I stared up at the tramway and the jagged mountain peaks it would ascend and felt my heart starting to race and my limbs going loose and rubbery as adrenaline coursed through my body.
My kind husband reassured me, “We don’t have to do this, honey. We can get back into the car and go.”
I protested, “I don’t want to waste the money! Plus we’re here and she loves trams, look she’s so excited…”
And it was true.
My 3-year-old daughter was bouncing with excitement looking at the massive tram going up, up, up the mountains.
She, unlike her mother, loves aerial gondolas and trams thanks to all our happy rides up and down the one at the Oakland Zoo.
She loves them so much that I had planned to book tickets to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for the day of her birthday (we were spending her birthday weekend in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs, far away from our home in the Bay).
Months before, while booking the tickets from the comfort of my laptop at home in the Bay, I wasn’t thrilled about the tramway portion of our trip since I don’t like heights.
But I knew it would make my daughter happy and so I clicked purchase.
But on that day, standing there in the parking lot, fifteen minutes before our scheduled departure time, staring up at the practically vertical ascent path of the tram over jagged, mountainous terrain, my slight unease turned into full-fledged fear.
This was not like the aerial tramway at the Oakland Zoo which never got too high up and soared gently over treetops (which, I always mentally justified, would cushion us and reduce damage should the tram ever fall off the cable – illogical, I know, but it’s how I regulate my anxiety when I take her up that tram).
Instead, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway looked practically like an elevator shooting vertically up a mile high with nary a cushioning tree below; just jagged, knife-like rocks surrounding it on every side as far as the eye could see.
My stalwart, standby cognitive tricks couldn’t combat this anxiety; I was freaking terrified.
I stood in the parking lot while my husband looked at me, waiting to decide whether we would go up or not, my daughter tugging at his hand trying to walk towards the departure building.
I felt so torn.
Every cell in my body didn’t want to go on it.
But my mind was telling me, “Annie, don’t waste the money! You already paid for your tickets. Probably nothing bad will happen. You should confront your fear of heights. Your daughter will be disappointed if you don’t go up. Don’t waste the money!”
I walked forward ten feet, then stopped, turned around, looked at the car, and felt tears come to my eyes.
“No, I don’t want to do this. I’ll be terrified the whole time. Let’s go. We’ll find something else to do this morning.”
And so we left.
We bundled our daughter back into her car seat (she was fine with leaving the tram), drove back down the mountain, and headed back to Palm Springs where we had the loveliest, non-terrifying morning celebrating my daughter.
That day happened about a year ago when my daughter turned three (she’ll be four very shortly) and still I think back on that day as an example of when I re-parented myself well by honoring my fear and saying no (a huge growth edge for me).
I wanted to share this story and use today’s post to illustrate how saying no and choosing easy can be an act of self-care and good-enough re-parenting on our relational trauma recovery journeys every bit as much (if not more) as saying yes and pushing ourselves to do the hard thing.
What is good-enough re-parenting?
Good enough re-parenting is a phrase I use to describe how we – as adults on our relational trauma recovery journeys – should aspire to show up for ourselves.
The good-enough part is derived from the concept of the “good enough mother” – a contribution by pediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott – who posited that “good enough” means attuning to, loving, and providing for a child but also “failing” them at times in developmentally appropriate ways and, critically, that this failing is beneficial for the child’s growth and development.
It’s the antidotal idea to the idea of a “perfect parent” – our flesh and blood parents couldn’t be this and we can’t be this for ourselves either.
And not only is that okay – it’s best for our overall development.
And, of course, re-parenting ourselves means treating ourselves as a good enough parent would have ideally done, consistently and constantly striving to honor our personhood and dignity, creating a safe environment for ourselves, loving us unconditionally, etc.
In my personal experience and professional opinion, good-enough re-parenting is central to our relational trauma recovery journeys.
Good-enough re-parenting can look like doing hard things, and not doing hard things.
If you’re a parent, you know that every day you likely have to enforce boundaries and make choices that your child doesn’t love but that you know are best for them.
Choices like turning off the iPad after 30 minutes and enduring the tantrum or insisting on wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt under the flimsy Elsa Frozen dress because it’s only 55 degrees outside.
And you likely enforce boundaries and make choices that you don’t love but you know are best for you.
Choices like skipping sushi on Friday night to save the money for your other savings goals or scheduling the recommended mammogram even though you’d rather not.
Parenting our actual children and doing our re-parenting sometimes does look like doing the necessary, hard work that’s critical for our well-being.
Those are the appropriate and manageable “failings” Donald Winnicott meant – disappointments, choices, and failures to get exactly what we want – that a good enough parent sometimes causes.
But good enough re-parenting does not mean blasting through fear and terror in unmanageable ways.
For example, my daughter gets very nervous about the large farm animals we see when we visit The Little Farm at Tilden (makes sense, right? She’s 41 lbs, a cow is about 1,200 lbs…)
We would never force her past her fear – shoving her up against the face of a big cow even though she’s shrinking back and saying, “No!” nor telling her that she HAS to feed the cow the celery we brought because “we don’t want to waste the celery.”
In one hundred years we would never do that!
Instead, each time we go and each time she feels conflicted and shrinks away from the cow, we support her by saying it’s okay tell her emphatically and often that being brave also means saying no when you don’t feel ready yet.
But do I extend this same kind of good enough, boundary-honoring re-parenting to myself? Not usually.
For many of us, our re-parenting growth edge is *not* pushing ourselves.
For many of us who grew up in relationally traumatic homes, we acclimated early to hardship.
We know what it’s like to not get our needs met, to over-function amid dysfunction, to use an endless array of creative behaviors to guard against feeling vulnerable, weak, and needy (because those feelings usually didn’t go over well in our childhood homes, did they?).
For many of us who come from relational trauma histories, doing hard things and pushing ourselves beyond our limits is not our growth edge.
Choosing what is easy and what honors our fear, vulnerability, and limited capacities is our growth edge.
This is so, so hard for me.
My growth edge is not doing the difficult.
I’m acclimated to hard work, self-discipline, and showing up and doing challenging things because my life (running two companies, carrying a full clinical caseload, being the sole breadwinner of my family, and raising a preschooler without any family support) requires that of me on the regular.
My near-default setting is doing the difficult.
So instead, my growth edge is giving myself what I give so readily to my daughter: permission and support to say no to what feels excessively hard and eclipses my capacities.
Like going on a freaking tramway over jagged mountain peaks while my nervous system freaks out.
So that day that I said no, packed my little family back into the car, and drove down the mountain back to Palm Springs, absorbing the $100+ loss of the tramway tickets, I showed up for that growth edge.
I didn’t push myself beyond my capacities.
I re-parented myself well.
It was an atypical choice for me and one that I’ve been trying to model more since that day in smaller ways to make life feel easier for myself: not answering emails on the weekends, choosing a recovery ride on Peloton versus another hard-core Tabata class, not over-booking our playdate calendar on the weekends, etc.
It might sound silly, but this to me feels hard: choosing easy, not pushing through fear and my capacities.
But it’s a good kind of hard.
At this stage of my relational trauma recovery journey, I’m inspired to give myself more of what I give my daughter – support to not push herself past her limits – and the more I do this, the more supported I feel and the more I’m enjoying life.
And now, to support your own relational trauma recovery journey and self-inquiry process, I want to ask you:
Is there any way where you could be a better, good-enough parent for yourself by not pushing yourself? Is your growth edge – like mine – choosing the easier, more self-supporting path and honoring your fear and limited capacities? Is there any way you could extend the same support you show your child (if you have one) to yourself more in any way? What came up for you as you read today’s essay?
If you feel so inclined, please leave a message in the comments below so our 20,000 monthly visitors can benefit from your wisdom and see themselves in your story.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.