In my early twenties, I remember being overly concerned about my then-boyfriend’s appearance and image. I would kindly (and often not so kindly) instruct him on what to wear, how to eat healthy, and how often to exercise. I pushed him toward high status jobs despite his interests and passions. I saw the defeat in his eyes when I offered up these “suggestions,” but I said them anyway. I wanted him to make a good impression.
This is for him, I told myself.
Yeah, right. It was all about me.
My preoccupation with appearance, social status, fitting in, and gaining approval were my issues – he was just an easier target.
It did not surprise me that I continued this approach in my marriage and in my parenting. I took an excessive and unhealthy interest in my family members’ “good impressions” in the areas of performances (sports, music, academics) and physical appearance. My critiques typically fell on a continuum of mildly constructive to downright destructive, depending how stressed I felt at the time.
“I just want you to make a good impression,” I’d say.
It was for them, I’d say.
Yet, how could I explain the pain in their eyes – the pain I was willing to deny to make sure things appeared a certain way?
As with my former boyfriend, my concerns about my family members were all about me – my insecurities, my flaws, my desperate need to hide all the things I felt might cause rejection or disapproval.
These truths are not pretty, but they’re healing … and they’re life-changing.
I remember the day I came face-to-face with these painful truths – I’d been getting ready to go to a social gathering in our community. On the floor of my bathroom lay 27 outfits. I hated the way I looked in all of them. Rage and sadness bubbled up inside me as I finally settled on something dark colored and baggy. With my mouth set in a thin, hard line, I opened my daughter’s bedroom door to see what “improvements” needed to be made.
I saw her standing in front of the mirror surveying herself.
Initially, my eyes rested on the snug waistband of her favorite shorts; flesh spilled over and slightly protruded beneath her flowered shirt. My eyes rose to the mismatched top and messy knot of hair sticking from the back of her head.
As I opened my mouth to remind her of making her “best impression,” I saw her face in the mirror.
Reflecting back at herself was pure joy. Pure contentment. Pure peace – all at the sight of her six-year-old self.
Then she twirled in front of that mirror.
She actually twirled.
That’s when she saw me at the door, wiping tears from my eyes. She gave me a glorious smile – the kind of smile that says, “I feel beautiful, Mama.”
And that’s when a little protective voice inside me whispered, “Let her be.”
Let her be.
For once in my life, I would not shatter another human being’s inner contentment under the guise of making a “good impression.”
Besides, who was I to say what her “best” impression was anyway?
She believed she looked beautiful – and that was enough.
It suddenly dawned on me that unlike her blue eyes and freckles, she did not have to inherit my issues and insecurities.
I realized I could decide right then and there I would not pass on my issues to her. Plus, why would I want to?
Why would I want her to stand in front of the mirror for the rest of her life seeing TOO MUCH and NOT ENOUGH when she could see JUST RIGHT?
Why would I want her to play her music instrument for the rest of her life and think TOO MANY MISTAKES and NOT ENOUGH SKILL when she could hear JUST RIGHT?
Why would I want her to shoot baskets and dive off the blocks thinking she was only as good as the points she scored and races she won?
Why would I want her basing her inherent value and future potential on test scores and award certificates?
Why would I want her to go through life wondering what other people thought of her when she was quite happy with WHO SHE WAS?
I’m not sure I would have thought of that unforgettable reflection from six years ago had it not been for the way I’ve been talking to myself lately.
It’s bathing suit season. It’s a hard season for me – and it’s a hard season for many girls and women and boys and men too – bathing suit season doesn’t play favorites.
And when it was time to put on my swimsuit recently, I was not happy with my thighs. I was just about to start in on those thighs and that stomach when I heard those three healing words I said years ago while standing outside my daughter’s room.
Let her be.
But this time, I was talking about myself.
This time, my inner protector was sticking up for me – and rightly so. I’ve just come through a challenging winter season that contained the successful release of my third book, a bout of depression, and the untimely death of my dear father-in-law. And in the name of self-preservation, I stopped stepping on the scale and focused on survival. I continually reminded myself I was doing the best I could.
The reflection I see in the mirror today is far from flawless, but I refuse to let the after-effects of my survival keep me from living and loving this summer.
I’ll go to the pool … I’ll get in the water … and I’ll pass the ball with my daughters. I’ll visit with friends … I’ll laugh out loud … and I’ll let myself be.
“Let her be,” I will say often because that phrase instantly puts me at ease, helps me breathe, and extends to my beloveds like grace.
And the timing couldn't be better. Over the past week, I’ve been so thankful those three healing words came back to me at this precise moment in time. It’s report card season. It’s award season. It’s tournament season. It’s graduation season – and that means it can be a hard season for many of our kids.
So when my daughter brought me her social studies test and announced she was so happy with her B … and when she declared she might like to try tennis and take a break from competitive swimming … and when she told me she’d worked long enough on her poetry project and was calling it a night … I did not push, persuade, critique, or crush.
Instead, I let her be.
And I am prepared to watch her soar (and stumble) as she lives her truths in the light of self-love and self-acceptance rather than constantly second-guessing herself and her decisions.
Perhaps this sounds inviting to you, but you’re unsure of where to start.
It starts with being kind to ourselves about our issues and insecurities. They aren’t going to disappear overnight, but awareness and compassion are empowering and life-altering.
It starts with repeating the mantra “only love today” when the inner bully gets loud in our head and starts coming out of our mouth.
It starts with remembering to look through our children’s eyes. Perhaps where we see room for improvement, they see just right.
It starts with remembering our loved ones have teachers, bosses, coaches, and instructors who are there to offer critiques and improvements. That leaves us to listen, love, and support.
It starts with asking ourselves: Is this suggestion I’m about to give going to sound like help or judgment? Perhaps we don’t need to say anything at all. Chances are, they’re doing the best they can, just like us.
To put it in a nutshell,
It starts when we decide to worry less about how our children’s appearance and achievements reflect on us and focus more on how our unconditional love reflects on them.
Our issue is not their issue – at least, it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s step back and give them plenty of room to twirl.
We just never know who they might become … if we let them be.
Friends, it is not possible to describe the work I did over a six-year period to stop projecting my insecurities and issues onto my family in a single blog post. If you are interested in learning the specific steps, the detailed strategies, and daily intentions I used to overcome my inner bully to be more positive, loving, and accepting of myself and others, you can find them in my bestselling books: HANDS FREE MAMA, HANDS FREE LIFE, and ONLY LOVE TODAY . Mantras like: only love today, come as you are, see flowers not weeds, and I choose love, have been critical to my transformation. These mantras are inscribed on gorgeous bracelets in leather, metal, and silicone. Also, the Made with Love Lunchbox Notes are back in stock if you would like a collection of 25 beautiful soul-building messages to tuck into suitcases, lunchboxes, desks, pockets, and pillowcases of loved ones.
Thank you for being part of the Hands Free Revolution. I greatly cherish your support and presence along this life-changing journey.
Rachel – thank you for this! This is something I’ve struggled with too – all my life. Many times over the years, I think I missed some (much) of the joy of the moment because I was so wrapped up in how ‘put together’ my daughter and I were, or how did we three ‘present’ ourselves as a family at this or that event. Now – rapidly approaching 42, the flaws are undeniably multiplying, and yet I’ve been feeling a pull in another direction for the last few years…..that pull says ‘let it go’. I don’t want to chase after the impossibility of perfection anymore, because it’s unachievable, and perpetually exhausting (I have OCD, so I know this only too well). 😉 I’m still young, my daughter is still only 8, and I want to embrace her childhood, our womanhood – our humanness – with gentleness, kindness and understanding. I’ve raised a good, kind, beautiful daughter so far….but I see now how important the years to come are going to be to help her see the best version of herself when she looks in the mirror, regardless of her physical appearance. ♥
Rachel Stafford says
This is so powerful, Donna! Missing the joy by being too wrapped up in the external — you nailed it! I am so grateful you are feeling a pull in a different direction! Thank you for expanding on my post in such a beautiful, honest, and hopeful way. So grateful you took the time to write.
Debi Powell says
This. You have the ability to write exactly what I feel, and we’ve never met. I’m crying right now because just last night, on the way to youth group, I told my beautiful, kind, authentic, and very sensitive 15 year old daughter her bun was crooked. I could just see the words press into her chest. She immediately looked in the mirror and attempted to adjust it and of course was unable to. From that moment on, she was worried about it… its NOT PERFECT…. its NOT good enough. Why in the WORLD would I tell her that, IN THE CAR, or anytime??!! I know it took her about 5 minutes to even get it to stay up. I know she already has anxiety and is insecure. This is about me. About MY insecurity, my anxiety…. and I’ve given it all to her, in a pretty package with a (perfectly tied beautiful) bow on top, so no one knows the ugly inside. Yuck. how UGLY. I adore her, yet I always am able to find SOMETHING not exactly right. Lord, when I REREAD my Only Love Today book, let the words become part of my DNA. Not just read then go back to where I was. Burn the words into my heart. Thank you, Rachel….. you are such a beautiful, gifted writer that always shows me a much better way on this journey. I’m grateful… really.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, Debi. You are brave and you are human and we have ALL been there. I want to thank you for telling me this because I am sure it was hard to type. I really didn’t want to write this post either. It’s been on my heart for over a year. But in one single comment, you made me feel at peace with my decision to share my story because it made a difference to you and eventually to your daughter. Give yourself grace, my dear. You are learning and shedding hurtful baggage and this TAKES TIME. But you are making progress. I see it and I believe in you.
Becky Erickson says
I am so glad you wrote this post and others you have fretted over writing the most. They seem to penetrate & permeate deepest into the heart of the things I too struggle with. I’m grateful to you for sharing your journey of change as it gives me hope and inspiration that I can also “let her be” whether in relation to myself or my 9 & 11 year old daughters. Blessings to you & yours.
I’ve taught myself and have to keep reminding myself that there’s nothing wrong when my VERY extroverted daughter talks to an adult, adding what my introverted self would consider waaaay too many words. Just because I’m a more understated person doesn’t mean she has to be or that she is wrong for not being so. (but truth be told it is HARD for me sometimes when I just want to crawl under a rug and she is just so OUT THERE)
Jodie Utter says
I’ll be using the Rules of Validation hence forth, by getting them tattooed on my forearm for quick and easy reference. We learned about reflective listening long ago, my husband and I, but it is so darn hard to do this as a parent. SO HARD. It’s so not intuitive. But it works and it’s a relationship builder. IF we can remember to do it, and then also choose to do it. Thanks for the reminder, I needed it.
Cheryll Bennett says
Your messages are always healing, loving, and much needed. Three things I hope to be in my child’s life. Thank you.
Melissa K says
Pressing submit on this post is an amazing gift to many souls out in the world, thank you for being brave. My two boys want long hair and are determined to grow it shoulder length. My oldest loves to braid a tiny section near his right temple and my youngest has been asking for a “ponytail”. This ponytail is tiny and sticks straight out of the back of his head. My inner voice wants to say no, why, this looks crazy! Instead I say great idea, I love it, is it comfortable and it looks great! I want them to be comfortable in their own skin and to learn that society does not have to dictate what we wear, how to look or how to live. Thank you for sharing this post, it is valuable beyond words! Hugs.
Beautiful words! How vulnerable of you to share them with us! I’m a recovering critic myself and have made strides to not imprint that dysfunction onto my child. It’s a conscious effort on my part, as I don’t want to bequeath a mountain of issues onto her for which she’ll need a therapist someday! The critic just doesn’t serve the purpose we think she does – she’s simply not helpful! Thanks for the reminders, sweet lady!
Jen Marie says
Thank you so much for this thoughtful and timely post. As I watched my four year old son play soccer (and sit on the sidelines for most of the game), I felt angry that the coach had hardly given my little guy much time to play. I felt that game was all about winning and that only the “cool, athletic” kids got to play. Deep down, though, I couldn’t help but to wish my son was a little more coordinated, a little more athletic, always just a little more… For the first time ever, I focused on what I felt he lacked instead of all that his is: charming, witty, intelligent and mature beyond his years. As we drove home, I couldn’t help but to think about how I was projecting my own feelings of inadequacy onto him–and that if I was not careful, I could easily pass this on to him. Thank you for the reminder that we can choose not to pass our issues onto our children. Instead, we can break the cycle by building them up and encouraging them. Blessings to you and your family!
You are beautiful. Inside and out. Much appreciation and gratitude to you for reaching into the depths of your heart and soul to share hard truths.
This hits very close to home for me. I totally see myself as you described and want to set a better example for my girls. I tried to purchase one of the books on ebooks, but am not seeing the 2.99 price. Is there a special place or code that I need to use? Thanks so much! Rachel
Thank you for this post. It was the right post at the right time for me. My daughter’s dance recital is next weekend. I watched her in class last week and realized that she doesn’t really know the routine without watching the teacher–who won’t be in stage with them. So I suggested we practice at home. (Not too awful, right?) When we practiced a few nights later I found myself getting in her case about not knowing the routine (i.e. You’ve been doing this for months at class, hiw can you not know any of it?) She got minorly upset about this…but I got majorly upset…with myself. Because I know the worry about her not knowing the steps once she’s on stage is MY worry…not hers. Sigh. It’s a hard habit to break–trying not to pass your perfectionistic tendencies on to your kids. But I’ll keep trying. Thanks for the encouragement!
Wow. This hit home on so many levels. It is brave of you to be so transparent. You have an ability to put into words emotions and feelings that are difficult to describe. I’m currently reading Hands Free Mama. Sounds like Only Love Today should be next.
Thank you for the words you write – they touch home. I am working on letting go and trying very hard to just be myself and not worry so much about what others think. It’s hard. I’m getting married in August (second wedding) and have been thinking to myself – I am too fat, my hair is a mess, I look awful . . .) Perhaps I need to stop worrying about all those superficial things and just be happy. I am marring a wonderful man in front of my closest friends and family. Thank you, for just letting us all know that it is ok to be yourself and to be in the moment. Life is too short – I think from now on I will focus on all the good!
Rachel Stafford says
Congratulations, lovely Cheryl. And yes, dear one, give yourself the MOST wonderful gift for your wedding day and let yourself BE. When your soon to be husband looks at you, I can assure you he sees beautiful … he sees amazing … he sees a beautiful future with his best friend. I pray you can see it when you look at your own reflection. ONLY LOVE TODAY, repeat it often. It really works.
Oh how these words speak to me! I am learning this on a whole other level as my oldest has chosen a path that is so honorable but not the one I would have hoped. She just finished her first year at the United States Naval Academy. I am so very proud of her, but know that this path will ultimately take her far away from us for extended periods of time. This is her life, and I cannot let my fears get in the way of her dreams. I will continue to love and support her and be so very, very proud of her!