Who Says Our Dysfunctional Parents Did They Best They Could?

I expected to be writing a mega-post about PTSD, but today I need to rant on about a well-meaning phrase (in truth, I hope this is much more than a rant—I hope there’s something insightful and helpful by the end).  You all know this phrase.  It makes me want to scream whenever I hear it, these days at least:  They did the best they could.

I just asked my spouse what he thought of the term, what it really means, and he said, “That someone failed, but not for the lack of trying.” (Trying, sure. But, their “best”?!)

To me the phrase suggests, “They didn’t mean to hurt you—not on purpose.”

I’m sure that when I first heard that phrase, I felt relief as a result.  There was comfort in it, in some odd, twisted way. I bet that I heard ‘their best’ at my first therapist’s office, when I was in my second year of college.  I suspect that, back then, I felt relief because I’d understood the phrase to mean, “You’re not as bad off as you feel like you are” or “Your parents loved you even when they made mistakes,” or just to mean very simply, “There’s hope for you.”

But isn’t the phrase too trite for its own good?  To my mind, ‘their best’ lacks significant meaning because it’s over-used, misused, and all its original power has drained out.  And, isn’t the phrase just a bit too rhetorical?  (Rhetorical questions and children of dysfunctional parents don’t mix well.)  I mean, I don’t exactly feel invited to disagree when someone uses that phrase, even if inside my mind I’m thinking, “Their ‘best”? How could I ever know if they did?”

It’s entirely likely that the phrase wasn’t intended for people who had terrible childhoods and dysfunctional parents.  Certainly I wouldn’t expect a child of incest to acknowledge that their parents did the best they could!  Which makes one wonder—where do we draw the line?  How less-than-terrible does my childhood have to be in order for me to willingly agree that my parents did the best they could?  Little-to-no physical abuse?  Infrequent verbal manipulation?  That they belittled me, but paid for my school photos? And what do I gain, in terms of my healing process, by giving my parents the benefit of the doubt in understanding that they did the best they could?

You all know that I took issue with the label adult children of alcoholics because it defines me in terms of someone else (the alcoholic), and after an entire childhood spent focused on everyone but me (here’s that post), I don’t want to continue living beneath their umbrella. I want to be defined in terms of what and who I am, not another person’s limitations or illness.

Back to this other-focused phrase:  They did the best they could (note underlines).  The focus is, twice in one phrase, placed on them. Where am I in the concept of they did the best they could?  Um?!  Nowhere.  Thanks for nothing, you rhetorical phrase!  (I also feel the word “best” is awfully generous.  Their “best,” really?  Based on what I know of my own personal best and the effort involved in parenting, I totally disagree.)  Essentially, the phrase is a closed-looped system that circles around “best.”  I reject that. Completely.

Why not say the truth?  They didn’t do their best!  I got the shaft!

This is the place to which I’ve come in my personhood work:  I want the truth.  It seems like I’m ripping away denial and lies and justifications like wallpaper (that is, it doesn’t rip off easily and it requires steam and scraping away at it, muscle, sweat…tears).  And yet, I want the pure wall beneath.  Show me Panavision color, please dear Universe.  Thinking that they did their best was some kind of comfort, way back when—back when I couldn’t handle the truth of admitting that my parents had mishandled me completely.  Now, however, I can handle—and need—the plain truth.  Because I’ve gotten to a place where my excuse-making for my parents isn’t at all working for me. It’s preventing me from moving forward to the next ring up in the circle of my healing and freedom.

The truth isn’t that my parents did the best they could.  The truth is that my parents were selfish, childish, and prioritized addictions