In a society that places a premium on perfection, reshaping our personal and parenting goals to prioritize growth over perfectionism becomes a formidable task.
Here to help empower you to navigate the messy middle ground of parenthood, embrace the long game, and find beauty in the small wins is the founder of About Progress, Monica Packer. Monica is a mom of 5, podcaster, coach, and “recovering perfectionist” herself.
Monica’s wisdom challenges the conventional all-or-nothing mindset, providing a breath of fresh air with her perspective on the beauty of imperfection and the cultivation of authentic connections. This enlightening and empowering conversation will help all parents seeking to break free from the shackles of perfectionism and usher in a new era of personal and parenting growth.
I think we all agree that what parenting room is really about, but it’s sure easy to forget that when nobody will get their dang shoes on and get in the car, it’s so easy to forget. And to me, I feel like if I were to really just put a few words what parenting is, it’s keeping the big picture in mind, especially in the small moments when it’s really easy to forget.
Dr. Sarah (00:25):
In our society that rewards celebrates and reinforces chasing perfection. It can be challenging to redefine your personal and your parenting goals to strive simply for growth. Yet if we aspire to raise a generation unburdened by the crippling pursuit of perfection, not to mention make our own life a lot more enjoyable, it is a path well worth exploring. Joining me today is Monica Packer. Monica is the founder of About Progress and she is a podcaster, a coach, and a self-described recovering perfectionist. In today’s episode, she’ll not only share her own journey with perfectionism, but also talk about how she empowers others to break free from this all or nothing mindset. So get ready for an enlightening conversation as we explore embracing imperfections, fostering genuine connections in your relationships, and finding fulfillment in the small wins as you navigate the messy middle ground in parenting.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hello. So today we’ve got Monica Packer here and I’m just so excited for this conversation. Thanks so much for being here.
Oh, I am too.
Dr. Sarah (02:09):
So we connected because we were both presenters or panelists on the Raising Emotionally Healthy Families Summit, and you had this amazing talk about perfectionism and you have a podcast all about perfectionism. And can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how you came to be doing, what exactly it is that you do?
Of course. So my podcast is called about progress, and it began because I was trying to work on leaning into a new way of growing, which for me meant focusing on progress, not perfection. And for all of my life there was no in-between an all or nothing. Either you go after and give it your all or you don’t do anything. And I aspired to be a perfectionist in ways that I thought were really healthy and praiseworthy and good. And when I was in my early twenties, I crashed and burned with my mental health. And then I spent the next 10 years just staying on the sidelines of my life because I was terrified of getting back to that place where my life really was at stake. That was what it had amounted to with my mental health. And what I’ve discovered though is that I was still a perfectionist.
I didn’t know I counted because I was on the nothing side. And I had this amazing therapist who pointed that out to me that I was a perfectionist. And I was like, what now? Because I haven’t done anything, I haven’t even made goals in 10 years. And she helped me understand that that was still me being a perfectionist. And as I took that in and I realized she was right for starters, I also realized how perfectionism had hijacked every part of my life and whether I was overachieving or the underachieving kind or anything in between. And one of the biggest ways it impacted my life was my relationships, including with my children. Now at this time I was approaching 30 and I had three children then and they were quite close in age four. And under my own perfectionistic tendencies were getting in the way of me being the mom.
I knew I wanted to be for these kids. And so I actually am a personal development person. I’m not a parenting person, but in my process of working on myself, I can tell you the number one area of my life that has improved has been my parenting and has been my relationships with my children. I’m a way better parent now than I was when I was navigating life as a perfectionist. And we can talk way more about what that looks like in parenting, but that’s the nutshell of my story and how my podcast, About Progress, was part of that experiment of leaning into trying to be mediocre at things and be okay with being mediocre. And seven years later, and I’m still sticking with it and it’s changed my life, it changed my family’s life too.
Dr. Sarah (05:16):
That’s amazing. I feel like that is a really, we have to put the link to that in the show description and the show notes because I feel like, I think there is such a profound overlap between understanding perfectionism as a general concept and all the ways it shows up in our lives because I think it’s pretty everywhere we grow up in a society that I think actually breeds a lot of perfectionism in people.
Especially women and especially moms. I would even pinpoint that even more. And perfectionism is sneaky. Like I said, I aspire to it. I thought that was a good thing to try to be on that pedestal and being so good at everything because I’m trying to be a good person, but really what it was was a misplacement of identity. And I didn’t realize putting my identity on my outcomes was like a lose lose, lose lose. I mean you could just do that into perpetuity situation. There was no winning, there was no bolstering of my identity.
Dr. Sarah (06:21):
And I’m sure you’ve done this work, but where are the roots of that perfectionism for you? I’m assuming it didn’t come on in adulthood. Probably the seeds must have been planted early.
When I was the overachieving perfectionist. I was a stereotypical like what people imagine when they think a perfectionist. And I was that throughout my whole teen years and young adult years. And funnily enough, I don’t have this big sob story. A lot of times people have a lot of trauma in their past that has informed them trying to seek a sense of stability and that identity piece that they can prop up through their outcomes. And for me, I mean it really wasn’t something like that and maybe more people could relate to that, then we would maybe think that for me it was more just being the fifth of seven kids and wanting to stand out and wanting to be really good at things. And it started more as this pure desire to just be a good human. But really it was a big lack of sense of self and just recognizing we can pick up the cues all around us.
We know what it takes to get those blue ribbons and those A pluses and those check marks and those pats on the back from people. Nobody sat me down and told me I had to be good at those things like grades and extracurricular and anything to do with I was a ballerina and health everything, it was all encompassing, but I could pick it all up. I knew I could find the signs, I knew what the targets were and I could hit them. So I wish I could say there was more to it, but that’s it.
Dr. Sarah (08:03):
But you bring up such a good point, which is that yes, I think there are certainly circumstances where there’s this very intense and loud message that then this event happens or this big thing or this thing you can really put your finger on that says, okay, here’s the trauma and it turned into this. But actually I think more commonly it’s the implicit messages that we’re getting all around us. Like you mentioned ballet and you mentioned good grades and you might not have someone sitting you down being like, you need to be the best ballet dancer in your group. You need to get all A’s or you’re not going to, this will be the consequence. It’s implicit. It’s these subtle subliminal messages that say good things happen. If you are top of your class, good things are going to happen. If you get more, you get benefits. We have so many of these sort of rewards structures built in, you don’t need to make them explicit. They’re so embedded into our society that kids are pretty good at figuring out this is very rewarded to focus on this.
And I would say I was extremely rewarded. I feel like I was really admired and looked up to and held as an example for other kids in my neighborhood and all of that good stuff. But when I crashed and burned in my early twenties, I got the reverse of that reward when I realized that that achievement, that sense of self that I was placing on my outcomes, it came at a high cost and it was a cost I couldn’t keep paying. And for me, that meant I had eating disorders that not just one plural and alongside that suicidal ideation, that really was a life and death situation for me. And it was really kind of hard to actually go take my recovery seriously and realize that meant I was also losing people’s praise and admiration because I thought the only way I could achieve and grow and do things came at that cost I couldn’t pay anymore. And so it took a big hit to my identity in that way too because my identity was still based on outcomes, but now it became on the lack of outcomes and that was just as damaging.
Dr. Sarah (10:27):
Yeah. So you mentioned how when you became more aware of this reality, this is perfectionism, even if it’s not high achieving the identity being tied to the outcomes, it’s like you said, I think you painted a very really beautiful picture of how it really is. It’s the doing everything or doing nothing. The feeling as though I can’t possibly, I have so many people who I work with who are really stuck. They’re actually really stuck and stalled in their ability to get momentum and do and initiate and engage. And when I suggest to them, I think this is really perfectionistic, they’re like, so what?
Yeah, I don’t qualify.
Dr. Sarah (11:22):
But yeah, I think it is two sides of the same coin.
It is. And that’s really interesting about this whole experiment that I’ve been on for now almost eight years is instead of trying to do all and instead of staying stuck in the nothing, my goal was to just do something. And that weirdly took a lot of courage, especially in a world where we largely just see people’s outcomes or even lack thereof. We don’t know what it looks like in between. And how getting somewhere that you want actually requires a ton of failure. It requires a ton of mess. It also requires a lot of self-compassion, not shame that perfectionism really gets its energy and its juice from, it’s such a different way of growing and being. But I think when the women that I’ve worked with have the courage to do something to be messy, to do the small things to believe that small steps lead to big change, eventually they see that the change happens, but also happens in ways that are both sustainable and way more exponential than they could have otherwise gotten to. I have grown way more as I’ve leaned into progress, not perfection than I ever did when I was the all or nothing version.
Dr. Sarah (12:49):
And it’s so funny, whenever I talk to someone about on the podcast something about helping parents discover aspects of themselves that they can heal, it’s always in my head, it’s like I’m looking at a hall of mirrors always in my head. I’m like, well, this would apply to the way we engage with our kids to build the same skills. So it’s like you are talking about how your journey to reframe this as how do I fail and see that as success in progress get out of this all or nothing thinking how do I give myself permission to be in an uncomfortable state of unfinished in action? Those are the same things that as parents we can do with our children to help prophylactically prevent against perfectionism or having an identity that’s highly driven in outcomes. And so it’s like there’s so many parallels. That’s why I say it’s like a hall of mirrors. Each reflection just keeps going and going and going. And I think there are a lot of parallels. So how do we approach our own parenting so that we don’t feel pressure to have this perfect parent experience, not healthy for us? But then in doing that, what are we transferring onto our kids to help prevent them from getting this passed down basically?
So let’s take the first part. How do we approach parenting with progress in mind, not perfection, and let’s just level that these are the highest stakes we will ever have. Raising these humans is no small feat and it’s no small responsibility. It really, really matters. And because of those stakes being so high and because we love our children so dearly and want to do right by them, it’s really easy to fall into these perfectionistic traps as parents, starting with how we parent period, just how we accidentally said something wrong or we used the wrong tone of voice or we were sarcastic when we really shouldn’t have been to maybe some bigger mistakes like when we’ve shouted at our kids or thrown something across our room. I don’t know if you’ve had a really bad day like that before. So it’s that kind of stuff. But then it’s also how we can make mistakes as a parent when we place our identity on our kids, when we require them to act as the proof that we are good parents and that is too heavy of a burden for our children to carry.
It really is just too heavy and I think does so much damage. So I think the biggest thing, if we’re going to hit both sides of that first coin there with in terms of parenting, the biggest thing is learning how to navigate both how you parent and the mistakes you make as a parent. And also how you place your identity, hopefully not on your kids, is to have self-compassion. For starters, the biggest dose of self-compassion you can possibly muster. And you can grow in this, you can learn it. It’s a skill to have self-compassion. It doesn’t have to come innately inside you, and that will help you ride these waves of you’re going to make a mistake as sure as there’s death and taxes. You’re going to make mistakes as parents and multiple times a day. So you got to learn how to ride that wave with self-compassion, not so that you excuse yourself from the mistakes that’s not self-compassion and not so that you just guilt yourself into not just having this shame driven way of parenting, that it also is this anxiety based way of parenting that’s not healthy for your kids either.
It’s more of being able to own your mistakes because you know will make them and in the process of owning them better repair than you ever could when you’re doing it from a place of shame. And that’s huge. And the second part to this is having a sense of self that is separate from your children. A lot of moms when they hear that their alarm bells go off because they’re like, no, my identity is a mom. And I’m going to admit, yeah, that’s one of the first things I’d probably say about myself. If someone would know, tell me about you. Oh, I’m a mom of five kids. My children are everything, but at the same time, they are not who I am. Instead, I need to be able to bring Monica myself to my children. I am not my responsibilities, I’m not my roles, I’m not my kids.
I’m Monica. And doing that is what will help me not place my identity off of them. Now I’ll have to tell you, I’m sorry I’m talking so much here, but three of my kids have special needs and my oldest is autistic. She has a couple other special needs and I have two other boys with ADHD. And this, well, just in your professional experience, I’m sure as a parent too, that each of them are so different. And each of them, if I placed my identity on how they were behaving, I would deem myself the crappiest parent ever because my five-year-old just spit on my face at church on Sunday much to the I’m sure enjoyment of half the congregation that got to see him while I carried him outside of the giant room. And I am so glad that I am now 12 years into parenting and I could take that moment and take a deep breath, which I most certainly had to do while I was carrying him out and gently set him down on the couch and know that I needed to take a few minutes before I came back to him to talk to him about his behavior because it wasn’t about me being embarrassed about what other people thought of my parenting.
That was huge. That was a big moment of clarity for me to see how far I’ve come. Yeah, I was embarrassing and I did not enjoy that experience. I also don’t think it’s okay that he’s spat in my face. But at the same time, in that moment, that was a big way for me to gauge just how far I’ve come. I could see, well, that wasn’t fun, but I know how to love this kid and I know what I can do next as a parent to help him walk through this behavior because I know who he is deep down and I know who I am and who he is right now is not a reflection. And this behavior is not really a reflection of either of us, to be honest. So how can we deal with this better?
Dr. Sarah (19:35):
That is so first of all, it’s so amazingly impressive and beautiful. I get chills hearing that story because I think it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. And also it’s really common, really, really, it’s really common. And I think we have this, I think goes along with the perfectionism, is there’s this illusion when you have this sort of perfectionistic view of the world and of yourself in the world is I am the only one who would ever fail at this. Whereas in reality one, we’re not failing because like you said, this is just a moment, it’s a tough moment. It doesn’t define who either of us are. It doesn’t define the quality of our relationship. It doesn’t really tell much about anything other than the state of his nervous system in that moment, right?
Dr. Sarah (20:25):
And it allows you to then tune out the noise that’s definitely potentially coming in from the glares in that space because most people in our society, again, we live in a society that does value perfect behavior whether it’s achievable or not. And so when we see less than perfect behavior, a lot of people judge it. And so we as the parent actively fighting against our internal critic and the external critics that are real, they’re legit real to sort of block out that noise and be able to say, what’s my bigger priority here? I got to help my kid get through this moment with some integrity, with some sense of safety. And then yeah, a little address the behavior, but not now. He’s not going to learn anything right now. He’s dysregulated. There’s no point. I could waste my time teaching him not to do this right now, but it would be wasting my time. What is my better, what’s the best and highest use of my time right now? That’s really, really hard to get there. That’s a very exceptionally special place to be in parenting.
We’ve had a lot of practice. I feel like we’re a family of professional melt downers, and that’s okay. And that regulation piece, I mean that has changed every part of our family. But what was so fascinating to me, one of my kids got a diagnosis of trauma to the brain development, which is not under the actual codes. So it was more, okay, so that’s really what’s going on here, but what we’re going to give him is a surface level diagnosis of ADHD. And he was almost diagnosed with everything else in the book. And when she told me about this and she taught me about the nervous system and regulation, the best and worst part of what she told me is in order to help him learn his brain, learn how to regulate, he was in a perpetual state of dysregulation. In order for him to learn regulation, Monica, you have to arrive to working with him regulated.
And that meant I had to do the work, which wasn’t fun, but also life changing. And I can tell you it’s really hard to get some special needs diagnoses when a lot of it can be back to, well, what did they go through or what kind of environment were they in? And you’re like, I was doing the best we could and I thought I loved him and I took care of his needs. But having a special needs sibling can be a tumultuous enough of an environment where his brain just doesn’t learn how to stay regulated. So I had to also remove my identity from that piece too. I know I was a good parent, but this is where we’re at, and so now I can meet him where we are at instead of navigating from a place of resentment or fear. I’m sure anxiety was definitely there. I was going to say, or anxiety. But no, those were a part of the puzzle, but they weren’t leading everything.
Dr. Sarah (23:33):
And I think that it’s interesting whether, because I can see this same scenario playing out with kids who might not even meet criteria for special needs, but just tough kids. And then I think if you go beyond that end of the bell curve and you keep going with kids who have neurodivergent brains or are on the autism spectrum, or maybe you have kids who have ADHD or something even less well explained, right? It’s more ambiguous. It doesn’t really even have a diagnosis. We have to kind of make it up.
Dr. Sarah (24:14):
Because I work with a lot of families actually that it’s like the DSM diagnoses. I could give you one of them, but I don’t actually think it’s describing wholly what it is that we’re seeing. There’s more complexity here than that. Those are really hard experiences for parents to go through because there isn’t a rule book, there isn’t a pill you take there, oh, well, we’ll just do this thing and it will get better. It’s like, no, this is just the kid that we have and we blame ourselves or we go through this grief process, which is very legitimate and very real, and also we still have this child right here who needs us. And so this message you got from the person you are working with that said, you have to arrive to your work with him regulated. That is a really powerful message and empowering too, because it gives you something to work with. You can control you. I did.
Oh yeah. And you know what else is fascinating is because I was so lucky to have done a lot of this work myself and to recognize that in order to truly grow, I had to focus on progress, not perfection. I had to apply all of those things that I learned with my son. It took us a good six months before we even began to see any shifts in his behavior. And I’m talking about, this was during 20 20, 20 21, so I was homeschooling all of them. We had moved for our autistic daughter in the middle at the beginning of the pandemic actually. And so they were going through a lot and it was an all day, every day kind of thing, and I could not see any progress. And I mean, I was doing everything. All of our lives revolved around him. And one of the things that he kept saying to me, he didn’t like it either.
He didn’t like where he was at. He was a 7-year-old at the time. He’s like, this is not working. This is not working. When we were trying to work on deep breathing and calming down the regulation, he would scream, this isn’t working. And now he’s a 10-year-old that takes deep breaths whenever he’s getting worked up and he walks away or he tells me how he’s feeling, or he goes and plays with his Legos or goes and hits his drum set. I don’t even know what the right word is with the drum set, we got that just so he can bang away. The changes have been miraculous, but it was only because we were both willing to believe in the process that small wins build over time, that even if it looked like we were not making progress, we were. And not only were we, it was happening in ways that were so small, so seemingly insignificant, but also so deep that the changes over time have been nothing short of miraculous, but it took a heck of a lot of time and patience and compassion on all sides.
Dr. Sarah (27:16):
That’s so beautiful. And it’s interesting. It’s so funny how these things are paralleled. I often will use this metaphor with parents. First of all, I’m so frustrating with the parents that I work with because I’m kind of doing what I’m imagining. The person you were working with was doing is like, just do this thing. It doesn’t feel like it’s working, but just keep doing it. Just do it. Do it anyway. Do it when you don’t feel like it’s working, just keep going. And they’re like, stop. It’s not working. And I’m like, it’s the long game, just trust. And the reality is, the way I describe that process is when you plant a seed in the ground and you put every day a drop of water on it, a drop of water on it, a drop of water on it, a drop of you aren’t seeing the plant, but if you didn’t water it, if you didn’t put that drop of water on it, you’d never see the plant.
But if you drop the water and you trust that eventually if I keep doing this, it’s going to hit this sort of tipping point, this sort of developmental threshold where, oh, hey, here comes the shoot and it’s poking out of the grass. And now I can see just the tiniest little piece of evidence that maybe this actually is working and then I keep doing it and I do it and I do it, and I trust in this process and I give myself a hell of a lot of grace because you have to wait so long, but eventually you see this flower bloom and I’m under, no, I don’t want to mess with parents’ expectations. Sometimes it can take a very long time until you see the fruits of your labor, but it really is worth it to focus on this sort of slow and steady strengthening of the regulation systems and the trust in the relationship and the ability. And you do that by the self-regulation and the being willing to just do the process and not necessarily be so focused on the outcome, which in our minds is a well-regulated, good behaving child that can follow directions and participate and cooperate and engage with our family or with school or whatever. That is the outcome. But if we are focused only on the outcome, we miss this ability to be in this very messy place for a while until we can sort of move towards that outcome.
And that co-regulation piece that you brought up, I really think it also mirrors modeling and modeling what it looks like to grow and to change. I mean, that’s the second half of the question I haven’t answered for you. I apologize. I got off track there a bit. But when we are trying to help our kids not become perfectionists or when we can see that we have some anxious kiddos or some kids who are a little bit more predisposed to wanting to for good intentions, just be really good. And you can see that they are banking their identity off their outcomes, and maybe they’re standing on the sidelines, they’re too scared to try, or maybe they’re so shame driven and so hard on themselves. Honestly, it comes back to the biggest thing you can do to help them is your own behavior, your own modeling to them.
And it can be as simple as pointing out when you make a mistake, not just with parenting but with other areas of your life, it can be as transparent as saying, oh, I was working on this thing and I totally didn’t get my goal, and that was not fun, but I’m going to keep trying or I’m going to pivot. I’m going to do this thing. I’m going to tweak my plan. And I keep thinking about, I have this friend who started running marathons the last few years and this past year she really involved her kids in her training process. So she would let them know the night before how many miles she was going to run the next day. And then when she would get back, she would let them know how it went, and she would share the ups and downs of her training.
And the race day came, and my husband was actually running the same race, and so I got to see her recap after. But on the race day, she had, I think about four miles left, and she crashed and burned, and she was so close to her goal, but she could tell she wasn’t going to quite make it. And so she called her husband and was crying to him while running. I guess you do probably those marathons. And the most beautiful thing happened though, and it’s as she was approaching her family, her daughter came and ran the last stretch with her. And that moment was such a beautiful moment for my friend, even though she was just shy of meeting her goal. And to me, I thought, that’s not just an, even though that’s the best thing you could have modeled for your daughter, that one, you went for something, you worked hard for something, you achieved something.
And even though it wasn’t exactly what you wanted, she got to literally do it alongside you and see what it takes to try and to sometimes fail or to do it messy and to keep trying. Anyway, I know that’s a longer story to share, but that really is what this is all about. If you want to help your kids not navigate their lives from perfectionism, start with modeling. Modeling what it really looks like to grow and to change and to spiral up in our lives and how it can be messy and painful, but how we believe in the process that small ones build over time.
Dr. Sarah (32:45):
And that picture I have of this mother finishing this last leg of her marathon with her daughter, it makes me really think back to what you were saying before of when you were really shifting your relationship to perfectionism, the most impact it had was on your relationships. And I think that’s really poignant. This is an illustration of exactly why that is the case, right? Because when we’re super stuck in perfectionism, we’re really, we’ve got blinders on to everything, but our goal, and that usually means also the people in our lives and this mom’s ability to not be so laser focused on this one random goal that she just kind of got stuck on and look at this larger goal of, look at this connection that I’m building. Look at this relationship. I have this child I’m raising. And that’s like, oh, hey, look, I’ve got a million goals in life. And so it’s like when we can let go of the blinders and the narrow focus on this one thing that we really think needs to be perfect to, oh, I can zoom out and look at everything including my relationships, and then all of a sudden it’s like, oh, but I’m meeting all these other goals and I’m feeling connected.
It’s bigger picture. Yeah, it’s not just the long view you talked about with helping your clients, it’s also having that bigger picture in mine too, of what life really is about. And it really is those relationships. And that’s what has helped me as I’ve tried to navigate, well, most of my kids, I can’t parent in traditional ways that I see all of my siblings parenting their children or my neighbors or my friends. It doesn’t work for me to just tell them to do something or to immediately have this consequence because they’re dysregulated or my daughter gets really overwhelmed sensory wise, and some of my kids are like, why doesn’t she have to do this chore that we have to do? And it’s trying to explain, well, because that is really difficult for her to scrub the toothpaste in the sink. That is extremely hard for her. Just having those differences. And I think what helps is, again, we just talked about having the bigger picture that what matters is not how other people perceive my parenting, not how I can even compare my own parenting journey to other people, but how I know what really matters is that I love this kid, that they feel safe, that they feel loved, and that we are working on things together. That’s everything.
Dr. Sarah (35:21):
That’s everything. And what’s interesting, I think that’s probably everybody’s, if you were to pull a thousand parents, whether they have a child who fits right down the middle of that bell curve or is on any end like outlier or norm, we all really, I think if we really examine what our goals are in parenting, I would say 999 out of those thousand parents would say something about, similar to what you just said, I want to raise a child who feels loved, who feels safe, who knows how to work towards something. We’re working on something together that feels supported in achieving a goal parenting. And sometimes I think we miss the forest through the trees. We get stuck on like, well, it’s supposed to be this outcome. They’re supposed to be able to do A or B or not do C, and but maybe that’s an outcome of a different process. Maybe we have to re-examine how we’re trying to get to A, B or C.
Oh, I agree. I was just thinking as you were saying that I think we all agree that what parenting room is really about, but it’s sure easy to forget that when nobody will get their dang shoes on and get in the car.
Dr. Sarah (36:51):
It’s so easy to forget. And to me, I feel like, gosh, if I were to really just put a few words what parenting is, it’s keeping the big picture in mind, especially in the small moments when it’s really easy to forget. It’s just being aware of when we’re drifting because that’s the thing, I’ve talked so much today about how miraculous it is that we’ve made so many changes and grown and done better and all of that. But you know what? I get dysregulated too. I snap or I get mad over something dumb after a full day of holding it together over things that were way bigger and if we’re going to be good parents, we have to be able to just be aware of when we’re drifting repair and get back to the heart of why we are parents in the first place and why we’re sticking with this massive responsibility and building these relationships.
Dr. Sarah (37:44):
Yeah, yeah. It’s so true. I think we started this conversation talking about how we want to help parents not look at parenting from a perfectionistic lens, but then we’re also sort of saying, here’s the optimal we might be. What’s the word? We might be reorienting parents to a different goal, right? Yes. I think it’s helpful to say we don’t need to focus on perfect behaviors and a perfectly well-behaved and well-regulated child at all times. If that’s our goal in parenting, we can. We’re going to feel like thwarted all the time. But just as important as not making that our goal is also not saying, my goal is to always be the zen parent who can co-regulate at all times and be okay when my child has meltdowns because I understand that it’s sometimes out of their control that’s also perfectionistic. We can go to the extreme and athletes totally me that way, which is so good to point out.
And that’s funny because sometimes, I mean, I get on myself, Monica better, especially when my daughter, she’s a hard time sleeping at night and when I’m finally drifting off and she comes in our room to ask a really random question about something she’s anxious about, and it’s been like the 20th time we’ve talked about it that night, and I just am like, go to bed, go to bed, go to bed. We’ll talk about this existential crisis in the morning. And then I roll over and think, oh crap, there goes a whole day of me trying to be that safe space for her that she can share her anxieties. And there I go, just dismissing him. Oh, if I’m navigating all my parenting experience from that all or nothing judgment of who I am and how I am as a parent, then we’re always going to lose to. So yes, thank you for making that space to help us see we’re not going to be perfect at being imperfect parents with grace and compassion and love. This is all part of it.
Dr. Sarah (39:40):
It is. And I always say I do think parents have a lot of anxiety in part because of the messaging and as someone in the parenting space that both consumes parenting content and creates parenting content, I’m really, really mindful. I’m sure I fail at it plenty, but I’m mindful of trying to share information without adding to the anxiety that parents already have and making them feel like there is this gold standard and this is what it should look like, and why aren’t you here? Why haven’t you figured out how to do this? And I think that’s so dangerous because no parent is ever going to be like that. And I always, I’m trying to self-disclose a lot on the podcast, and even with my clients, I lose it with my kids. I have really crappy days where we’re like, we’re dialing it in. We are going to order.
We are going to have takeout three times today or frozen food three times today and we’re watching four movies. And that’s just the day because that’s the day. And I’m just, not only do I do that sometimes, but I’m also not even good at not beating myself up for that. So I will do that thing and then I will be like, God, I’m such a bad parent, so dialing it in and I’m so bad. So I do the thing that is dial it in parenting and then I beat myself up for dialing it in. It’s just we’re human beings. We aren’t not getting it right all the time, and we’re not supposed to, and our kids don’t need us to. My kids are just fine. In fact, they love those, dial it in days. They’re living their best life on movie number four.
Dr. Sarah (41:25):
So I think it’s important, even someone who’s like, I really don’t want parents to think that I, a parenting support specialist know all the secrets and can do them all the time. It’s like I might know what they are, but I definitely can’t follow them. I always am more often than you don’t shoot for 51% of the time. It’s probably a good goal.
They have literal research on that. Is it the Gottman Institute that shows that you just have to get it right, a way lower number than you ever think. Like, whoa, what? That’s enough.
Dr. Sarah (42:00):
It is true. There’s research on attachment that says attunement. If you mis-attune parents who mis attuned to their children versus attuned, right, got the attunement accurate and couldn’t accurately meet the need. It was something like I’ve seen as low as 54% of the time or even lower maybe, and still had a secure attachment. It was still predictive of a secure attachment. We are not supposed to get it right all the time at all.
I’m so glad you said that to me because I have been worried about this. I was telling my husband this yesterday, I’m like, I worry about our baby. We had four and then five years later we had our fifth, and it’s been a huge adjustment and we really wanted him and we’re so glad he’s here. But I’m always worried about him learning to be dysregulated because our environment can be pretty chaotic or I’m holding him and I have a moment like we talked about, you’re holding it together and then you have one moment over a dumb thing, and I yell at a kid and then I look down and I see the baby looking up at me to try to see how am I supposed to be reacting or feeling right now. I’m like, it’s okay. It’s okay. We’re all okay. Just worry about it. And that is a good comfort to me. That’s a good reminder that even just being aware of it, you talk about being mindful. That’s 90% of the battle just being aware of just trying. If you’re trying, you’re doing a good job. If you’re trying, you’re doing it right. And for the record, if there’s an expert I want to learn from, it’s someone like you who’s going to model that this looks messy, and it’s the awareness and the trying that matters more than anything else.
Dr. Sarah (43:43):
Yeah, I mean, I really appreciate that, and I feel the same way in terms of who do I want? I want that too. I want to learn from people who tell it like it is. If I think about the people who I’ve sought out as mentors in my professional life and my personal life, they’ve all been people who pull the curtain back a little bit. I don’t like it when people, I personally don’t. I’m not drawn to teachers who like to be on the pedestal kind of like, I don’t know if I could trust this.
Are you sure you Oh, I feel the same way. Yeah. Even down to a therapist I had once just to never know exactly. To never have that. I know you have to be careful as a professional. I do know that. So I know there’s probably lots of professionals listening. You got to have that healthy balance. But when I never knew what was going on or what was normal or if it was okay to have a moment to never have a personal example or a story as part of how they were trying to teach me things that made it really hard for me to relate with her. But then when I had a therapist who would share a personal application with good boundaries, still, that is what changed me. That is what helped me know that. Okay, there’s hope for me too.
Dr. Sarah (45:00):
Yeah, no, I mean, I practice, so the therapy that I’m trained in really is relational psychodynamic psychotherapy, which is, it’s kind of more rooted in psychoanalysis. And that Freud, so Freudian, that sort of Freudian psychoanalytic model is very like the therapist is this blank slate, and the idea is the patient can project onto the therapist anything. So you don’t want to interfere with that process by being anything other than a blank slate. But I actually think that psychoanalytic model evolved into psychodynamic psychotherapy, which is a lot more about the dynamic in the relationship between the patient and the therapist. And then there’s kind of an even further development of that with relational psychotherapy where it’s like, no, we are going to examine our relationship in the therapy, and so I have to show up. I’m not going to show up, like you said, without boundaries. I’m not going to complain to you about the fight I had with my husband, but if you bring up a feeling about something, I’m going to share my emotional response to that. I’m going to say, oh, that really elicited this in me. I wonder what that’s like. So it’s like you have to be able to be in the room. You have to be in relationship with someone. And I think that type of therapy is so helpful. And it’s interesting now that I think about it. That’s what I do with parents with their children.
I help parents show up in a relational way with their child and say, let’s look at our relationship and maybe if my kid’s little, I’m not going to articulate all this, but I’m going to, in the back of my mind, be thinking about what is their experience of me? How are we in a relationship and how do I use that relationship to improve what’s happening in the family system?
Brilliant. Yeah, sign me up. That’s kind of help I’m going to want and look out for.
Dr. Sarah (46:58):
Well, it sounds like the way you’ve described the work that you’ve been doing with your child, and it sounds a lot like what I would do. So my guess is it’s probably pretty who to do. What was the work that you did?
Oh gosh. I don’t know all the acronyms that go with the different counselors. I’ll just say we’ve seen about everyone and everything, but having the right counselor who just had this kind of feeling about them is all I can really pinpoint of someone who had the science, had the background, especially in regulation that was all new to me in 2020. I never heard of that word ever. And it’s only been the past year that I’ve noticed it being used outside of my own little world that I kept trying to tell every parent I knew who was struggling with their kids. Have you heard regulation? Have you heard about the nervous system? Anyway, so she had the science and the training, but all I know is that she more had the method and the guidance on helping me get there in a way that I didn’t lose hope or also blame myself that we weren’t changing overnight. We have a great excitement, acceptance and commitment therapists right now too. And cognitive therapy and all the therapies.
Dr. Sarah (48:12):
Yeah, I love that. I love ACT, which is acceptance and commitment therapy, and we joke that we like, so my group practice, my partner and I at the practice, we’re trained very similarly and we’re both like, yeah, we’re psychodynamic and relational, but we sprinkle in all of the acronyms. That’s our seasonings, right? The CBT and the ACT and the DBT and the SPACE.
And that’s what I look for. I look for people who have more than just one method.
Dr. Sarah (48:43):
But it’s interesting though, because I didn’t learn about the nervous system stuff in grad school to become a clinical psychologist. I learned about that afterwards because it is newer, and I’m not, God, I started graduate school in 2009, so it wasn’t even that long ago, but even in 2009, they were not teaching about polyvagal theory. They were not teaching about the nervous system. They were at least, and my grad program was pretty progressive. So it’s interesting. These are newer concepts, interpersonal neurobiology. These are things that are becoming more mainstream now, but it’s really only been the last 10 years that we’ve been psychology and the research moves into the mainstream at a glacial pace, and I think that’s changing now a little bit.
I was going to say that. That’s what our counselor said too. She’s like, one day this probably will be, she’s like, it will be, this is the diagnosis. But for now, it’s not there yet, but we have decades of research behind it, and that is what helped me, especially when I went on Google after and I was like, are we seeing someone who is making words up and making me think things that aren’t true? But no.
Dr. Sarah (50:06):
Yeah, no, it’s legit. It’s very, very, very research based. It’s just that…
It takes a long time.
Dr. Sarah (50:12):
It takes a long time. And it’s crazy because 10-20 years worth of research, and that’s considered new in our field.
Dr. Sarah (50:23):
What most people are using as a baseline is actually like 50, 60, 80 years old. It’s really hard to change the sort of zeitgeist that’s been sort of crystallized from old stuff. But I do think I’m really hopeful that these new ideas are becoming more accessible to people.
Yeah, and from someone who’s just outside of that world professionally. I can tell you it is. I’m hearing moms talk about it at the school pickup or my friends mentioning it. I was like, oh, what? This isn’t, it wasn’t just me who knew about this stuff now it’s so great. So keeping the pioneer that you’re being.
Dr. Sarah (51:06):
Well, thank you. And if people want to follow your work, if they are like, oh gosh, everything you’re describing, I might be a perfectionist and I would like to learn more about how to reframe this and gain some insight into this. How can people work with you? How obviously, check out your podcast for sure, About Progress.
Yes, that’s the number one place because that’s where most of my heart and soul goes. I’m also on Instagram @aboutprogress. We have a great community there, and I would say where you are this person for parenting, I’m that person for personal development, meaning if they want someone who’s going to be real, but not in a way where they’re just trying to be vulnerable so that you will get manipulated by their sales tactics or anything like that. Now, this is more like we talk about growing and personal development, but not with toxic positivity, not with prescriptions, not with shame, not like you’re doing it wrong because I’m so amazing and I’m going to preach at you and you’re going to feel like crap every time you hear me talk. It’s not that it’s way different, and that’s what I adore about my work as kind of being a pioneer in the personal development industry because just like any industry out there, there’s a lot of messed up things, a lot of messed up people and teaching things, and mostly because they thrive off of certainty, and that’s a whole other discussion we can have and the black and white thinking there.
But I’ll just say it’s been an amazing work and an amazing journey, and I am so grateful that I get to be a part of it.
Dr. Sarah (52:43):
I’m so grateful you shared all this with us. This has been so amazing and wonderful talking with you. Thank you so much.
Thank you. Thank you for the time.
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