A Perfect Distraction: How Perfectionism Helped Me Cope

“It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be interesting,” he said with little affect. I’m not really sure if his comment was born out of indifference or concern. I think it was meant as a slight insult that was also meant to be instructional. I have always been one to get stuck in the minutia and miss the big picture, forgetting the forest for the trees. For me, the details are everything.

I think that as a child, this trait helped me survive. I could control the neatness of my handwriting, the cleanliness of my play room, the amount of food I ingested. I could do this even if my mom was losing her mind or screaming at the sales clerk. If I kept my head down and focused on my own details, I was relatively safe. I grew to love the sense of control this gave me as well as the possibility of achieving excellence. Maybe I could find a perfect “method” for everything!

Perfectionism served me really well up to a point. I worked hard and excelled at school and almost everything I tried. I did as people told me to do and I put the highest standards on myself, too. I worked hard. The struggle came when working hard didn’t “work.” My body would break down and I was often faced with my own hard limits. Worse than my body breaking down was seeing others, who weren’t as rigid or hard on themselves, freely and joyfully take up space in life. I started to realize that other people had healthier ways of achieving their goals. There were other, more enjoyable, ways to succeed. There was a different way to be.

I’ve reflected throughout the years on the idea of perfection. Although I was unable to truly understand his words of wisdom at the time, I am starting to agree that it (life, love, art) really doesn’t need to be perfect. What is “perfect,” anyway? I am learning to aim for excellence and beauty while releasing the idea that any of it will every be perfect – not the feeling, the process, the result, or the aesthetic. And that’s okay. Life is still worth living and art is still worth creating. It’s all more enjoyable when the expectation of perfection is off the table.

Focusing on creating some sort of ideal life or utopia and the obsessive focus on perfectionism does not deliver. It’s also not very interesting. I know what he means now. How can one create a beautiful life while relatively paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection? What meaningful things are missed along the way?

I used to think that the idea of “learning to love what you have” or “choosing to love” or even “accepting” was another form of settling, and maybe at times it is. Alternatively, maybe it’s the way we learn how to truly love, through accepting the inevitable imperfections and embracing the interesting, imperfect reality of it all.

How do you cope with perfectionism? Send me your tips! 🙂

With love and joy,
~Lara

Show Up Shamed

“You’re going to RUIN your life,” she tells me, and I know she has a point. If not ruined, I will at least miss the joy. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this phrase, especially because with every possible failure or worry of failure I tell myself the same thing: I could ruin this. I could mess it all up. And what then? What does the worst-case scenario really amount to?

Feeling like you ruined things is a horrible experience. As a child, I was bullied in the 4th grade and I ended up trying to cut off my teeth with nail clippers. After a few days of trying this technique, my mom found me, disciplined me, and told me I was going to ruin my teeth. The problem was, I felt I already had – the damage was somewhat faint but irreparable. The cracks and dentin shone through. Later in life, I tried to repair this issue with veneers but did not see a competent doctor. The repair was much more noticeable than the initial issue. “Take 2” of the repair ended up even worse. My colleague noticed both times and criticized me, and I was completely humiliated, in public. I couldn’t hide, I didn’t know how to fix the problem, and so I decided to leave my job and pull myself together. I was too ashamed to speak of what was going on. I was too ashamed to continue showing up.

If I had it to do again, I would have shown up even while shamed. I would have been honest with my boss before quitting my career. To most, it may have been only vaguely noticeable. To some, maybe not at all. To me, it was disastrous. But what if I had stayed present while trying to look for a solution? What if I had admitted my mistakes and my embarrassment? I would have still felt humiliated but at least it would have been more honest.

I think sometimes about what led me to this level of shame and concealment. Maybe everyone does this sort of thing, especially when the humiliation is physical. I’m not sure. I think it might be the result of taking personal the shame of others. As a young girl, when I was taken advantage of by a superior, my superior kept his job while I wasted away as a student with an eating disorder. When my stepdad abused me and denied it, I used this same tactic. I shrunk in shame, but I learned to show up in life somehow. Over time, I guess I grew a little weary and my shame became too heavy.

“Vanity is blasted but it’s rarely fair… I can smell the Prozac in your pretty hair.”

RHCP

These days, I question it all. What if we all just showed up shamed? What if, in the midst of humiliation, fear, and dread, we just move through life anyway, with honesty? Can the world handle this?
I was once photographed by a photographer when I had no money to pay for headshots of my own. The old man offered to pick me up, and because his studio was far away, he said I could spend the night. As a young naive teen with few resources, I agreed to this. When I realized I was in a compromised position, taking naked photos in a foreign place, I felt afraid. I locked the bedroom door that night and held my ground. I later asked that the photos not be published, ever. He critiqued my teenage pimples.

People will go to lengths to shame you and put their shame onto you. Lorde, in her song “A World Alone,” writes, “They all wanna get rough get away with it” and that really rings true. People want to get away with hurting and shaming and then blaming it all on you. What if we all resisted?

“They all wanna get rough get away with it”

Lorde

In some ways, I know I’ve ruined aspects of my life. I have let my shame, my perfectionism, my fear, and my failures, drive me away from the things I most love. As I slowly make my way back into the world, I’m revisiting the idea of showing up with honesty, even when feeling ashamed.

This week, for me, it looks like admitting I’m unsure about one of my home renovation choices weeks before it’s supposed to be installed. It’s embarrassing and might make a few people angry, but I value honesty and transparency. Even if I’m feeling ashamed, I can show up with honesty anyway.

How about you? What small or large things in life make you feel ashamed? Can you show up anyway? Do you sometimes choose to give up what you love, or hide in the shadows, instead? Please DM me with your thoughts.

Much love,

~Lara

Saying Goodbye to the Life I Wasn’t Meant To Live: Thoughts from a Mid-life Crisis

There’s a version of my life that I created as a teen. It’s not the life I have now, but it’s the life I imagined I’d have. It involves so many of the things that actually happened in my life but without the trials, the missteps, & the failures. I LOVE this version of my life, and the person I get to be in this fantasy story. I am the person I wanted to be. I’m proud of my accomplishments and the attitude I had while achieving them. I learn lessons when it’s not too late to apply them in order to get where I’m going.

Some would say that nobody gets the exact life they envision as a teen (if they envisioned one at all), or the one they see in Disney princess movies or rom-coms. Instagram would tell us otherwise, but I’m starting to believe that maybe everyone has a story, an unfulfilled dream, a hidden sorrow. Maybe we really are “in this together” in some ways, as the CoVid slogan goes. Or maybe only a chosen few get the storybook life.

The other day I read this quote by Francis Chan: “Our greatest fear should not be of failure… but of succeeding in life in things that really don’t matter.” It really struck me. My greatest fear has been failure. I’ve spent a lot of time bemoaning things that did not go according to my plans, and things that could have gone much better in my ideal world. As I learn and grow, I feel like my ideas of how much better things could have gone has expanded. Thoughts of “why didn’t I think of that!” and “why didn’t I try that approach” have crowded my mind. And yet… maybe these things I’ve wanted, and these failures I speak of, have mostly been ego-driven to begin with. The truth is, for as many “better versions” of my life I can conjure up, I can also think of many worse versions. When I choose to look at it from a soul perspective rather than an ego perspective, I think i’ve actually come a long way. Do I wish I had learned faster? Of course. But, what if it’s not too late? What if there is still a chance to succeed in the things that do really matter?

I’ve also been wondering: what happens to those who get every single thing they want, or at least all of the ego-driven desires? Are they truly happier? If I’d gotten everything I ever wanted and looked exactly how I wanted, would I be humble and thankful or self-righteous and haughty? I am sure it could go either way, and I’d like to think I’d just be happy, giving and joyous – but who knows? Maybe our hurts and unfulfilled desires are exactly what we need to serve our unique purpose in the world.

I love this verse:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

It took me a lot of failure and pain to learn that self-hatred is not the way to self-actualization, and that a “please fix me” attitude does not allow for clear self-expression and flow. And now, after grieving bygone moments and missed opportunities, I realize there is still time. There is still time to incorporate the lessons life’s taught me. There is time to express in a different medium. There is time to love my family and friends, and time to help others.

For a while, I was stuck with questions of “why?” Why didn’t I know better? Why wasn’t I more confident? Why did I make such naive mistakes? I’ve been working on accepting that I just didn’t know better in certain areas, and, as Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Letting go of what wasn’t meant to be and accepting that not everyone is able or fortunate to achieve exactly what they hope for has been enormously helpful to me. We cannot completely create our own reality. God often has different plans for us than we have for ourselves, and we are working within the constructs we’ve been given.

Have you grieved the way that the dreams of your youth didn’t work out as you expected? How can you succeed, now, in the things that truly matter to you?

The Allure of the Cult: A Facade of Safety

“I love you and I want to marry you,” he said, 6 weeks into our relationship. I was shocked. “My pastor [and his protégé] said we need to get married or break up.”

Sometimes I wonder how I bought into the idea of getting engaged and married so quickly. It never seemed quite right. Still, I had felt guilty about tempting a born-again Christian man, who’d ignored me for a week after we’d slept together so that he could take some time to think things through. When he came back with this proposal, explaining how his pastor worried “what it would do to me” if he just broke up with me, it seemed like marriage was the right idea. My boyfriend listened to his pastor and did what he wanted; I followed along, excited by the romance of it all and the fact that I was falling in love.

In a way, it makes a lot of sense. For most of my life, I’ve been searching for the ideal. I’ve been looking for the right formula that would lead me to comfort, safety, beauty, and freedom. I looked for this at home as a child, where I tried to complete all of my chores perfectly, organize all of my toys, and say the right things to my mom. I looked for this at school, when I tried to perfect my handwriting and correct the teacher’s mistakes. I tried to fit myself into an ideal physical form as a dancer through dieting and image management. The pursuits I embarked on never quite worked. They never led to comfort or freedom. When I met a man who thought he knew all the answers, I was easily persuaded. I was in love and at a vulnerable turning point in my life. My borderline mom had not prepared me for healthy relationships, marriage, or a healthy form of spirituality. For a moment I thought I had found all the answers with a good man and God.

Before I knew it, I was heavily immersed in a Christian cult with a narcissistic, authoritarian pastor. It started with a philosophy class. My now-husband has always been a smooth talker. After a few sweet dates he convinced me to take a philosophy course with him at school (a community college, where the confused often congregate). At first I thought it was a strange but interesting idea. Looking back, I realize it was an indoctrination. I enjoyed it at the time; we talked about the soul, the meaning of life, and some tough questions. I appreciated my boyfriend’s desire for truth and found his principled way of looking at things comforting. It seemed very different than both the chaotic environment in which I grew up and the fickle arts world of which I was a part.

I didn’t realize that I was about to join a cult while we were taking the philosophy class. I didn’t realize this pastor would not only tell us that we must marry, but that we shouldn’t leave the state because no other church is as faithful. I didn’t realize that the church members would follow what the pastor said about pretty much anything, including sexual specifics not mentioned in the Bible. I didn’t know at the time that the philosophy class was a prerequisite to attending the church, and that others weren’t welcome. I didn’t recognize that the pastor would bear strange resemblances to my narcissistic mother, and that instead of the comfort of God I would feel manipulated, controlled and shamed. (At one point, we were discouraged to speak or write to any other Christian leaders about questions because we were told that no one in the world was as knowledgeable and correct as our pastor.) It was a spiritual disaster.

Thankfully, I was able to recognize that things did not feel right. It might be one of the first times that I was truly able to “trust my gut,” before I ever really knew what that meant. I left the church alone and with much effort, I eventually convinced my husband to leave as well. He was told I was sinning, like Eve, and that he needed to be a man and rein me in. We left with spiritual scars that are still healing. My husband lost his closest friends. I lost my illusion of a fairy tale.

There were many times during my experience in a Christian cult, and in the aftermath of that experience, that I wonder how I got there. How did I buy into it all? How was I so easily manipulated? When you have a narcissistic, borderline mother, you learn to look outside of yourself for answers, even to private questions. It was natural for me to do this. In a way, I think that at the time I liked the consistency of it all: it seemed there would always be someone around to control me, whether it was my mom, my husband, or the church.

During my young adult life, I was often impressed by my religious acquaintances and their ability to weather the storms of life. They seemed to possess a self-confidence and sense of worth that I longed for. I remember asking a colleague, “how are they so confident?” and faith was the answer he gave. I sought out faith. I was the ultimate seeker. But seekers can be gullible.

Since my time in a Christian cult, I have kept the faith… at least a little. I question everything now, maybe more than I should. I wonder if I ever should have gotten married. Can you love someone you just met? Was it love, lust, or guilt that brought us together? The journey hasn’t been easy, and in many ways it has led me back to where I started, searching for comfort and peace.

The other night, I told my husband that I’m not sure I ever really felt comfortable with him— & that I definitely didn’t feel totally comfortable right before we got married. He asked me if I ever feel truly comfortable in relationships. It was a fair question, & a good question for me to ponder. There are many times I feel comfortable with friends, but if I’m totally honest I do often feel uncomfortable in romantic relationships. The fear of enmeshment, the fear of commitment, the fear of not being good enough… it’s a lot. These aren’t fears that go away because an institution is ordained by God or even if you are with a person who is a good fit. I wonder if I was even in touch with these fears prior to marriage. Looking back, I really wish we’d had more time to know each other before marriage. I believe we could have cared for one another better and avoided some of the heartache we experienced. The pastor who rushed us wasn’t truly looking out for our best interest (in my opinion). He was looking for people who’d submit to his authority.

While my husband and I were dating, we watched a film by M. Night Shayamalan called “The Village,” in which a community escapes their past by moving into the woods to create a sort of utopia apart from others. It was somewhat ironic that we watched that movie while we were also trying to escape our broken pasts by becoming members of this “elite,” cultic church. The escaping didn’t work in the movie or for us. It only created a web of issues for us to untangle.

When you are raised in an unstable environment, it is hard to obtain or maintain a general sense of emotional comfort and safety in life. For the first time, I’m looking for comfort from within. Boundaries give me comfort. Self-expression brings me comfort. My personal relationship with God gives me comfort. I don’t need to grasp for comfort from others or expect to find it there. A formula is much less useful than my own ability to check in with myself in a radically honest way. I’m starting to believe that maybe it’s possible to feel safe and comfortable, right where i am.

Have you ever found yourself in a sea of organized chaos, wondering how you got there? Have you given church leaders too much power? Please respond or message me if you have any thoughts you’d like to share.

In light & love,
~Lara

p.s. This book is extremely helpful if you worry you might be caught up in a cultic environment. It explains how cults often use specific verbiage (essentially creating a new language for the members) and the psychologically manipulative tactics used.

Calling It What It Is: Mental Illness

I remember the first time I told someone my mom was mentally ill. I was trying not to overexpose myself and didn’t want to go into detail about my life or dominate the conversation, so I simply stated that things have been difficult because my mom is mentally ill and had been going through an episode. Finally! One sentence explained it all. I didn’t need to explain the complicated scenario and back story, nor did I minimize it all by labeling her as “difficult” (as I imagine many children say about their parents). It was a freeing and illuminating moment, as I typed the words. Why hadn’t I thought of doing or saying that before?

It’s complicated. As children, it’s impossible at first to know that your parent is not typical. It takes an even longer time to recognize that certain behaviors are a symptom of mental illness, and not just a quirk. In my case, friends of mine and friends of my mother’s pointed these things out to me. I was unaware that her behavior wasn’t normal. I was used to reacting to her provocations and blaming myself for not being able to make things right. As an adult, it’s difficult to express that your parent is mentally ill when they themselves adamantly deny it (as denial is part of their coping mechanism). Most persons with personality disorders (especially NPD) do not believe they are mentally ill. In fact, they likely believe that you — and everyone else — are the real problem.

I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what your parent believes, or what others think they know to be true about them. It doesn’t matter what your parent tells their therapist, their friend, the family, or their colleagues. What does matter is that you recognize the true issue: your parent has a specific mental illness that has very little potential to change.

Call it what it is, and act accordingly. Some say no contact is the only way to peace… perhaps this is true. But no contact hurts when you love someone. Others recommend a myriad of ways to become a sort of Jedi-master of deflection, redirection, validation, and non-reactivity. This is more difficult to do than no-contact, and it is especially difficult for children of personality-disordered parents; we were trained to react, always. To not react is an affront to the parent, an abandoning of sorts, and it is uncomfortable as well. Not only is it uncomfortable, it is not well-received by the PD parent. For me, it is my forever challenge. I will continue to try to have a civil relationship in which I diffuse situations and decide to ignore & disengage when things get unbearable. I’ve noticed that the sooner I choose to do this, the greater likelihood I have of preventing long periods of no contact. Having the self-discipline to know my own limits helps me to re-engage without fear of being completely engulfed. (Making a limit such as one text conversation a day, and/or one phone call a week, can provide some structure within a toxic relationship.)

There is no perfect game plan, and there is no solution. There is, however, a peace that comes from truly accepting that the term “mental illness” explains a lot. Rather than promoting a stigma, owning the fact that a family member is mentally ill can lead to radically accepting them as they are.

When Nothing Is Ever Good Enough for the Narcissistic, Borderline Mother: My Journey to Self-Compassion

My mom told me once that my first sentence was “It’ll be okay, Mommy.”  That might be the last time I ever said the “right” thing to my mom.   Her mom had died the year I was born, and once I began to speak I started my lifelong journey of trying to comfort her.  Since I can remember, I’ve been a go-to person for my mom in a time of crisis: she complains & rants for as long as I can stand it while I rack my brain wondering what I could say that might help and not set her off.  Unless my response to her sounds exactly like, “you are right; they are wrong” it has always been an impossible feat.  The difficulty for me arises because I really do care about my mom and want to help her.  I don’t want to tell her she is right if she is clearly wrong & clearly pushing away every single person that cares about her.  Still, my mom is the help-rejecting complainer type.  She says she is tormented and living in misery, but all solutions offered are deemed impossible, ridiculous, & lacking compassion or a true understanding.  It is truly a no-win situation.  The conversation never ends well.  She almost never feels comforted and I always feel drained.  Today, I spend most of the day texting with her, semi-ignoring my own kids, only to eventually hear her disapproval.  Sigh… 

I’ve recently realized that my constant feeling of never being good enough began in a relational context, due to the simple fact that my mom has leaned on me as a confidante/therapist/parental figure for most of my life, and yet I’ve never satisfactorily fulfilled these roles.  I can’t.  Her previous therapists haven’t been able to, either.  Although I can’t fulfill these roles, and don’t particularly want to, they are the roles I am  assigned whenever I resume a relationship with her.  Her crises & needs become paramount; her plight unavoidable.  It is a constant effort for me to resist the desire to try to help.  (The truth is she doesn’t really want help.)

For the longest time, I did not understand my own inability to forgive myself.  I didn’t connect it directly to my relationship with my mom.  However, just yesterday, I found myself full of regret for mistakes of the past when a coach asked me how long I’ve been unable to be gentle with myself when I make a mistake.  Did I ever learn how to comfort and forgive myself when I messed up?  The question brought me to tears.  I have never learned how.  I know that other people shake it off, learn from it, and keep going, but I don’t know how they do it.  I feel so much regret and incrimination when I make a mistake.  I always have.  When I was a little kid, I would try to make everything perfect in my surroundings.  I would re-write my school notebooks — the whole year’s worth — if my handwriting didn’t look nice enough or if I liked another person’s style better.  I had no idea how to accept a mistake, a blunder, a less-than-ideal version.  That’s why I could never accept my physical flaws.  That’s why I would always beat myself up, starve myself, and hate my mistakes.  I really didn’t know another way to be.  

And now I know why.  Even today, as a mother myself, I am sitting at my computer well past my bedtime wondering how I managed to fail again during a text conversation with my own mom.  In truth, I do know why.  I failed because it was impossible.  I failed because I’m the only one left.  I didn’t really fail, actually.  I stuck it out and tried to help.  I lovingly responded and didn’t lie to her, which felt to me like it would enable too much rage and entitlement.  I deeply cared.  

It wasn’t enough.  It will never be enough.  How can you save a parent from their own private hell?  You can’t.  I have put myself through so much because of my learned hatred towards myself, but today I am determined to choose otherwise.  I am choosing to forgive.  My mom thinks I failed her today, and maybe I did.  But I tried, and I am going to have compassion on myself for lovingly engaging.  I can choose to forgive myself for ALL of the ways I hurt myself when the cumulative stress of a lifetime of guilt and shame became too much for me to bear.  

The legacy left by an unhappy parent leaves wounds that run deep.  I know how much different my life could have been if I’d learned how to forgive myself for minor mistakes (like saying the “wrong” thing to a parent).  The truth is, it took me a long time to learn how to have self-compassion and I am just beginning this process.  If I’d learned these lessons sooner, I’d have experienced more joy and freedom and I’m confident I’d have less regrets.  Still, my life is not over and I want to believe that true freedom is in my future. I feel empowered to teach my children how to forgive themselves and have fair expectations of themselves.  I feel resolved that I will never expect them to fulfill roles that aren’t theirs.    

Have you experienced a lack of self-compassion and forgiveness in your life?  Can you attribute this to the attitudes your PD parent had towards you?  How has the cumulative effect of these unforgiving frameworks affected you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please private message me or respond if you can relate 🙂  

Sins of the Mother: Recognizing Unhealthy Patterns

I made up with my mom a little while ago. She says we “got back together.” And that’s what it feels like. Everything is fine – actually, it’s pretty good – at least for now. It feels like a huge weight has been lifted. I want to tell her everything she’s missed over the last year plus. I want to tell her what I’m going through now, of the ways I’ve been reflecting on my life and wishing I’d done certain things differently. As difficult it is to have a borderline mother, it is equally as confusing. When things are good, she feels like my confidante, a best friend… and she is motherly. The anger is gone and the other emotions she expresses feel similar to my own. We share feelings of regret, sadness over missed opportunities and fear/confusion about what will come in the afterlife.

The CoVid-19 pandemic has led me to reflect on my life in an even more comprehensive way than usual. I wrote a long letter to my younger self, inspired by a class I’m taking. In doing that, I recognized some patterns I hadn’t noticed in the same way before. They were things I hadn’t really wanted to notice, I guess. Who wants to confront the ways they were at fault in shaping courses of events gone wrong?


I had formerly thought of myself as one who turned away from the negative traits my parents possessed, but what I’m realizing is that I’ve unconsciously acquired many of my mother’s sins (and probably some of my father’s, too). I’ve repeated some of her destructive patterns, just in my own personalized way.

I’ve inherited a pattern of darkness and negativity: when something would go wrong in my life, I’d turn towards a vortex of self-hating darkness instead of focusing on solving the problem at hand. When I got injured, I worked harder despite the pain of my body’s warning signal. I pounded on my foot until it shattered, and then smoked cigarettes in despair when it did. I then focused on my flaws and found other things to feel ashamed about. I repeated this type of pattern, with different variables, throughout my life. Negative event + self-hate = things getting worse. The healthy pattern I wish I’d inherited is one of gentleness and care. I wish I’d engaged in eating health food, breathing deeply, consulting expert doctors immediately, and cultivating friendships during times of distress; I do this now.

I’ve internalized a pattern in which I vacillate between feelings of entitlement and self-hatred, though it can be embarrassing to recognize this. I knew about the self- loathing, but to realize that I’ve sometimes acted entitled made me cringe. Aren’t borderlines and narcissists the ones who act entitled? Yes and no; it’s not only them. I learned from my mom to expect things I didn’t necessarily deserve. I remember complaining to her once that I wasn’t listed as the rank I thought I should be at my workplace (in my first year there!). Since I was doing more than the lowest level employee, I wanted the credit. My mom encouraged me to demand a new title. (Eek!) I didn’t ask for more money (I didn’t care about that), but I believed that it was so important that my rank be formally corrected. I mostly desired this switch in rank because I was hoping to get a better job the next year and wanted my resume to look as good as possible. I was young and naive about workplace tax arrangements and the fact that your “listed rank” really doesn’t mean or matter much, especially when you are just beginning. I wish my mom had instilled a sense of humility in me rather than a sense of entitlement. (This particular instance was complicated by my history of past injustices. At this place of work, as a child, I had been taken advantage of by a senior employee. Part of my feelings of entitlement came from the fact that things had gone unrecognized in the past.)

I can think of a few other times when I’ve almost felt owed things — parts, recognition, or understanding. Also, at times I’ve felt ungrateful or only temporarily grateful when I could have been on cloud nine. On the flip side, I have gone into spirals of self-hatred, thinking I am the absolute worst when I really just wasn’t at the top. I’d assume certain mistakes or flaws made me completely unacceptable. This is the danger of a lack of humility and gratitude. When you fail yourself or find yourself failing, the fall is much harder.

The times in my life when I’ve felt truly grateful and in awe have also been my most cherished moments. It wasn’t all about me, and I got to be a part of something great. I want to find this space again… this space where I am able to see the wonder. Humility and grace just feel better, all around.

Part of what is difficult about having a borderline mother is that you become confused about general social expectations. Persons with BPD/NPD don’t like to play by the rules, so it’s easy to become confused about what the rules actually are and which ones you yourself should follow. My mom would sometimes provoke me if I was too polite or not combative enough with her (saying things like, “why are you so meek?”). I internalized a belief that being polite was expected but can also be annoying. It became very confusing. I remember feeling this struggle when navigating workplace dynamics. Should I play by all of the rules, or is that annoying? Sometimes (now) I read the little memes on “success” websites and feel like I finally understand some of what I wasn’t taught as a child.

My mom’s impulsivity under (real or perceived) pressure was a pattern I also inherited. I think she acted most impulsively when she felt trapped or full of emotional torment, which is what I learned to do as well. For many years, not understanding her impulsivity, I let my mother choose things for me. I guess that is what children often do; they let their parents lead the way. Sometimes, when things didn’t go well (e.g. my mom took me to an incompetent surgeon and didn’t listen to the warning not to), I’d wonder how she hadn’t known better. Why hadn’t she heeded warnings? Then I grew up, looked back at my own impulsivity and wondered the same thing. I think that when you are cut off from a sense of peace & inner-knowing, it’s very easy for wheels to spin off track before you realize it’s happening. Taking space from my mom to heal my own mind and heart has helped me to learn how to center and ground myself. (Note: It can be extremely difficult to effectively distance oneself from an enmeshed/co-dependent relationship with a parent, but it is sometimes necessary for growth.)

After talking with my mom yesterday, it became clear to me that the patterns didn’t start with her. In the Bible, there is a verse about generational sin. Although it is referring to fathers, I believe the sins (iniquities) of the mother can also be passed down.

Exodus 34:6-7 states: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed [himself], ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’”

I don’t believe the verse needs to be read literally, like a curse, but as an explanation of how we are often greatly affected by the failures of our parents, our grandparents, and even our great-grandparents. My mother’s father greatly failed his family when he abandoned them; I still feel the effects of his actions when I experience my mom’s borderline rage or adopt her maladaptive coping strategies.

We each learn from our parents. I don’t doubt that they do the best they can. I’m sure my children will be able to attribute their negative traits onto me, also, one day. Still, I believe that understanding the patterning can be the first step in getting out of the cycles. Although I couldn’t see and name negative conditioning as a child or young adult, it is clear to me now. I think this understanding has allowed me the freedom to make meaning from my mistakes. I can own the battle wounds, the revelations, and the newfound resiliency. I can take on new dreams. I can grow beyond the patterns of my parents.

Richard Rohr, in the foreword of The Sacred Enneagram writes, “One knows oneself only at the price of one’s innocence.” I love the simplicity and truth of that statement. I am no longer innocent or naive, but so much more self-aware.

Have you noticed any unhelpful patterns in your own life which remind you of one of your parents? (If you have trouble recognizing patterns in your life, try writing a letter to your younger self!)
Have you noticed any positive patterns or tendencies of yours? What internal space have you been in during your very best moments?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Alone but Unaware: Moving Past Survival Mode and into Conscious Choice

It was all wrong. The day started out all wrong. I was scheduled to perform a notoriously difficult solo, one that I had obsessively over-practiced so that I could nail the challenging steps. Lack of practice wasn’t the problem. Dress rehearsal went really well, in spite of the fact that I had recently torn a ligament in my ankle when my partner dropped me at the wrong time. Physically, I still felt almost ready. My director gave me uncommon praise after the dress rehearsal.

I had decided to invite my dad to the show. I hadn’t invited him to my wedding, and since we had mended things a little bit since then I thought I’d invite him to my last performance weekend. It felt generous of me given the context of our relationship. I bought him a plane ticket and he showed up at my house with a Marlboro duffel bag and a rented tux. He had trouble sleeping because of all of his health problems, and I had trouble sleeping that night as well. In the morning, we went to my husband’s favorite Mexican restaurant for breakfast. I don’t like Mexican food for breakfast, especially before a show, but I was going along with everyone else’s ideas. It was all wrong

I had gotten my hair colored, but for some reason it turned orange instead of blonde and nothing they could do would make it right. I was destined at that moment in time to have the wrong color hair, a very hurt ankle, severe body dysmorphia about another issue, and both of my dysfunctional parents either in town or on their way. It was the last weekend I would dance on stage, and I had unintentionally created an impossible environment for myself.

My first performance that weekend — the one my dad attended, overdressed in his rented tux and looking wildly out of place with the crowd — was a total disaster. I hopped through my turns, and since they were the main thing I’d worked on, I felt like a total failure. I wanted to crawl under a rock. The second show was better. I survived and did a fairly good job. My mom was at that second show. My husband told me later on that she had “shark eyes” prior to it starting. I’m not sure why she had them, but I knew what he meant. There are times when my mom’s heart seems to exit from her body (it could be a form of dissociation) and she stares blankly, angrily and coldly ahead. I am not sure what she was feeling that day – out of place? Offended? Jealous? Maybe she was upset that I was leaving the dance world. I wish she’d talked to me, comforted me, & seen where I was in life, but she was really not okay herself.

To be fair, a LOT of things could have gone wrong that day regardless of my comfort level with my parents, or my current level of mental health. Performers have bad shows, hair colorists get colors wrong, and injuries happen all the time. But the rest of it… the fact that it sealed the deal on my career, and the fact that I left at a low point of desperation, could have been different.
After the show, I left the theatre as a dancer for the last time. We went to my mother-in-law’s for a buffet style lunch and I remember feeling so alone. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, so I smiled, but the ending of my career felt so deeply sad. The stress of my parents being there (but unable to be supportive in the way I needed) complicated things more than I’d anticipated. I was alone but unaware. I felt cut off from myself, my true feelings, and the world. I hid this from everyone.

It’s a sad reality when parents just can’t fulfill the roles you need from them. Even well-intentioned parents can be out of touch with their children emotionally. This often results in a longing that cannot be filled, a longing that’s hard to verbalize. I wanted so badly to be loved & mentored… by my parents, by my boss. I felt like I was missing something that many others seemed to have. In many ways, I filled this longing in my relationship with my husband.

A decade later, I see this last day at the theatre and this period of my life a little differently. I am proud of the effort I made to include both of my parents, even though it was stressful. I would change many things if I could do it again, but my intentions at the time were good. I was in survival mode that weekend, and I survived. That counts for something. The inglorious, shame-filled moments are not always what we wish for, but they teach us lessons that we can pass on.

I learned that people sometimes need an advocate or a guide. Sometimes we are in survival mode, about to make mistakes, and we need someone around who really knows us, who can see us clearly when we can’t see ourselves — someone to ask questions and dig deeper.

Who is your person? What if that person has been your mother most of your life, but she’s unavailable, emotionally unstable, and/or in the habit of giving very unwise advice? You might find yourself quite alone, relying on your own unwise ideas. You might misinterpret reality, with nobody to check you. You might assume that others will shame you and give you bad advice (and they might, so it’s important to find the right people).

At this point in my life I’m trying to find my way towards forgiveness and compassion — for my myself, and the things I didn’t know when I was younger, and for my parents, who didn’t know how to be healthy examples or mentors. They were in survival mode, too, absorbed in their own pain. I realize now that a lot of us are missing the guidance of healthy parents. Although it feels protective, not allowing others to know what is really going on can keep you cut off from help. Hiding from yourself and hiding your pain from others gives those people who do care – and those who are healthy – no way to access you, and no way to help. People can’t always read between the lines.

Maya Angelou wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Sometimes we blame ourselves for things we couldn’t control and just didn’t know how to handle at the time. But if we really didn’t know better… if we really didn’t have the resources and tools to do better… then maybe we couldn’t have made better choices at those junctures. Maybe we didn’t know there was another door we could open. Be gentle with yourself, and do better when you’re able.

Please respond in the comments if you can relate to this experience/lesson.

The Thrown Away Journals

I still remember getting my first journal. It was a gift from an aunt of mine, I think, and it had a little lock and key. There was something so exciting and special about having a secret place to write down some of my own thoughts. I remember finding a spot for it in my dresser drawer.

The night after I wrote my first entry, as my mom was putting me to bed, I found out she had opened my journal and read it. She was livid that I had written something bad about her and asked me why I hadn’t written about the good things she’d done for me that day. (Instead of writing about her reading me a story, I wrote about her yelling at me.)

I learned through this that I should not complain about my mother. I learned that my own thoughts were not welcome, and that I should be careful what I say, or write.

A couple of years later, when I as about 9 years old, I remember writing a Mother’s Day card to my mom. In it, I wrote, “Thanks for putting up with me.” Again, she was livid. Why would I say that, she wondered? I remember her fuming at me for writing it in the card and I remember running up the stairs, feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and confused.

These are such minor offenses, really, for a mother. I mean, of course she didn’t want me to complain about her in my first journal entry or write something guilt-provoking in a Mother’s Day card. What she was unable to see in both of those scenarios is that she was hurting me. Even as a little girl, I needed to process my mom’s anger in my locked diary. It was significant enough to me that it was the first thing I wanted to write about, instead of something about ponies, my friends or my dreams.

I started to hide my journals. I would hide them safely, take them with me where I went, and then throw them in trash cans or dumpsters when I was done with them. All evidence of my thoughts – erased. Once, I threw away my journal in a trash can which tipped over — and a neighbor found it and returned it to me!!! After marriage, I started to burn my journals in outdoor fires. I found it cathartic, healing… to know that my thoughts were truly private.

In these current times of CoVid-19, when everything is uncertain, I have wondered what would happen if I died. What traces would I leave that I wish maybe I had erased? Why am I writing things I wouldn’t really want to reveal, anyway? It is different now, now that I am older.

I’ve come to the conclusion that life, and love, are messy. I can hide the mess, if it makes me more comfortable, or let it be known. I’ve come to appreciate the natural falling out that occurs when I stop trying to control others’ views of me, and especially when I stop trying to control my own.

My self-hatred has sometimes led me to trash things I would now cherish: a cover shot on a ballet school’s brochure (I thought I looked fat/ugly), romantic letters from my first love. These were things I dismissed at the time, thinking they were either not good enough or outdated. Now I look back and see: this was my life. This was part of the beautiful portion I got to experience. What if I had considered it good enough at the time… flawed and unfinished, but still beautiful. Is that how the most successful or happy people approach their experiences? Who knows. It is how I plan to approach things moving forward.

I’m not sure yet if I will keep my journals or burn them like I used to. I am sure that the fear and shame that keeps us hiding from others also keeps us locked away from our potential – our chance to do all we can and enjoy all we can with our one, precious life.

What is your perspective on journaling? Do you fear that someone may read what you write? What would you say to yourself, the journaling one, if you could?

Lies, Revised

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if the negative things you believed about yourself were erased, proved false, or fixed? What different choices would you make?

For the longest time, I lived in a version of the same story. I acted out familiar patterns as I became the lost girl waiting for someone to teach/fix me. I was unconsciously looking for someone to show me how to be. Having had parents who were limited in their ability to guide me, I came to others with a perpetually open heart, hoping to be loved and mentored. This left me so vulnerable.

This method seemed to work in my relationship with my mom when I was a child. I stayed confused and open to her input and control as she told me what to do. She did not encourage autonomy or independent thought, and so I feared expressing those things. This greatly affected my ability to cultivate my own inner strength. As I gained autonomy & a sense of agency, my relationship with my mom has suffered. However, my sense of self has improved and I’m able to see how the toxicity of the environments I grew up in and then later chose for myself have shaped me.

The other night, I had an encounter with two men who essentially broke my spirit a decade ago. I think they knew what they were doing at the time. But on this particular night, my old boss spoke to me and said things that had I believed back then would have changed the course of my life. The interaction shook me: what i had believed about myself was not necessarily how others saw me. Or maybe I’ve just changed and he could tell. Either way, the interaction was profound and left me wondering.

What if we are believing lies?! What if a person is awful to you because you are a reminder of someone from their past, or of themself? What if their narcissism leads them to vacillate between love/hate regularly? What if it actually has little to do with you? What if everyone else is not superior? What if it was all a game?

I think it’s time we rethink the negative things people have said to us, as well as the negative shame spiral it sends us down. Let’s dismantle our feelings of unworthiness and find a way to climb out of the pit and reclaim our power. We are not solely our bodies, our reputations, our successes or our past mistakes. We are not the sum of what others think of us.

In the future, I won’t let another person break my spirit. I know what i’ve been through and I know how far I’ve come. I don’t need to beg someone else to fix me or mentor me or approve of me so that I can finally be okay. Some people never will approve. Or they will, ten years later.