You Don't Have to Be the Perfect Parent to Be a Cycle-Breaker
I am a cycle-breaker. I refuse to engage in the same toxic behaviors that I was raised with, especially when it comes to raising my son.
But that’s so much easier said than done.
The thing nobody tells you about being a cycle-breaker is that there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect. Part of your brain tells you that if you aren’t perfect, then you’re just as toxic as the people who came before you. But that isn’t true. Here’s what’s true: every time you make the choice to show up, to try, you break the cycle of toxicity.
Every single time.
You Are Still a Cycle-Breaker When You Mess Up
A few weeks ago, my therapist said something that changed my life: relationships are about rupture and repair. A good relationship isn’t one with zero stress or mistakes, it’s one where both people can show up as themselves, even when that might cause conflict. And both people are willing to do the work to repair the relationship after these conflicts.
Rupture and repair.
This spoke to me because I grew up without any repair. Relationships ruptured and then I was expected to forgive and forget without any apology. So I became afraid of rupture.
Conflict was an exercise in self-abandonment. The only way to move on after conflict was for me to pretend I wasn’t hurt.
So now whenever I make a mistake in my relationships, I feel immense guilt because I feel like I’ve put someone else in that position of needing to abandon themselves. This guilt is especially strong with my son. Any time I make a mistake with him, it feels like I’m not breaking any cycles, I’m just perpetuating the harm I experienced.
But now I focus on the repair.
How to Repair a Relationship After Rupture
The first step toward repairing your relationships is to learn to pay attention to the ruptures. Notice when ruptures happen. If you have an overactive guilt complex, like me, you might be highly aware of even the smallest ruptures in your relationships. Instead of seeing this as a weakness, as being “too sensitive” or something, try to see this as a strength. You’ve got this first step nailed down.
The second step is to acknowledge the hurt that’s been done and your role in it. This might be hard. So often when we have been the victims of a toxic environment, we’re used to being the one getting hurt, not the one doing the hurting. We typically don’t think of ourselves as having enough agency to hurt someone else, but we do have that power. That doesn’t make us a bad person, it just makes us human.
Next, it’s time to apologize.
This apology shouldn’t be self-deprecating or self-loathing — actually, it should hardly focus on you at all. It should be all about the other person. The only aspect that should be about you is the part where you admit that you did something to hurt the other person. No more apologies that sound like, “I’m sorry you felt that way.” Nope. Try, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way.” Take responsibility.
Finally, take the time to evaluate how this rupture happened and what you can do to both show up as your full self and avoid causing harm. This step isn’t about making yourself small to avoid conflict, though that will probably be tempting. No, this step is all about finding a way to be yourself and still show up for your loved ones. Your kids don’t need a perfect parent or an anti-conflict parent; they need you, exactly as you are.
We Break the Cycle of Generational Trauma One Interaction at a Time
Generational trauma, the trauma that lingers from one generation to the next, passed down through toxic parenting styles and unhealthy coping mechanisms, isn’t healed overnight. You might be a cycle-breaker, but you’re still human.
Instead, generational trauma is healed in small ways through each healthy interaction we have with our kids and other loved ones. It’s not a black-and-white, healed versus toxic dichotomy. It’s a multilayered spectrum, and each time you make a healthy choice, each time you soothe yourself instead of lashing out, each time you choose to listen to yourself rather than abandon yourself, one small part of the spectrum shifts toward something healthier.
If you made 10 bad decisions today, if you had 10 big ruptures in your relationships, but you chose to heal one of them, you’re taking steps in the right direction. It might not feel like it, but you are. Celebrate those healthy choices, celebrate the ways in which you are breaking the cycle, bit by bit.
If you want to be a cycle-breaker, but you’re scared and feel like you can’t do it, take a minute to sign up for my personal 5-day Finding the Courage to Try email challenge. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog, Healing Unscripted.
Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash