Dr. Robin's own readily acknowledged wounds have to do with coming from a proud family where the message was all about presenting a front of perfection and accomplishment but not about what she calls self-care. She was the youngest child in a family for which high achievement was mandatory: Her father, Warren E. Smith, MD, was a psychiatrist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke Swahili, Japanese, German, and Greek. Her mother, Rosa Lee Smith (now 84), was one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work. Her grandmother, Addie Belle Spencer (now 102), is the child of a freed slave and became a nurse in her 60s.

Smith, who's 43, grew up attending a Quaker school and black churches, but also the synagogues of Jewish neighbors. "Part of what shaped me was being exposed to so much diversity," she says. "All the gentleness of the world was in our home—my parents never yelled. There was a mandate to love everybody. But my parents went directly to compassion, skipping accountability and personal responsibility. They'd loan money that would never be paid back and then reward you by continuing to be your friend because you said you were sorry. You don't have to do the work in my family. You can misbehave, perpetuate the jerkiness, and feel like you can get away with it."

Going along with the family dynamic of uncritical support and rescue, Smith didn't recognize the toll it was taking on her own emotional health. "It's important to know who to be friends with and who not to," she says. "I'm grateful for the bigheartedness of my parents that lives in me, but I don't want to be a doormat. I'd make excuses for outrageous behavior from other people, and I did it flawlessly." She was able to change, she says, through therapy and the support of better-chosen friends. "I don't believe in the quick fix of the illuminated moment and then you're free," she says. "My resilience has come from surrounding myself with people who could let me fall to pieces and tolerate the messiness, unlike my family."


Next Story