a measure of freedom, acceptance, and power they’ve never known.

These moments of potential freedom, however, don’t come without their risk. Let’s imagine, for example, that a woman named Carolyn is talking to you on the phone. She’s been reading the book Real Love in Parenting and has come to that awful moment—as many readers of that book do—when she realizes the vast difference between what is possible in parenting and what she has actually done with her children. With an edge of panic in her voice, she says, “Wow, I’m really a terrible mother. When I look at the pain I’ve caused my children, I can hardly bear it.”

Terrible mother—or words like them (lousy husband, awful father, terrible wife)—are potentially very negative words for anyone to face. We tend to hear them in the same accusatory, unloving tones that usually accompanied such words all our lives. You have an opportunity here with Carolyn to make this an entirely different experience.

Guidelines for Responding When Someone Tells the Truth About Themselves

What could you say?

  1. You do not want to minimize or argue with the truth, because that will not help Carolyn to feel truly seen and therefore feel more unconditionally loved. You do not want to say something like, “No, Carolyn, you haven’t been a bad mother.” At such a moment, you’d be trying to make her feel better—which seems like a good thing—but it would be a temporary salve for a problem that needs a better and more permanent solution. She already knows the truth, and if you say anything other than the truth, she won’t feel loved, and, in addition, she won’t trust you.
  2. You do not want to sympathize with her. Sympathy is not to be confused with love. As we learn and grow pain is unavoidable. False sympathy trivializes this growth.
  3. Obviously, you do not want to criticize her and make her feel worse.

So what can you say? What people need most when they speak the truth about themselves is to feel accepted, and this is accomplished all the better when you can add a bit of truth yourself. Let me suggest three guiding principles for listening to someone who is speaking a difficult truth, each of which have the underlying foundation of acceptance and love:

  1. Re-state the truth already spoken but in your own words.
  2. Re-state the truth with humor.
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of the difficult circumstances of the speaker.

Possible Responses

So let’s go back to Carolyn’s original statement and list some possible responses that would illustrate the above guidelines.

Carolyn’s statement: “Wow, I’m really a terrible mother. When I look at the pain I’ve caused for my children, I can hardly bear it.”

Some possible responses from you:

  1.  “You really are a terrible mother.” This is an example of simply re-stating the truth, and it may seem like a brutal thing to say, but it can be quite loving. People are actually eager to be seen for who they really are, and when you finally give them that opportunity, they are often hugely relieved. One day I said exactly this to a mother, and she responded, “Oh thank you. All my friends have been telling me what a great mother I am, but I just knew it was a lie. How could I be a great mother when my children were so angry and unhappy all the time? It’s such a relief to have somebody tell me the truth.” The relief Carolyn will experience here will not be because of the words you say but because of your acceptance of her, which she will feel from your tone of voice, facial expression, and other indications.
  2. “So, we probably shouldn’t be looking for a Mother of the Year nomination for you any time soon, right?” You’re not just making a joke here. You’re helping Carolyn see that her mistakes are not the end of the world. There’s a way out. There’s hope. People tend to take their mistakes too seriously.
  3. “I’m sure you have hurt your kids, and probably in more ways than you know. And now you can wallow in that and feel bad for the rest of your life, or you can choose simply to learn how to love them and help them be happier. Which way do you want to go?” Making mistakes is unavoidable. What determines the course of our lives is what we do about those mistakes. As people feel supported and loved by us, they are much more likely to move forward rather than wallow in the guilt of their mistakes.
  4. “No kidding. Sounds like you’ve really blown it in a lot of ways.”
  5. “Do you still poop your diapers?” At the very least, this usually disrupts any stream of victimhood and gets the attention of the speaker. Then you can go on to explain that we do the best we can at any given moment of our lives. When Carolyn was a baby, she pooped her diapers because it was the best choice she knew at the time. As she learned how to make better choices, she made them. As a parent, she must have faith that she will learn to do the same.
  6. “So what?” This attitude is critical. People have a tendency to wallow in their guilt, arrogantly thinking that their mistakes are the worst ever made. You can really take the sting out of their mistakes with comments like “So what?” Then you can go on to explain what you mean by comments like several of those that follow.
  7. “And how could you not have been a terrible parent? Really, with what you knew at the time, how could you possibly have avoided the mistakes you made? Pay attention here. We simply cannot do better than we know at the time, and until now you didn’t know how to be a better mother, did you?”
  8. “Was there ever a single morning — even one — where you got up and decided that instead of being a good, loving, and supportive mother, you’d be unloving and hurtful? (Response from Carolyn: No.) Then apparently you made your mistakes simply because you didn’t know any better. So are you through with your useless feelings of guilt about this?”
  9. “You really have made lots of mistakes. You might even qualify as a ‘terrible’ mother. But I have a question, and I really want you to answer it sincerely. Did you do the best you knew how at the time?”
  10. “I believe you. Now let’s look at where you learned that. Who taught you how to be a parent? Really, who did? (Carolyn answers: “I suppose my parents did. Sort of.”) And what did they teach you? Were they unconditionally loving? Did they teach you to do your job right, but somehow you didn’t pick it up? (Carolyn: No.) So, you really were not a bad parenting student in the classroom you attended. In truth, you were an excellent student of the examples you were given. You were an excellent student of poor teachers. Do you see that? (Carolyn agrees.) Then I see no reason here for you to feel guilty, do you?”
  11.  “There’s no doubt of it. And knowing what you know now about loving and being a good parent, if you could go back in time and do it differently, would you do it differently? (Carolyn: Yes.) Then there’s no reason for you to feel guilty, and now you can focus your efforts on learning how to do it all differently.”
  12. “Now that you know what loving looks like, would you let another person do to your children what you did to them in the past as a parent? (Carolyn: No) Of course not, you’d stop them. So it’s obvious that the mistakes you made were from ignorance. You didn’t mean to hurt them. So let’s not waste time feeling guilty about your mistakes, ya think?”
  13. “Since the days that you made those awful mistakes, have you learned anything about how to be a better parent? (Carolyn: Yes) And if you had enough years, do you think you would do an even better job? (Carolyn: Yes) So it’s clear that when you made your mistakes, you were not a bad person. You were just at the beginning of the learning curve of parenthood. You just didn’t know what you needed to know. Now you’re beginning to learn how to love them, and you will learn. That’s all that matters.”
  14. “Sure you screwed up, but what’s great is that we don’t have to make up for our past mistakes. All we have to do is learn from them and move on.”
  15. “Naturally. With what you knew at the time, your mistakes were utterly unavoidable.”
  16. “Duh. If you don’t know how to do something, mistakes are inevitable.”
  17. “Understandable. You didn’t know any better.”

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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