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 🙂