“Good Enough” Parenting: How Healing Can Take Place in Therapy

I recently finished reading The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein. As a psychotherapist interested in the interface of psychology and spirituality, with a specialty in trauma, this book was a welcome recommendation to me and much appreciated. Epstein discusses the psychological concept of “good enough” mothering (or as I’m broadening it here: “good enough” parenting) and how important this attunement is for a developing child. The primary caregiver helps meet the basic needs of the infant through this connection, facilitating the infant in being with his or her emotional experiences. Epstein points out that the Buddhist emphasis on mindfulness serves a similar function of learning to be with whatever is arising. This being with may, of course, involve a recognition of the need for and benefit from resourcing — in which case, the being with is a seeing of the need to redirect attention towards someone or something soothing and positive in this way.

As Epstein notes, the therapist can serve the function of the “good enough” parent, and in so doing, help clients to feel, sense and understand emotions that were previously inaccessible or unmanageable. With increased practice and confidence, clients can gradually learn to function in this role themselves more and more — providing “good enough” parenting to any child parts that may arise in need of reassurance and holding.

In his exploration of the impact of the Buddha’s traumatic loss of his mother in the first week of his life, Epstein demonstrates how the development of the Buddha’s teaching over time expresses an ultimate embrace of the unavoidable insecurities of human life. Epstein writes: “Aligned with that emptiness whose essence is compassion, he [the Buddha] showed others how to be mindful of their own minds. Resting in awareness, seeing the world as a mirror, he helped people know trauma, not only as trauma but as a bearable, if inevitable, consequence of an unstable world. Experienced as a reflection of mind, even trauma could be enlightening” (p. 194-5). In psychotherapy, there is a similar invitation to increase one’s ability to be with difficult emotions and sensations in a way that helps them unravel and unwind. With the help and support of a professional guide, this capacity and skill for mindful attention in a given individual can strengthen and become further developed and refined.