The Mask of the Perfect Parent
Apr 09, 2011 03:35PM
● By Jane McClain
When my first child was born 31 years ago, I vowed that I would be the Perfect Parent of the Perfect Child. Of course, I was very young and didn’t know how hard it would be to raise a child, let alone raise a perfect child. I didn’t realize I had set my family up for disaster with that vow of perfection or that I had sentenced myself to living behind a mask.
The first time I sensed that I was wearing a mask was when my teenaged son got arrested for selling drugs. I remembered asking myself “Why did this happen?” I had expected him to be perfect, like me, and perfect people don’t cry, don’t feel and don’t talk about these things. While the answer was painful it was also necessary to finally see my unhealthy beliefs and get real.
Now that my son is grown-up I’ve worked hard to understand why I made that vow in the first place. It stemmed from my childhood, and Mark Epstein, M.D., said it best; “The feeling of living behind a mask often springs from a disturbance in one’s early relationship with anger. The most threatening of emotions, anger between child and parent is also inevitable, because no parent can fulfill all of a child’s needs.”
A famous child psychoanalyst, the late D.W. Winnicott, said, “A parent’s job is to neither retaliate nor abandon the child in the face of the child’s anger. The parent’s ‘duty’ is simply to survive that anger. There will always be frustration and disappointment in relationships.” If a parent can allow their child to be angry temporarily, if they can survive that anger and return love, they are bestowing the greatest of all gifts.
When a parent is too needy, however, because of depression, loneliness, overwork, unhappiness, alcoholism, selfishness, intolerance, insecurity or a host of other factors, a child will instinctively put the parents needs ahead of their own. In creating a false front to manage parental demands, the child puts a mask into place – a mask that soon hardens into a shell.
When asked whether they ever feel as if they were living behind a mask, Colleen Higgins of Southampton, New York answered: “I wore the mask of the perfect daughter, sister, wife and mother, but I was not truly happy. Two years ago, I was having a disagreement with my husband and I raised my voice slightly. He corrected me by saying, “Not in front of the children.” I was suddenly aware of the masks we were wearing,even as parents.”
Coming out from behind the mask can be tricky business. More than just a recovery of anger is necessary because the capacity to experience a whole range of emotions has been pushed out of awareness.
While alternatives like bodywork, yoga and meditation offer much appeal for people who are struggling to feel real, a new and innovative way of working with horses also holds a key to buried aspects of the self. Called Equine Experiential Learning, this approach expands awareness and encourages a fluidity of thought, emotion and behavior, whether standing next to a horse or leading it around on a lead line. Usually there is no riding that takes place.
These large animals provide a form of biofeedback, kind of like a large mirror, and reflect incongruities in emotion and intention. Horses can also reflect unrecognized strengths and improvements as well. Horses are unique in their ability to teach humans about self-awareness and emotional agility because they are highly aware creatures that exhibit a wide range of emotions.
Horses also reflect areas of imbalance in the people who use meditation practices to suppress unresolved anger-an increasingly common coping strategy psychologist John Welwood has called‘Spiritual Bypassing.’
As Linda Kohanov, author of Riding between the Worlds, states, “Contrary to popular belief, fear, frustration and anger are actually quite reasonable if you know how to work WITH them. When you get the message behind these ‘negative’ feelings, and change something in response, they dissipate on their own. Psychotherapy and sainthood are not prerequisites for emotional mastery. The average person can learn the necessary skills in a weekend. The problem is most adults have been suppressing emotions for so long that these simple warning signals have fused into monstrous complexes that truly are disturbing when they rear their ugly heads.” It’s as though we feel that others can’t handle the full weight of ourselves, anger and all. Which is the feeling that created the mask in the first place.
It is no accident that horses are emerging as the catalyst for helping humans to come out from behind these masks of fear, anger, and perfectionism. They possess the ability to tell us exactly how they feel because they don’t separate how they feel from how they act. They model a way of being, with power, integrity and spirit that we as a society are so drawn to.The horse mirrors the truth of what’s happening from moment to moment, so that we can be whole, happy and healthy parents, who are made of anger as well as more pleasant emotions, and no longer want to wear a mask.
Jane McClain is an author, speaker and riding instructor who specializes in Equine Experiential Learning. In 1998 she founded Living Oaks Equine Experience Center in Cocoa and facilitates equine experiential learning programs in personal development, parenting skills, leadership techniques, assertive communication, creativity and empowerment. She collaborates with Brevard Community College WENDI program offering Horse Sense for Parents classes. She also works with The Women’s Center offering clients self-awareness classes. She can be reached at 321.635.9853 or [email protected]