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On Healing and Embracing Imperfection with Vienna Pharaon

Vienna is a licensed marriage and family psychotherapist based in New York. A mom to a toddler and expecting her second child, she is also a best-selling author. In her book, The Origins of You, Vienna shares her holistic approach to mental and emotional health with wider audiences. We spoke to her about the four steps of healing and embracing imperfection.

Vienna Pharaon

On the four steps of healing
‘Healing is a journey. You’re not going to do it just by reading an interview. In my book, I talk about a process that begins by 1) identifying our wounds and then 2) witnessing them. This is very important. We do it ourselves first, but then, when a therapist, partner, or trusted friend witnesses our pain, it is one of the most profound and healing experiences a human can have. In witnessing, grief comes up. This is the third step. “When stuck, grieve more” is what I always say. When we feel stuck and are unable to make a change for the better, there is usually unprocessed grief and difficult experiences from the past that need our attention. While in our healing journey, we spend the most time witnessing and grieving.

This process allows us to expand the space between stimulus (feeling activated or triggered) and our response. Instead of reacting as we did before, from a place of survival, we develop the ability to stop and consciously choose a response. I believe that healing is the shift from survival to choice. For example, we can move from shutting down, being passive-aggressive, or screaming (all self-protection mechanisms), into a space of awareness and freedom to choose a different response. The final step is the pivot – the very act of doing something different. This is by no means easy. It requires us to forge an entirely new path forward, which is much harder than falling back on habitual responses. But it finally gets to be our choice. Fully. And it gets to be the path to our freedom.’

On noticing how survival mechanisms keep us stuck in adulthood
‘We are often unaware of our wounds. I grew up thinking my parents’ divorce didn’t affect me, but later in life, I realized it did. Their nine-year-long, high-conflict divorce process (the longest in the state I grew up in at the time) was full of manipulation, gaslighting, paranoia, and psychological abuse. For a little human stuck in such a family system, this was quite scary. In Origins of You, I talk about five wounds we might carry from childhood. Out of these, I carried three: a worth wound, a safety wound, and a trust wound. When I was a ‘good girl’ as a child, my dad was available, supportive, and present. However, the moment I pushed back on something, he would punish me with silent treatment for days or weeks on end. This meant I learned that if I showed up in the way someone else wanted me to, I would have access to love and connection, validation and help. Or, if I failed to do that, I’d expect punishment.

This is partly why I grew to embody a cool girl persona, always available to others for help (no boundaries), pretending to be fine and unaffected, and being good at things others expected me to be good at. Linking it back to the divorce, I see now how worrying about the fragility of things between my parents led me to believe that my not being okay was too much. This belief kept me stuck in unwanted situations in early adulthood, too. For example, in my mid to late 20s, I dated someone whose ex suddenly came back into the picture. He was deciding whether to stay in a relationship with me or go back to her. I remember being so understanding, empathizing with how hard a choice this must be for him. Then, during a conversation with a friend, I suddenly realized that I was reenacting a role I had as a child amidst my parents’ divorce. For somebody who never ever said I’m not okay, in this life-changing moment, I called him and, for the first time, said everything I felt and was holding back on.’

On how change feels like and why honoring our experiences matters
‘Creating change for the first time, doing what’s right or healthy, doesn’t always feel good. It’s often a contraction that can feel like a small death. But it’s essential. We don’t start with this step. We start by acknowledging the truth of our childhood experiences (which can be deeply confronting). Many of us feel like in doing that, we are being ungrateful to our parents for their sacrifices and the good things. There is, of course, a way to hold space for both them and us. The issue is that we can often hold so much context for our parents that we invalidate our own experiences. Healing is about making space for our own story, our own truth. This might stir stuff up with family or disrupt things, but it also might just reconnect us with ourselves.’

On messing up as parents and letting go of shame
‘It’s important to say that parents – all of us – mess up. We will make mistakes and do things wrong somewhere along the way. What’s important is to take ownership of our mistakes. In conflicts, people race to be right and prove a point, but what matters is getting to a place where we can repair the relationship. How we navigate our own shame plays a big role here. When we enter into shame, it is incredibly hard to honor and see the other person and their experience. Including our children. In situations with them, instead of repairing the relationship, we operate from the urge to protect ourselves from shame. Shame is critical and cruel; it says, “you’re a bad mom,” or “look how pathetic you are,” or “you have no discipline.”

An essential step here is to learn to have and hold compassion and grace for ourselves. This is self-love to me, the ability to experience compassion and grace with accountability, responsibility, and ownership. If we learn to like ourselves enough to make space to be imperfect, to be human, we can put the wall down and say to our children, “I’m so sorry for losing my temper,” or whatever it might be. We can acknowledge what they’ve experienced. It’s beautiful to do this when they’re tiny. When we practice building that muscle, we don’t have to protect and defend ourselves. We can instead make sure our children feel seen, worthy, belonging, and important to us.’

On perfectionism and control
‘Perfection is a commitment to self-criticism; a constant chase to be a perfect mother, to look perfect, to be perfect. But chasing it is a lousy place to be in. To resolve this urge, you need to build tolerance for people being disappointed or not seeing you the way that you’d like them to. So much healing work, whether it’s perfectionism or something else, is about strengthening the muscle that says, “I can tolerate other’s discomfort.” This is helpful when we are parents and we make decisions that are honorable and protective of our children. They might, however, not see it this way and throw temper tantrums. It’s essential to be okay with them being unhappy or upset. One more thing about perfectionism: think about it as an attempt at control. But, if you’re a mother, you’ve probably already received some lessons in releasing control. Motherhood is a process of letting go of the illusion of control.’

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