This blog is not FDA approved
Few people escape childhood unscathed. It’s easy to prosper because of the good our parents did; the trick is to prosper in spite of the not-so-good they may have done.
Most of us received some negative messages when we were growing up. Parents may mean well, but their words can undermine us significantly. They can derail our confidence and sense of self. They can distort our understanding of our place in the world. But we don’t usually recognize these things at the time; it’s not until much later that we realize how they affected us.
That’s how it was for me.
My mother suffered from depression for much of my childhood. Her behavior was unpredictable and she would rage and curse at me for reasons unknown. I figured it meant that I was a bad kid. I wasn’t allowed to show anger or displeasure, and I was often accused of being “too sensitive” and letting things upset me too much. I felt stifled and censored, but I also assumed there was something wrong with me for having those feelings in the first place. My mother said I was wrong, so I must be wrong.
She always equated thinness with beauty—she loved that quote from the Duchess of Windsor, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” She focused a huge amount of attention on my weight and commented on how much easier it would be for me to get a boyfriend if I were thinner. When I was heavier, she couldn’t conceal her disappointment and disapproval. She would also point out every blemish, every stray hair, everything that kept me from looking as she thought I should. Even when she complimented me, it was invariably followed by a “but”: “You look nice today. But are you getting a pimple on your cheek?” And I couldn’t get mad or ask her to stop—not without risking her full-blown rage, which terrified me.
I didn’t know there was anything wrong with the way she passed judgment on me and dictated my actions. I had no idea this wasn’t the way all mothers treated their daughters. You’re not a very nice person, you know. You really aren’t very compassionate. I hate when you do that, stop it. Don’t use that expression, it annoys me. I don’t like the way that sweater looks on you. You should really do something different with your hair. And so my mother’s opinions of me became my own opinions of myself. Starting around the age of 7, I felt inadequate and broken. I was ashamed of who I was. And that was my “truth” until I was in my 30s.
Over the years I’ve had fantastic therapists who have helped to “reprogram” me—to help me understand that my view of myself wasn’t realistic or correct. I wasn’t a hideous freak. I wasn’t a bad person. My value as a person had nothing to do with my size or my looks. It was normal and healthy to get angry and to have feelings. Learning this was like learning to breathe.
A few years ago I had another breakthrough. I was finally able to look at my mother as someone with no power over me. For the first time, I saw her for who she really was: an unhappy person with a lot of struggles of her own, an imperfect woman with an amazingly skewed perception of many, many things. I felt bad for her.
That’s when it dawned on me. There really is nothing wrong with me. There was NEVER anything wrong with me. It was her all along—not me.
Since then I’ve felt a tremendous amount of relief mixed with anger and grief. I’ve cried and screamed and thrown things and seethed over how my mother silenced and judged me. I’ve mourned for all those lost years. All those years thinking I was an ugly, inferior, powerless basket case who didn’t have the right to have feelings or speak her mind. I’ve grieved profoundly over the woman I might have been, the life I might have had, if things had been different. All I can do now is move on and play the cards I was dealt. It’s all any of us can do.
I’ve done a ton of hard, painful work in therapy to undo the damage and to build the kind of self-esteem and confidence I should have had from the beginning. It’s still difficult for me to express strong emotions, but I force myself to do it. I still worry that my feelings aren’t valid; I continually have to remind myself that they’re as valid as those of anyone else. I still look in the mirror and hear that awful, critical voice. But that voice is weaker than it used to be. And I’m much stronger than I used to be.